Each year we seem to become more jaded in outlook concerning the real meaning of Christmas.
So, let’s for a moment, step back into the past and see how people of long ago celebrated this special time. It’s interesting to find that through their writings of Christmas past they appeared to live in a happier, more simplistic time which, in itself, might explain their unspoiled pleasure and obvious joy as Christmas time approached each year.
I decided to research Christmases from long ago in Victoria, British Columbia, my home town. I soon discovered some interesting memories from the writings of Julia Glendinning, youngest child of pioneer Adam Glendinning who wrote, in 1958, about Christmas Eves back in the 1880s when she was a child.
She remembers how exciting it was to head into Victoria when the business centre of town was still very small and there were no large department stores. Government Street boasted mainly drygoods stores and a few toy shops (which always delighted the children.)
She recalled that most people did their shopping on Christmas Eve (not weeks or even months ahead of the day.) Not only could they shop on that day but they also could admire the decorations and greet their friends to offer compliments of the Season. It was all done at a leisurely pace.
One of the greatest attractions could be seen in the butcher shops such as Messrs. Goodacre and Danley at the corner of Government and Johnson. They always held an “annual fat beef show” for all to see. Evergreens and holly hung alongside sides and quarters of grain-fed beef. An 18 to 20 pound roast of prime beef was a favourite Christmas day fare in those days. There were also the traditional turkeys, geese and little suckling pigs (usually with an apple in its mouth.)
Often in the 1880s, if the weather obliged, Christmas Eve would end with a sleigh ride into the countryside with the horses’ harness bells jingling as they travelled through the snow.
Another old-timer in the 1950s wrote that the Christmas Season of his childhood days was “always merry and the Christmas spirit seemed to abound,” especially in the home. Churches were always full to capacity. Christmas trees were lighted by candles in the churches.
He remembered also that there was always a New Year’s Dance held the following week where a fiddler by the name of Johnny Brooks entertained until the early hours of the morning. These dances had strict rules which would not allow any intoxicated person on the premises! In addition “no gum chewing was allowed, and no one could dance with a cigarette in his mouth!” Most of the dances were old-time waltzes, the lancers, or the very graceful waltz quadrilles. Surprise parties were also held in the Christmas and New Year’s Season and these meant that visitors always brought food with them.
This old-timer also recalled that most people provided their own entertainment. Transportation was minimal, there was no electricity, heat was provided by wood fires, there were no nearby hospitals, and most babies were born in their own homes.
Despite all these “hardships,” most people recall those times as “the good old days” when life was simpler, people more caring, and at Christmas time, it always seemed to snow bringing a rare beauty to the landscape. Inevitably, the true spirit of Christmas always came through at that special time of year.
Of course, there were far fewer people in those days so shopping was easier and quicker, but one is left to wonder whether it is simply that our memories dim with the years and we all tend to recall only the good things about days gone by. Fifty years from now, therefore, one hopes the young people of today will recall the Christmases of their youth with the same enthusiasm and joy. Their memories will be very different but hopefully just as joyful.
If Covid has taught us anything over the past two years, let’s hope it is that we have learnt to appreciate one another and precious family gatherings more. Meanwhile, a little less commercialism, a little more true human spirit, and maybe the miracle of Christmas past will happen once again.