Pioneer Christmas:
A Family Tradition 

Pioneer Christmas: A family tradition as told to me by my grandparents who experienced Christmas as children in the 1880s and 1890s.


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The Great Lakes Raconteur

It's Christmas time. Or, at least it will be in a couple of weeks.

At this time more than any other time of the year, I think about what life was like for the pioneers of our region. 

I guess that I think about pioneer Christmas, because of the stories that my grandparents told me about their childhood Christmas memories in the early days of Grey and Bruce counties. 

It's been more than twenty years since the last of my grandparents passed away, but still each year at this time I remember the stories that I heard when I was a child. When my grandparents were children growing up, more than 125 years ago, Christmas was far different than how we celebrate this festive occasion today! 

In the late 1800s, preparations for Christmas began early in the autumn of each year. 

When the leaves began to turn brilliant red, Mother and the children headed to the forest to collect chestnuts which would be roasted and served with Christmas dinner. 

In November Christmas cakes and puddings were made and stored for the coming celebration. (I still remember the carrot puddings that my Grandma White made every autumn. I have tried many commercially made carrot puddings, but unfortunately none compare to the ones that my Grandma made!!) 

In late November or early December one of the highlights of the year on the pioneer Christmas social calendar occurred. Everyone dressed in their best clothes and headed to either the schoolhouse or the church for the Christmas pageant. 

The cares of surviving the harsh winter were forgotten, as everyone enjoyed the evening's entertainment, provided by the children of the area. 

After the songs and skits, everyone enjoyed festive treats and the joy of being with their friends and family. 

On Christmas Eve it was early to bed for the children. After all, no one wanted Santa Claus to find them awake. 

On Christmas morning everyone got up a little earlier than usual. Now this may not seem unusual to us, after all, who amongst us doesn't arise a little bit earlier than usual on Christmas morning, especially if there are children in the house! 

But the pioneers had to get up early to feed their animals and do the rest of the chores. While the work was being done in the barn the kitchen was also a hive of activity. 

Mother and the girls, would be making a special breakfast consisting of eggs, ham and perhaps pancakes. 

After breakfast everyone gathered around the Christmas tree which was decorated with home-made decorations and candles. 

The gifts under the tree were usually homemade, but there were some treats which came from the store. 

My grandmother remembered that there was usually an orange in their stockings, a rare commodity in this region in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

She used to tell us, that they savoured every drop of that juicy fruit and that she and her sisters often put the peels in their clothing chests to scent their clothes. 

After the gifts had been opened the family either stayed home and enjoyed visits from friends and family or they went visiting. 

Usually a big family feast was held with aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins in attendance. 

We enjoy turkey at Christmas, but the pioneers of this region usually served goose or ham with trimmings which included roasted chestnuts, turnips and potatoes. 

Dessert consisted of pies, tarts, cakes and of course, Christmas pudding! 

A pioneer Christmas was certainly different than the holiday we celebrate today!

Various versions of this story have appeared in my history column in the Owen Sound Sun Times over the years.

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