As colourful accounts in old newspapers show, Christmas has long been a treasured time throughout Atlantic Canada.
The December 24, 1888, edition of the Charlottetown Daily Examiner expressed a sentiment echoed in the columns of almost every daily and weekly paper of the late Victorian era: "It is hard to write or say anything new about Christmas. It comes to us year after year, bringing with it joy and gladness and often reconciliation to severed friends."
The editor added that it was a time when good nature and Christian charity prevailed more than at any other season. Then he proceeded to fill his paper, as did editors throughout the Maritimes and Newfoundland, with reports of recent happenings. Many of the vignettes might not have offered anything new to readers, but they likely enjoyed reflecting on them nevertheless-just as we still do today, providing glimpses of what Victorian-era folks did to make Christmas special.
A story from the December 24, 1887, edition of the Saint John Daily Telegraph describes how excited children were the first year a live Santa appeared in a local department store. "A five year old pride of the family had visited Manchester, Robertson, & Allison's store, and she came home with her eyes bright and cheeks rosy with delight. 'I saw Santa Claus!' she announced, 'and it was the real live Santa Claus, too! He crossed his legs and sat on top of the chimney and frew a kiss at me and I frew a kiss at him.'"
In Victorian times cake lotteries were a unique Newfoundland custom, but they didn't always go "according to Hoyle," as this report from the December 17, 1885, edition of the St. John's Evening Telegram shows, when "Fair Play" wrote the following letter to the editor. "Now that the customary Christmas Cake Lotteries have again come around, and the luck 'turn to die' enables many a one to win a frosted cake, who would otherwise be without one, I hope that the proprietors of these enterprises will see to it that honest persons only, and competent to reckon, will be given charge of the tables. I know of more than one instance, last year, of collusion between a party in charge of cakes and a confederate, by which the winner was cheated out of his right. It was done by snatching up the dice quickly after the last throw, before those interested could see the number of dots, and the dealer declaring his friend to have thrown the highest number and giving him the prize."
A frank concert review in the Charlottetown Daily Examiner from December 27, 1888, further shows that not all events went off without rebuke. "The Christmas Entertainment by the children of the Methodist Sunday School attracted a full house last night as it always does. The anthems by the choir were well rendered considering the small number of singers and a weakness of the male parts. Surely this was not the whole choir of such a large church?" The reviewer also wrote that "a prominent corner was occupied by a group old enough to know better, whose loud talking and ill-bred conduct during the concert was anything but pleasing to those around them."
In the last two decades of the 19th century, Handel's Messiah began to be thought of as an essential part of the Christmas season, but in almost all cases, it was performed during the 12 days following the 25th. Today Handel's creation is still enjoyed but not necessarily considered as much of an accomplishment as it was on December 29, 1884, when the St. John's Evening Telegram had this to say: "We presume that the music loving public of St. John's will make it a strict duty to be present tonight at the rendition of the Messiah by the St. John's Choral Society, under the leadership of Mr. Handcock. It is indeed something to be proud of that our people have made such advances in music culture as to be able to produce this sublime composition…Judging from the practice which we hear going on every week in the Anthenaeum, we conclude that the difficulties of the work have been entirely overcome, and that the public may expect to hear as smooth a performance…as could be rendered by an equal number of voices even in more forward cities."
On December 27, 1883, the Moncton Times reported a "Christmas tree on wheels" was on the train between Moncton and Halifax. The sight of a decorated tree was still rare at that time, and having one on a train, even rarer. "Some of the passengers on the afternoon express yesterday afternoon decorated a tree in the second class car with empty bottles (supplied by the commercial travelers and others), oranges, apples, jack-knives, and other articles too numerous to mention. A married couple on their bridal tour were on board and the tree was in their honour."
"Christmas at the Poor House" appeared in the Halifax Daily Reporter on December 26, 1875, and reflects the era's propensity for visits on Christmas Day to institutions such as "insane asylums, the deaf-and-dumb institution, the old ladies' homes or homes for the incurable." (Of course, we find such descriptions objectionable today; perhaps in 2105, the phrase senior citizens' centre or seniors' nursing home may be considered passé.)
The story says this: "A visit to the Poors Asylum is interesting at any time; but especially on a day like yesterday, when the inmates, old and young, are made happy by the kindness of others-a day when the old ones forget the dark pages of their history and the young ones have their little cups of happiness filled to the brim. After a visit to our Poor House on such a day, and bearing in mind the impoverished state of many houses in the city, it would be nothing short of mawkish sentimentality to speak of the 470 inmates of the institution as persons to be pitied. Let him who doubts this visit the place on next Christmas Day, if he lives to see it, or any other day during the year for that matter."
The bazaar was a ubiquitous commercial and social event of the Victorian Christmas, and this account from the Halifax Daily Reporter from December 18, 1873, shows us its character, thought to be typical of most bazaars of that era through to the 1900s. "The Wesleyan Bazaar: Mason's Hall today was a busy place. Smiling young ladies behind tastefully arranged tables beguiled the purchasing public into the exchange of dollars for trinkets.
"It would take half an hour's steady talking with a six-woman-power of tongue to tell of all the nic-nacks with which the tables were adorned. Here is a superb doll that would gladden the heart of Bessie…a canon of brass that would make Bub go off into ecstasies of delight…slippers for the 'Old Toes' to rest himself when he gets home…reel stands over which the dainty fingers of the neat housewife may linger lovingly... confectionary to temp the juvenile appetite…a first class stock of everything. What there is not would be hard to say-equally as hard as to say what there is."
One of the most valued gifts in the Victorian era was the locally produced almanac, considered a collectible treasury of local history. Besides business listings and the usual information on "all matters connected with trade, commerce, agriculture, shipping, time and tide," it included educational trivia and games to do on the dark winter nights that follow Christmas. One almanac was described in the Digby Courier on December 19, 1890: "Belcher's Farmers Almanack for the Province of Nova Scotia... is the old time favorite, appearing as the season comes round, with all the regularity of a natural phenomenon."
While time moves on, some things don't change. Many people today would agree with the editorial in the December 23, 1891, edition of the St. John's Daily Times: "a year without Christmas would be like a ring without its jewel;" Christmas is an "ornament which enriches…that crowns the year with its whisper of love and peace."