Manitoba History: Memories of Christmas

by Flora Stevens, Idell Brady and Vera Fryer

Manitoba History, Number 16, Autumn 1988

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The stories that follow were meant to be told to contemporary audiences and to convey a flavour of life in the past. They show how small details stick in the mind and how timeless is the spirit of the Christmas season. The concert, the family gathering, and the dinner party are different and yet the same for all of us.

Memories of Flora Stevens, from Gladstone

The Christmas Concert

It must have been still October when we first started practising for the Christmas Concert in the Baptist Church. There were choruses, duets, trios, drills, acts, recitations and every pupil was in something. Those with a tendency to excellence in drama were quickly put in the little skits. I think now that the concert was probably very good. Certainly, the ladies in charge gave a lot of time to the project.

The first practices were always in a home, and the hostess would clear a room to make space for such drills. There was always a flag drill, done to a stirring march and fours were formed and divided and corners were marched to, and the end result was a precise little show with straight lines and sharp corners done by the flag-carrying children. This was a favourite item to be in, with no singing, no acting, just marching to music with a real beat.

On the night of the concert, the church was jammed. I guess the church was pretty small, but the Christmas tree was as large as could be accommodated. The tree was trimmed with the usual Christmas trimming and presents for all the children. There were dolls, sleighs and all the proper gifts right there in sight. I do not remember any wrapping. The ladies of the church had done their job well.

After the concert, excitement reigned. Santa Claus was approaching and telegrams kept arriving and were handed to the master of ceremonies who read aloud the contents which told how close Santa was to town. His progress was rapid. The towns from which he wired got closer and closer until the sleigh bells were heard and the church door burst open to admit as now-covered, bustling, properly-attired Santa, with red suit, white whiskers and strings of bells around his waist and even a pack. It was almost too much!

Each child was called up and a presentation made. Judging by the wide smiles, all had a very happy evening.

Interior of school classroom decorated for Christmas concert, circa 1915.

Interior of school classroom decorated for Christmas concert, circa 1915.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Sisler Collection 228, N17233.

At Home

While the church concert was the focal point of the season, there was a home routine that was followed. We hung up our long black woolen stockings on Christmas Eve, and found them bulging in the morning. There was no Christmas tree in the house and our main present had been received at the church, along with every child in the congregation.

The Christmas dinner had its own ritual. Wide red ribbon bows with the ends touching the floor hung on each corner of the dining room table. My mother always did oranges cut into the shape of baskets and filled with fruit for the “starter.” The dessert was a carrot pudding. Bowls of unshelled nuts and big raisins and figs were set around the room for guests to munch on. We always included some “singles,” such as the bank boys who couldn’t get to their own homes for Christmas. There were always new games to play.

The telephone operator was remembered at Christmas with a big bowl of nuts and goodies. I do not know if she got anything else but I hope so. She served as an answering service for my father, the doctor. I remember vividly his voice at our phone telling her where he would be for the next few hours. (Our number was 16).

Although the day was a quiet one spent around home, it was still a real celebration.

Memories of Idell Brady, from Souris

The Performance

One of my enduring memories of Christmas past is taking part in a “Rose Drill” with seven other ten-year old girls at our Sunday School Christmas Concert. Practices, held on Monday and Wednesday after 4:00 p.m. in the lower hall of our church, went on for three or four weeks under the direction of a “musical” lady of the congregation, not our regular Sunday School teacher. One of my friends, Evelyn, had a serious problem with her feet. Her thoughtful mother had fitted her for the winter with knee-high felt, lace-up boots, to be worn both outside in very cold temperatures, and indoors in summer-like heat. The result was painful, itching chilblains. Poor Evelyn hopped from foot to foot during practice, rubbing her tormented toes. The director cried at her, “Evaleen, stop that.” Evelyn would flush, grin sheepishly, stop for half a minute, then give in to the irresistible urge to rub again.

Came the night of the performance. Eight excited little girls waited in anticipation in rustling costumes made of two shades of rose-coloured crepe paper, patiently stitched by loving mothers onto factory cotton yokes and skirts. Each ready with her attempt at a flower crown and a star tipped wand, wearing white stockings and black patent leather shoes. March, march, march, in time to the pianist’s brisk tinkling; squares, diagonals, crossovers, like the Mounties’ Musical Ride. Our “coach” had suggested that we pinch our cheeks to be sure to be pink for the occasion. Mrs. Smith sternly frowned on such frivolity.

No one booed. Our parents clapped. We clambered down from the platform. Later, divested of our rose-petalled costumes, we waited expectantly for the jingle of sleigh bells and the “Ho, ho, ho,” from jolly Santa with bags of candy for all the children.

Memories of Vera Fryer, from Pine Falls

Going Home for Christmas

The train from Winnipeg to Pine Falls made a leisurely journey in the late 1920s. Over the frozen wastes of the great muskeg it would creep, cautiously, stoically, as winter took charge.

Christmas vacation! Our boarding schools closed, my brother and I were making our way to Union Station, homeward bound to Pine Falls. A blizzard was coming on as we clutched suitcases and bundles, and ran the last lap, for we were late. Catching that train was imperative; there would not be another until the day after Christmas, and there was no other way home. Hurry, hurry, ... to the gate, ... to the platform ... But what was the official saying? The train had left! Gone without us. Horrors! What to do?

“Get a taxi,” suggested the man. “Drive to East Selkirk. It should be easy to get there before that train.”

But how were we to pay for a trip that far? We had less than ten dollars between us. Then entered the good spirit of Christmas. He quickly grasped the horrid facts, the desperate need. Ushering us into his cab, he whisked us out of town. The blizzard was raging now; a white-out hid most the landmarks. Not a train was in sight. Ghastly fears mounted. But our Christmas spirit kept going.

Suddenly, East Selkirk railway station appeared. No, the train had not arrived yet. The station master prepared to stop it for us. We gave our tiny offering to our benefactor, and the taxi sped away, the genial driver calling, “Don’t worry, I’ll get more fares on the way back.”

After a leisurely wait in the cozy shelter, we heard that magical wail, and saw the headlight coming through clouds of steam and whirls of snow. Safely aboard, tickets collected, we headed over the frozen swamps, through the white forests and rocky outcrops of a familiar country.

Off the train we jumped into the waiting arms of a frost-fringed parent, then into the sleigh’s warm rugs and away behind the steam-clouded horses along the four mile bush road. Home, to wood stoves, coal oil lamps, Christmas tree, delicious aromas, and the enveloping love of family and home.

Page revised: 12 December 2020