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Deck the Halls! Historic Places and the Holidays

As you prepare for Christmas, would you say "bah humbug!" if interrupted by the "Ghost of Christmas Past?" Don't be a mean Ebenezer Scrooge.  The ghostly spirit has much to show you. Maison des Gouverneur, Ministry of Culture and Communications, Jean-François Rodrigue / Maison des Gouverneurs, Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, Jean-François Rodrigue

Let the "Ghost of Christmas Past" take you back to Christmas, 1781 at the Governors' Cottage in Sorel, Québec. Located about halfway between Montréal and Québec at the confluence of the Richelieu and St. Lawrence Rivers, this great mansion stands alone in a rural landscape.  You may feel the tensions of a land that is ruled by the British and farmed by the French, as well as the unsolved problem of the American War of Independence which is still raging to the south.  For the new German residents of this home, General Friedrich Adolph von Riedsel and his wife Friederike Charlotte Louise von Massow, the feeling of isolation could never be greater.  Step into this picturesque one-and-a-half-storey house, built in the "tradition québcéoise", and you'll be comforted by the glow from white candles on the large pine tree.  You'll be the first in North America to see this spectacle, as Charlotte - perhaps to overcome her isolation - has brought old-world Christmas traditions to her new home.  It will take a few decades - not until the 1840s in fact - before this Christmas tree tradition is embraced elsewhere in Canada.Sir George-Étienne Cartier's House, Parks Canada / La maison de Sir George-Étienne Cartier, Parcs Canada

Now follow the Ghost of Christmas Past into the future, to 1861. This Christmas, Canada is not yet a country, while south of the border, the American Civil War is raging.  Both English and French communities in the Canadas enthusiastically celebrate Christmas.  Come visit Montréal's impressive Sir George Etienne Cartier House. Cartier is a strong proponent of the idea of Canadian Confederation. 

The swish of women's long, stiff hoop skirts is heard as hired staff prepare a sumptuous dinner. Cartier House has new decorations - sold by Montréal merchants starting in 1860 - of mistletoe balls and holly leaves hanging from elaborately wallpapered walls, decorative mouldings and dark wood banisters.  Colourful Christmas cards - also a new tradition - adorn the huge mantelpiece. A Christmas tree, decked with glass balls (or kugels), candles and garlands, dominates a corner parlour.  Basking in the warm glow of oil lamps, the richly furnished rooms take on a special Christmas magic.

In the French-Canadian tradition, Christmas celebrations start with Midnight Mass, followed by a "Réveillon" meal.  Dinner is at noon on Christmas Day. There are tantalizing smells coming from tourtière (spiced meat pie), roast goose, apple sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet and savoury pudding (made of beef, raisins and prunes), mince pies and Yule logs.  Malt beer and other spirits have been shipped from Toronto's newly established Gooderham and Worts Distillery.  In the early 1860s, the tradition of gift-giving is becoming common practice.  For children, boys might find a lead soldier sticking out of a Christmas stocking while girls might receive a German-made doll with glass eyes. 

At the end of the day, you may be overwhelmed by the number of guests the Cartiers have invited: up to 50 people will have arrived by horse-drawn carriage or sleigh to join in parlour games, dancing, and carol singing.  As snow begins to fall on the streets of Montréal, listen for the Cartiers singing  traditional French "chants de Noël", or newer songs such as "Cantique de Noël," "O Holy Night," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and "Jingle Bells."  Some of the Cartiers English friends are reading aloud Clement Moore's The Night Before Christmas, popular since the 1820s, followed by passages from the much-loved Charles Dickens' classic from the 1840s, A Christmas Carol.

Now follow the Ghost of Christmas Past to 1921.  Canada is a growing and Drawing room, Ralph Connors House / Salon, maison Raplh Connorsprosperous nation following the end of the First World War.  In some places, older Christmas traditions are still followed.  The ghost might spirit you away to such diverse places as the Brooksdale School in rural Saskatchewan, the focal point for the tiny community's Christmas concert; or to the Molstad House in Edmonton, Alberta, where Mrs. Addie Molstad is hosting the Bonnie Doon neighbourhood children's Christmas party; or to Reverend Charles Gordon's house in Winnipeg, where an array of guests - including authors, publishers and politicians - arrive in Model-T Fords to hear a Christmas sermon before sitting down to a dinner of turkey and cranberry sauce. 

In other places, new traditions are being established.  Children now expect Santa Claus to come down the chimney, bringing toy trains, airplanes, dolls, books, sailor suits and dresses.  Wrapped gifts from Eaton's department store are now placed under Christmas trees lit with electric lights.  The ghost may take you to see the Saint Vincent de Paul Society Building in Saint John, New Brunswick, where members of the society are aiding the poor, handing out used clothing and providing dinners to needy families.  In the urban metropolis of Toronto, the ghost brings you to Parkdale's Pavlova Dancing Academy, where men sporting new trilby hats and women showing off the new "flapper" look of short pleated skirts, cloche hats, and bobbed hair are arriving by the Queen West streetcar to attend a Christmas dance.  At this dance, a jazz band plays the 1921 hit "Ain't We Got Fun," a new Christmas song called "Carol of the Bells," and other tunes.

A Victorian Christmas, McCord Museum 00411023 / Un Noël victorien, Musée McCord 00411023The ghost also takes you to Ottawa's Laurier House, the new home of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Though King will not officially move in until 1923, he is enjoying this inheritance - a bequest from Wilfred Laurier's wife, who died in 1921 - and his recent election victory.  In his diary, he writes: "Spent the day quietly opening gifts and telegrams and cards and reading letters...I have loads and loads of letters and cards, cannot possibly overtake them even to open and read...How true is the saying that a man's happiness is noted in the abundance of his riches...Went to church tonight, listened to the Elijah and after had supper with Col. and Mrs. Thompson...to bed and not to sleep till after 2." King may also be wondering how to find time to renovate Laurier House while governing Canada with a minority government when he officially becomes Prime Minister on December 29th, 1921. 

When at last the "Ghost of Christmas Past" gently returns you to the present, you may ask of it: "What do these past Christmases have to do with the present?" The ghost answers: "Love with holiday spirit the history that makes us who we are and Canada what it is, for these scenes from our past all belong to our Canadian inheritance.  Learn about it! Re-experience it! Share it! All these historic places and the stories they share are the Canadian Register's gift to you this season. Happy Christmas to one and all!" 

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