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Engraving from the Illustrated London News showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert around the Christmas tree, 1848, England © British Library Board. P.P.7611

Christmas in Niagara

Thursday December 7, 2023

Christmas has been celebrated on December 25th for several centuries, but how this holiday is celebrated has certainly changed over the years. Today, many Canadians spend the Christmas season elaborately decorating their homes, frantically shopping for the perfect gifts, wrapping those gifts, sending everyone- including their dentist- a Christmas card, and of course, there are the many nights entertaining or being entertained. Once the New Year hits us, I think many Canadians feel they need a vacation from their Christmas vacation.

Many expect 19th Century celebrations to have been as grand as they are today, but that was not the case. Two common themes from a 19th century Christmas that are most definitely present are the religious observance of the day and the fellowship of a hearty meal.

During the 19th Century, many settlers to North America brought with them traditions from their homelands. Despite the challenges of establishing a new life in Canada, they still managed to continue these Christmas traditions and religious practices and pass them on to future generations. Settlers, who lived deep in rural Canada and were unable to travel to church or to visit family, would spend the day together- singing religious hymns and cooking a Christmas meal. Mothers would start making their mince meat pies months in advance for it to mature, and the main course would likely be in the barn, fattening up for the holiday. Many would also hoard special ingredients for weeks in advance, like sugar or dried fruit, to ensure the Christmas dishes were special.  

Joseph Willocks, who lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake in and around 1800, kept a detailed journal of his experiences and most notably, the food he ate. Here is his description of his Christmas day in 1800:

“Went to Church. Weekes dined with us. We had for dinner soup, roast beef, boiled port, turkey, plumb pudding and minced pies.”

Mr. Willcocks is not a popular man in Niagara and if you don’t know why, you will soon find out.

Elaborate merrymaking and gift giving would have been uncommon, especially around the early 1800s.  Most of the celebrations, including dances and grand balls, were postponed to the New Year. Bad weather in December also made it difficult to visit family outside of Town.

During the War of 1812, Christmas changed for many in Niagara. Fort George was the British Headquarters for the war.  Due to the limited supply of food during the war years, it is likely that many residents would have had to scale down their Christmas dinner and good cheer.  Fortunately, the local militias were not involved in any major battles in December, so it is likely that most of the men were on leave with their families during the season.

Soldiers stationed at the Forts would still take part in the merrymaking. A special church service would be provided followed by a fine dinner. The soldier’s meal would often depend on where he was stationed. If near a large community, there may have been the opportunity to purchase raisins, flour, beer, or rum to supplement the rationed meal provided by the army. One Royal artilleryman purchased all spice on December 24th in Amherstburg, Upper Canada so that he and his comrades could share a festive drink.

If a soldier’s family was lucky to have been stationed in Town, they may have been allowed a visit. One soldier in the 43rd light infantry recounted in 1813: “Just before dark while passing a corporal’s picquet, an officer and myself stood for a few minutes, to contemplate a poor woman, who had brought her little pudding and her child from her distant quarters, to partake of (Christmas) with her husband,”

Many of the officers would be invited to the homes of local residents for the Christmas festivities. Lieutenant John LeCouteur of the 104th, stationed in Kingston, was so fortunate and there was much merrymaking at his celebrations. During this time period there was a Christmas Custom known as “First Footing”, which determined the fortunes of the family for the coming year by the first visitor on Christmas Day. A visit from a handsome man bearing coal or salt meant a good year whereas a visit from a poor woman was a sign of trouble to come. LeCouteur, enjoying himself at a Christmas party, decided to have some fun with this custom.

“After tea well over and arrangements were making for forfeits or some amusement to be fixed upon, I slipped out with Miss Ph__s, an ally who lent me one of Her Mother's dresses.  In a short time I was fully equipped, slipped out of the back door, knocked at the front door, and requested to speak to the kind Old lady as a decayed Gentlewoman requiring aid.  Miss Ph. was of course sent out to hear my story and thought it would be better the poor Lady should tell her own story to the whole party who might become interested in her welfare.   This was reported and the decayed Lady told her piteous tale, loss of Husband, children, fortune.  The old Lady herself was completely won and a large sum was preparing for her relief but a certain occasional twinkling in the unfortunate Lady's eye led one or two of the fair sparklers [to] suspect the truth - a whisper went about and screams of laughter following, the poor Lady had to cut and run.”

In 1813, during the second year of the war, residents of Niagara experienced a very different Christmas. Much of the Peninsula had been occupied by American forces since May. It was decided by US General McClure that the American army would retreat to the US side of the Niagara River due to a depletion of rations at occupied British Fort George. It was time to go back to the safety and comfort of Fort Niagara and regroup after several months of harassment on the Canadian shore by guerrilla parties.  As he departed, McClure was convinced by the traitorous Joseph Willcocks and his Canadian Volunteers that the community should be burned to the ground.

On December 10th, 1813, with only a few hours’ notice, residents were told to gather their personal effects and evacuate their homes.  They watched helplessly as American troops, retreating from the town they had occupied since May, and the Canadian Volunteers torched their homes and looted their property. Most of the people were women and children as nearly all male residents were away serving in the British army, the local militias, or if declared non-combatants, held prisoner in the US.

Some stories from that evening have been passed down from personal accounts, some documented in letters and reports, others passed down by word of mouth and perhaps embellished in the process.

Mrs. Campbell was the widow of Fort Major Campbell, who died in late 1812. She lived in a six-room, framed house, a storey and a half high, at the corner of Johnson and Victoria Street in Old Town Niagara (Lot 109). Descriptions of her home say that it was finished in a handsome style, with a barn and a good fence around 2 acres of land with fruit trees. Her home was furnished in a style corresponding with the rank of her husband.”

There are a few letters in the Society’s collection which describe Eliza, as she was known, and her experience during the burning of Niagara. In a letter written by Alex Wood, a magistrate in Upper Canada, he stated: “On the memorable night of the destruction of the town she was driven from her house with her three infants without the possibility of saving her own or their clothes and was, with Mrs. Wm. Dickson, exposed for three days and nights upon the snow with only the canopy of Heaven for a covering, her house once the seat of hospitality and plenty, reduced to ashes before her face, a few valuables she had endeavored to save were torn from her by a monster in human form and carried off and divided.” It is said that her youngest child died of exposure on the way to find shelter outside of town.

Through our collection at the Museum, we know she returned to Nova Scotia, where her relatives lived, after the war because that is where she finally received compensation for her losses in the amount of 60 pounds. Significantly less than she requested at 778 pounds. She maintained her connections in Niagara especially with the Dickson family. One of her children became the student of Mrs. Dickson’s eldest son, Robert, in the 1820s and then his law partner and finally a Judge.

After the town was burnt and the US soldiers were gone, some of the homeless huddled in root houses (one of which was at the “Wilderness” on King Street), while others took shelter in cellars or under debris that leaned against a tree or chimney. If they were physically able, some women made the trek out to neighbouring farms such as the Servos or Secord Mills, or to the kind shelter of Reverend Robert Addison’s, of St. Mark’s church, home on the Lakeshore. Mrs. McFarland was one heroine who offered food and drink as well as shelter for the families at her home out on the River Road. Other township residents came with sleighs to cart families back to their homes.

When the British troops arrived, after seeing the glow from the fire, the town was in ruins. William Hamilton Merritt, known by many for his involvement with the Welland Canal, was a Captain in the Niagara Light Dragoons and commented: “Nothing but heaps of coals and streets full of furniture that the inhabitants were fortunate enough to get out of their houses.”

In the 19th century, the home and the family were the raison d’etre for these women. You can just imagine what they were going through that cold December evening and the months that followed.  Christmas in 1813 would not have been the same. It would have been full of sadness and shock. You can imagine that their already meagre celebration would have been drastically changed by the loss of their home and belongings. There would be no decorations, the meal they had been planning for months would be gone, and instead of merrymaking, the holidays would be spent trying to stay warm and thinking of how to rebuild.

A year later, things were starting to look up. There was a special Christmas party which occurred miles away from North America.  In Ghent, Belgium, after the signing of the peace treaty which ended the War of 1812 on December 24th, 1814, representatives from the British and American side sat down to a Christmas dinner of beef and plum pudding. Toasts were made to the health of the King and to President Madison, and music was played to celebrate the momentous event. Unfortunately, those living in Upper Canada would not have heard about the Christmas Peace treaty until months later as word travelled slowly in those days.

Christmas Traditions and Symbols

Many of the Christmas traditions that we know today in fact began in the mid 1800s.

You’d be hard pressed to find a Christmas tree in most Upper Canadian homes.  German soldiers, such as those in the de Watteville Regiment who arrived in 1813, are believed to have brought the Christmas tree tradition to Canada during the War of 1812. It is also possible that a few German families in Niagara would have carried the tradition. The Christmas tree was not popular in English society until 1841 when the Royal Family was illustrated gathered around one in the newspaper.  Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert who put up a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle and coincidentally, they were seen in the homes of all English families from that time on.  The first record of a Christmas tree in Ontario was in 1855 when a young George Boulton wrote to his mother about a tree he had seen at a friend’s house. Along with handmade decorations, the trees were also decorated with lit candles, which could of course be very dangerous.

Christmas Crackers also became popular with the traditional Victorian Christmas. These novelties are believed to have been created by a pastry chef named Thomas Smith during the 1850s. He placed a tasty treat inside with a short saying or poem for people to enjoy. Crackers during this period were simply made with bits of twisted paper and fringed colour paper at the end.

Poinsettias are a native plant from Mexico that became popular beginning in 1833. The plant was brought up to the United States to South Carolina by Joel Poinsett, who developed it as a greenhouse plant and later passed it on to a Philadelphia nursery. Its bright scarlet leaves as well as the fact that they often matured during the mid-winter made them attractive for Christmas time.

Decorations among Upper Canadian families in the early 19th century would have been sparse by today’s standards. Many adorned the homes with greenery and holly. Evergreens symbolized hope of renewed growth in the depth of winter. Settlers would have used whatever was on hand during the season, but as the 19th century progressed, decorations improved. By 1855 many homes and churches would be heavily decorated with evergreen boughs, berries, handmade and even edible decorations. Nuts, apples or dried fruits were placed throughout the home.  Popcorn on a string was made popular during the 1860s. It could be used as a garland around the house or on the Christmas tree. Glass ornaments could also be purchased for the Christmas tree by the 1860s, but that was something reserved for the upper class. Most Upper Canadians would decorate the trees with candles, handmade cornucopias filled with candy, fancy cakes hung by ribbon or paper ornaments and garland.

Christmas Presents

Gift giving during the 19th century was very simple and practical. They were often handmade and given only to close family members. Presents at Christmas time were more popular among the French in Lower Canada (Quebec). However, over the course of the century they became popular throughout the country.  Sophia Adams in London, Ontario mentioned giving a Miss Roger a present of a photo album and a lady’s toilet seat. This is not the type of toilet seat you are thinking of. The dressing table was also referred to as a toilet table. If a woman was at her toilet, it meant that she was dressing and preparing her appearance. A lady’s toilet seat is a small seat that she could use while getting ready at her dressing table. The first advertisements for manufactured gifts appeared in Canadian papers in the 1830s and 40s. A Montreal Gazette had an article in its 1876 newspaper advising its readers on the perfect gift for their family - tobacco for a lonely bachelor, a basket for a young lady, and candy or a book for children.

The first Christmas catalogue came in 1896 from the T. Eaton Company, which was called “Hints for Holiday Gifts”. It included personal and household gifts but not toys, which came a year later.

Nowadays, gift giving at Christmas time is strongly linked with St. Nicholas or Santa Claus. The story of St. Nicholas dates far back in many cultures but he did not become popular until the mid-1800s in the British colonies like Upper Canada. An early reference to Santa Claus appears in a Canadian Children’s periodical called Snow Drop in 1851. Traditionally Santa Claus brought the Christmas tree, decorated it, filled the stockings, and placed gifts on or under the tree. Gifts in the 19th century were not wrapped unless they were to be a very special surprise.

By the end of the 19th century the attitude towards the Christmas holidays and decorations had significantly changed. Simple greenery decorations were now replaced with more extravagant trees, wreaths, poinsettias, and even mistletoe. Glass ornaments also become widely available in the early 1900s.

It is interesting to consider how Christmas has changed throughout the years in Niagara as well as in Canada. Whatever your holiday traditions, it is nice to reflect on the simple celebrations of Christmases long, long ago. Perhaps some of them can be incorporated into your home. Happy holidays!


Image credit: Engraving from the Illustrated London News showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert around the Christmas tree, 1848, England © British Library Board. P.P.7611