To view the original article and others in the 2021 series, visit the Cottage Shack online magazine
Being curator of the Coldwater Canadiana Heritage Museum (CCHM) afford me many interesting glimpses into our past. Sitting before the massive stone fireplace, warmed by a racing fire, I begin to form an image of the Woodrow Family huddled together around this hearth so very long ago. I see the children pushing and shoving to get closer to the heat. Woollen mittens, socks and scarves hang from the mantle overhead, perhaps to dry there after a day of skating on the river or building snow forts in the yard.
My focus shifts to a family portrait hanging on the wall nearby. Archibald, Catherine and five of their 10 children posed for it. Just imagine what life was like for this large family living in this small home that originally consisted only of this “keeping room” and an upstairs loft where the children slept. It was not until the 1860s that the cabin was expanded.
So, this very room where I am sitting has certainly stood the test of time. A place where folks felt safe and secure in such a wilderness; where the fellowship of family and the companionship of friends were vital to life in this rugged New World.
Catherine, Archibald and their young daughter Catherine immigrated to Canada in the 1830s from Islay, Scotland. Although little has been written about their early days in Canada, I am sure their experiences were common among other immigrants. They likely tried to re-create as many Scottish customs as possible.
Celebrating the Yuletide surely would have been one of the most important ones. Unfortunately, most luxuries would not have been available to them back then. More likely their home would have been meagrely decorated with greenery taken directly from the forest. Cedar boughs reaffirmed that life goes on in an uncertain world. It was not until much later in that century that the Christmas tree became popular and eventually traditional.
Most ornaments or decorations would have been lovingly made by the family. A few Christmas cards may have been placed on the mantel. The custom of writing on Christmas cards and mailing them our did not become common until after the 1850s. These earlier cards portrayed cherubic children, animals, birds, Father Christmas and religious messages. Some cards even pictured wistful, sun-dappled scenes – reminders of the summer to come. Here at CCHM we have a wonderful collection of this early ephemera (printed memorabilia).
Undoubtedly, food would have been part of the magic and charm of Christmas Day at the Woodrow homestead – from the morning oatmeal spruced up with brown sugar, cinnamon a pat of butter to the roast goose features at the evening table complemented with vegetables carefully harvested from the garden and brought up from the cold cellar. Dates, figs, nuts, candies and other delicacies might be enjoyed in a year when the farm had done well. In the days leading up to Christmas Catherine would busy herself lovingly baking fruit cakes, plum pudding, cookies – all the family favourites. We have a great collection of Vintage Cookbooks that include some of her recipes.
Simple handcrafted gifts would be shared and enjoyed. Store-bought dolls, dresses, hats, hair ribbons, toys or games would have been very special. Is m sure that with 10 children, hand-me-downs were certainly in the mix.
Christmas carols, games and other merriment would have filled the walls of this little cabin. Eventually the Woodrows may have owned a piano, a pump organ or a dulcimer – a sounding board with strings stretched across and held on the lap of the player who strikes the strings with two small hammers. We have a wonderful example of one of these early instruments. Although the children were taught how to play simple tunes, most often it was Father who played for the family.
The telling of the Christmas Story and prayers would have been led by Archibald.
A sleigh ride to the Village for Christmas Eve church service may have been an annual ritual. Our Robinson cutter is a fine example of an early horse drawn sleigh. It is on display in all it refinished splendour in our carriage barn.
With the embers of the fire fading I reflect about how much I have enjoyed writing this article. I am reminded of simpler times and about the true meaning of this holiday.
I gaze out of the window. Snow is falling softly. The season has begun.
By Patricia Turnour