Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: Christmas at Dalnavert

by Tim Trivett

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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During the months of November and December last, Bob Hinther’s Grade Five class from Cecil Rhodes School paid six visits to Dalnavert, the restored home of Sir Hugh John Macdonald at 61 Carlton Street in Winnipeg. Each year one class is chosen from among the core area schools of Winnipeg to participate in the annual program at Dalnavert designed to give the children of the 1980s the opportunity to experience the way Christmas was kept in the late Victorian period.

Gingerbread cookies!
Source: Winnipeg Free Press

And what an experience it was! That the whole time spent at Dalnavert was thoroughly enjoyable was indicated by the fact that the students from Cecil Rhodes could not agree as to whether the Christmas party, the tour of Dalnavert, or the time they spent making things was the best part of their visit.

After a field trip to Beausejour to cut down a Christmas tree, the students made their own decorations, tried their hand at making Christmas cards, wrote essays on how their grandparents celebrated Christmas, and enjoyed ginger bread cookies straight from a wood-fueled stove.

To tour Dalnavert is to be introduced to the lavish lifestyle of upper middle-class Winnipeg at the turn of the century. The visitors from Cecil Rhodes found many unusual and antiquated articles to capture their attention: clay marbles; stereoscopes; an accordion; stained glass windows; a pump organ; calling cards; ice thongs and other assorted implements. But the most fascinating part of the tour was the old fashioned toilet—with wooden seat and brass chain—rivalled only, perhaps, by the inter-room signal system of flags and speaking tubes.

The students of Cecil Rhodes were also introduced to the ancient art of story-telling by Prof. Harold Turner, who formerly taught drama at the University of Manitoba, and who delighted his audience with a series of tales drawn especially from Ireland, Germany, and the United States. The climax of the visit to Dalnavert came with the Christmas party on December 18. On that day the children, each accompanied by one of their parents or by an adult friend, played some of the games that have been left behind in this increasingly technological age—among them were hot potato, jacks, marbles, bean bag toss, and musical chairs. Together they sang Christmas carols and songs around the pump organ, popped their “crackers” to find hats and prizes inside and, of course, ate their share of cup cakes, ice cream, and pastry.

With the end of the Christmas program nearing, Jay Meyer, on behalf of his class, thanked the staff at Dalnavert for their invitation and their hospitality. On behalf of the parents, Jay’s mother also thanked the staff at Dalnavert, indicating the ways in which the type of Christmas Jay and his classmates had experienced at Dalnavert—a Christmas of doing things together—had brought her family closer together. As another student from the class at Cecil Rhodes observed, the true meaning of Christmas is not in presents, but in having fun and in feeling close to others.

The original owner of Dalnavert was Sir Hugh John Macdonald, the only son of John A. Macdonald, our nation’s first Prime Minister. Born in 1850, Sir Hugh John lived a varied life as a soldier, lawyer and reluctant politician. He first saw Winnipeg in 1870 when he arrived with the Wolseley expedition, which was to put down the supposed insurrection in the Red River colony. In 1881 Macdonald left his home in Kingston for good and returned to Winnipeg to settle and to practise law. In 1885 he was soldiering again, this time with the 90th Battalion Winnipeg Rifles during the second rebellion in the Canadian North-West, the Saskatchewan River rebellion.

In 1891 Macdonald was elected as a member of Parliament from Winnipeg. He resigned after two years and was elected again in 1896. However, this second election was declared invalid. The following year he became leader of the provincial Conservative party, and was actually Premier of Manitoba briefly in 1899-1900. In 1900 Macdonald was the unsuccessful federal Conservative candidate who opposed Clifford Sifton in Brandon.

In 1911 Macdonald embarked on a long career as Police Magistrate in Winnipeg. The following year he was knighted—an honour he courted in order to please his wife—and became a member of a three man commission to investigate the doubtful financial dealings of Premier Roblin’s government with the company then constructing the new legislative building. He remained Police Magistrate until close to the end of his life, which came in 1929.

Dalnavert, as built in 1895, was designed by its architect, Charles H. Wheeler, to feature the most modern of living conveniences available to late Victorian society. It was built at a cost of ten thousand dollars—a considerable sum at that time. Seventy-five years and many owners later, Dalnavert was acquired by the Manitoba Historical Society. Its restoration to late Victorian conditions took three years and cost nearly half a million dollars. Dalnavert has been open to the public since June of 1974.

It should be noted that Dalnavert’s strange name has its origin in Scotland. Dalnavert was the name of the family home of Helen Shaw, Sir Hugh John’s grandmother and the wife of Hugh Macdonald.

Page revised: 12 November 2011

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