Story by Ilona Kauremszky
TORONTO, ONTARIO — Sleigh bells ring are you listening? How about chestnuts roasting on an open fire? And then there’s the Twelve Days of Christmas, all these holiday ditties cast a fabulous spell of joy on what makes the season so bright.
As many of us prepare to celebrate the magic of Christmas it reminded me about our earliest Canadian settlers and how they heralded the season. No electricity, no hot running water, not even an iPad or iPhone to send that instant festive text. How did they ever survive? Let alone celebrate the holiday season?
Over at the Black Creek Pioneer Village in the northern edge of Toronto, the early traditions are surprisingly alive as a small network of costumed interpreters toil away in a vintage 19th-century world, showcasing the fruits of their labour.
Ever since these clusters of historic buildings were culled from the countryside mostly around the Greater Toronto Area to be resurrected in this “Little House on the Prairie”-like setting, busloads of visitors have come to sneak a peek on yesteryear. Those who know Toronto’s downtown will find streets with familiar names like Queen Street and Mill Street strewn with homes surrounded by picket fences, plus shops, barns, a Mennonite meeting house, a Presbyterian church and a roadside tavern. It’s all in this faux village of structures, many dating to the 1800s that were moved to this location in 1960 when this part of Toronto was still deemed countryside.
In particular, the story goes in 1816 one family of German homesteaders known as the Stongs left Pennsylvania to plant their roots in this rural part of Upper Canada. It’s when Toronto was known as York. You could still see the Stong farm, the family’s original log cabin, home to seven children, and their larger two-storey dwelling adjacent to the smaller house.
The Stongs are long gone but the 30 acres between Jane and Keele streets have left us with a fabulous memento of early Canada. The day I visited I learned a surprise guest was making a brief appearance, taking a break in between all the toil at the North Pole.
“Have you seen Santa Claus?” asks a passerby. “He’s there,” says my tipster pointing to a wee house known as the Flynn House tucked off Queen Street. Who knew Santa Claus has a cottage in Toronto? But in this historic village, he does. It’s worth noting Santa doesn’t use it all year either. You could only catch him at his cottage in the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve.
Christmas Spirit Alive at Black Creek Pioneer Village
I entered through the garland-decorated door and there by the blazing fireside sitting in his radiant red was a beaming Saint Nicholas. It was a fabulous introduction to my look at old Christmas. I chatted with Mrs. Claus, who reminded me about the events at the other buildings so off I went in search of Christmas past.
By the glow of a kerosene lamp at the Second House, Nancy Kinsman, dressed as a 19th-century farmer’s wife, assembled chestnuts over the fire. “Christmas-time chestnuts were sold as cash crop to the cities and it was a way of obtaining cash for Christmas,” she said, explaining how farmers trekked to towns with these edible golden brown nuts.
Chestnuts were widely available in Ontario, Kinsman relayed, but a blight in 1905 damaged many chestnut groves permanently and the corp has never flourished the way it did in the 1800s. “The scientific people haven’t solved the blight issue to reintroduce the American chestnuts,” Kinsman said. Instead, chances are you’re munching on Italian or Chinese varieties, she observed.
By the tinsmith shop, a tin smith delicately pinged some tin squares the size of a postage stamp into brilliant, sparkly tree ornaments that glittered beautifully against a Christmas tree at one home, where I learned about the custom of Victorian gift giving.
At the parlour inside the second Stong home, guide Tara Bowler turned to the decorated spruce. “This tree has toys on it,” she said, demonstrating the tradition of assembling gifts directly onto the branches, a practice popular in the Victorian era. “The tree itself was a German invention but when Albert and Queen Victoria who were of German background saw the tree tradition they brought it back to England.”
The Christmas tree originally adorned the table and was known as a Christmas table tree. These days the size has grown into lavish, large ones but the tree tradition has stayed ever since. The New World embraced these European traditions because Canada’s early settlers hailed from Britain and France — and later from the United States as Loyalists ventured north in protest of revolutionary actions against the British empire. Early Canada was a melange of principally Christian beliefs and Christmas is always a showcase and reminder of those beliefs.
Relive Historic Toronto
At the Burwick House, I encountered David York and Caroline Bendiner, clad in early-19th-century attire that was in line for the “middle class” or what seems more like the upper class. They kicked up their heels to the Sir Roger de Coverley dance. The toe tapper was the popular Chicken Dance of the day and as York explained, even though the dance number was falling out of fashion back in jolly Old England the tune held a nostalgia that was popular among the social circles of Upper Canada.
“People still loved it,” he said, standing near a hanging ball commonly known as the “kissing ball” — a cousin of the mistletoe of evergreen branches intertwined with dried milkweed and tin decorations. The dance I learned was normally performed after dinner at Christmas, something like a final dance of the evening.
Later we shifted our focus onto the edible Christmas treats in the front room. Delicate plum puddings, short bread and in the corner looming high in iridescent orange was the Tipsy Cake. ‘This cake was given the name due to the alcohol content,” York noted.
Above the mantle the handsome portrait of Amelia Davis dominated the room. It turns out she was the daughter of one of the crew members of the doomed Franklin expedition, but her husband, Francis Nathaniel Davis, was a prominent Torontonian whose family is linked to present-day Davisville, an enclave in midtown.
Back at the Halfway House crowds gathered for a flaming pudding demonstration. The Victorians of the day enjoyed watching the mystical glow of the blue embers dance around the pudding. Later we munched on some samples, the sweet candied fruit of raisins, currants and citrus rinds that tasted especially sweet beside the coated brandy.
“What’s upstairs?” I asked.
On the second floor, tables covered with red linen were ready to greet visitors for the afternoon card-making session. But right then, in the midst of the silence, the room that was as long as the house had the late afternoon sunlight streaming onto its wooden floors. Those very floors, which once upon a time were the bastion of fun for so many who danced the night away.
It was the gathering place, the place of song and music where strangers became fast friends after a few ditties and then dispersed to continue their journeys. Some stayed, of course, to sleep in confined spaces upstairs. Families slept together bundled as a tight unit as the wintery night descended upon them. No heat, no running water, no electricity, just each other.
And as they lay down their weary heads, dreams of Christmas magic filled their thoughts in this fairytale story of Christmas past.
MORE ABOUT BLACK CREEK PIONEER VILLAGE
Location: 1000 Murray Ross Parkway, Toronto, ON (see map below)
Website: www.blackcreek.ca. Telephone: 1-416-736-1733
Admission: Adult tickets cost $15 each; $14 for seniors and students; $11 for children
Hours: The historic village museum is open daily from May 1-December 23 each year. Its hours are:
Labour Day-December 23: 9:30 am-4 pm (weekdays); 11 am-4:30 pm (weekends/holidays)
July-Labour Day: 10 am-5 pm (weekdays); 11 am-5 pm (weekends/holidays)
May-June: 9:30 am-4 pm (weekdays); 11 am-5 pm (weekends/holidays)
March Break: 10 am-4:30 pm (weekdays); 11 am-4:30 pm (weekends/holidays)