Have you ever wondered what Christmas was like back when Canada first became a nation in 1867? If you go to Black Creek Pioneer Village, located in North York, on the northern edges of Toronto, you’ll get the scoop on how many of the practices we enjoy today came to be.
The village represents the early-to-mid 19th century and historical interpreters and craftspeople explain the challenges of living close to the land as you wander through kitchens, parlors, workshops and storefronts. Some of the 40, or so, buildings are on their original sites (those of the Strong family farm) and others have been moved here from various places across Southern Ontario. For instance, the blacksmith shop was originally built in the 1850s in Nobleton, the gunsmith shop was built in Bolton, and the Taylor Cooperage was built in the 1850s in Paris, Ontario. As well as these establishments, you can explore farm buildings, a barn, a grist mill, general store, blacksmith’s shop, other trade shops, homes, a church, hotel and a one-room schoolhouse.
In December, as the snow begins to fall, the village becomes a winter wonderland. It’s an inviting time to visit, especially because a range of activities is on offer for Family Christmas Weekends (until Dec. 23). As you and your loved ones stroll through the village, guides dressed in Victorian garb explain the era’s Christmas traditions. Pop into a home with a piano and you’ll get a chance to sing popular Christmas carols popular in the era such as We Three Kings, Away in a Manger and Jingle Bells. Or maybe you’ll learn to do a dance or two. Making paper ornaments to trim the Christmas tree is another activity that can involve the whole family. As soon as you step into the Half Way House historic kitchen, you’ll detect the fragrant aroma of freshly baked treats. Taste roasted chestnuts and mincemeat tarts, sip a hot apple cider, or watch an interpreter pour a high octane sauce over the plum pudding then light a match…and whoosh, a blue flame dances over the coveted dessert. Another highlight is bundling up and hopping aboard a horse-drawn wagon for a ride around the village.
There are also some special, ticketed events including Storytime with Santa with crafts cookies and classic tales, and Christmas by Lamplight, an evening of festive foods, music and performances.
The great thing about what’s happening at Black Creek Pioneer Village is the hands-on-experiences really help you get a grasp on where our modern rituals began. For more information go to blackcreek.ca.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas was barely acknowledged and many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However, by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognise today.
Why do we send Christmas cards?
In 1843 Sir Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a card to sell in his art shop. The illustration with a Christmas message sold for one shilling each, pricey for ordinary Victorians. However, the sentiment caught on and many children – Queen Victoria’s included – were encouraged to make their own Christmas cards. Eventually, printing technology became more advanced, and the price of cards dropped significantly as did the postage rate, and the Christmas card industry took off.
Why do we put up Christmas trees?
After Queen Victoria, married German-born Prince Albert the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany. Soon every home in Britain had a tree bedecked with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.
Why Christmas Carols?
While carols were not new to the Victorians, it was a tradition that they actively revived and popularised. The Victorians considered carols to be a delightful form of musical entertainment, and a pleasure well worth cultivating. Old words were put to new tunes and the first significant collection of carols was published in 1833 for all to enjoy.
Where does Father Christmas/Santa Claus come from?
Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th Century. From the 1870s Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh.
What’s Happening on Family Weekends at Black Creek Pioneer Villages in December
Christmas Carols in the Doctor’s House, gather round the piano in the parlour and sing along to your favourite tunes.
History Actors Performances Actors perform monologues and pantomimes based on real people and events from Christmases past.
Tap Your Toes Practice the steps to an Irish jig then join in an old-fashioned Christmas ball set to live fiddle music.
Trim the Tree Discover the history of the Christmas tree and its decorations, while helping to decorate a tree. Explore ornaments from different cultures, and share family traditions.
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire Warm your hands with freshly roasted chestnuts. Then peel back the shell and enjoy their nutty flavour.
Christmas Feasts & Flaming Puddings Discover the origins of traditional Christmas foods, then marvel as the flaming plum pudding enters the room.
Mincemeat Tarts & Apple Cider After an afternoon of strolling through the village, purchase a homemade mincemeat tart and cider warmed over the fire.
Horse-Drawn Wagon Rides Tour the village like a local. Tickets ($2/person) can be purchased on the wagon.
By Maureen Littlejohn
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