Submitted by Brian Roulston
It may be difficult to believe now, but there was a time in England when Christmas was not celebrated at all. According to the University of Warwick, in 1647 the Puritan government believed that Christmas was being used to justify drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling, and other forms of excess. Even up until the late Victorian era, Christmas was still not widely celebrated in Canada or the United Kingdom. Canada’s reason for not celebrating Christmas was very different from Britain’s: we were simply too busy trying to survive the long and harsh cold winters. We didn’t start thinking about Christmas or Christmas traditions until our finances improved and our homesteads evolved from essentially makeshift shacks to larger and warmer structures. Incidentally, Christmas became a national holiday in the United States in 1870. Nine years later, Canada followed suit.
Now let’s take a peek at some of Hamilton’s and Canada’s more familiar and maybe not-so-familiar Christmas traditions and their origins.
On November 15th, 1949, the first-ever Santa Clause parade, scheduled to begin promptly at 9:30 a.m., saw thousands of Hamiltonians, young and old, line the parade route despite chilly winds and cloudy skies. In 1998, the CP Holiday Train made its first annual stop in Hamilton, and since then, some of Canada’s best entertainers have warmed the hearts of local concertgoers while raising awareness of food insecurity and money for local food banks. Both of these events have become Christmas traditions in the Hammer, and by the time this story is published, they will have likely passed for the year.
The annual Children’s Fund Christmas Tree of Hope in Gore Park is a wonderful tradition for the younger kids. The tree is lit during the first week of December. Throughout the season, the event has a street fair vibe to it and offers free rides on a small Ferris wheel or a miniature train. Gore Park is well-lit with bright white Christmas lights and, with a dusting of snow, resembles a scene from a Christmas movie. The annual Children’s Fund Christmas Tree of Hope was established in 1976 to assist children and their families who are struggling during the holiday season. Donations are gratefully accepted online through https://y108.ca/christmas-tree-of-hope/
In the city and the surrounding area, there are neighbourhoods and panoramic displays to drive through, giving the impression that the glittering lights of Las Vegas have exploded into a Christmas wonderland.
Every year, there is a beautifully decorated and illuminated tree in front of our 61-year-old City Hall, and it stands out even more when it is covered with freshly fallen snow. The Hamilton Signature Sign, which was first lit on April 27, 2018, will change colours to reflect the holiday season.
As Christmas approaches, the malls and big box stores will begin to fill with shoppers looking for that last-minute gift to make someone feel special. Grocery shoppers will swarm the stores in search of spices, turkey or ham, and all the fixings for a fantastic feast. If children didn’t send Santa an email or visit him and his helpers at city malls like Jackson Square, Limeridge Mall, or even Eastgate Square, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas.
Hamilton, like the rest of Canada, has a diverse population with a variety of religious and cultural traditions. Many of us will observe the holy season according to the various traditions to which we are accustomed, and in many cases, on different days. For example, Orthodox Christmas will be celebrated on January 7th, 2023. Many Orthodox Christians in countries such as Canada fast before Christmas Day and attend a special church liturgy.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the name Christmas comes from the Old English language and was known as Christes Maesse or Christmasse in Middle English. It further states that the term “Christmas” was first used in the 12th century.
Dundurn Castle, with its Christmas tours throughout the season, is perhaps the best place to learn about our local Victorian-era traditions.
The first indigenous peoples of North America observed winter feasts and rituals. The winter solstice came to be associated with a lot of these traditions, which were based on the moon and star cycles. Prayer, ceremonial drumming and dancing, tobacco offerings, healing rituals, and prayer were all common back then, and some of these practices are still followed today.
In the early days of New France, Christmas was primarily a religious event. In 1645, French colonists gathered in a chapel in Québec City for midnight mass and sang Chantons Noé, an old Christmas hymn imported from France. The procession of the Christ Child and the display of the crèche, a physical representation of the Nativity scene, were the main events. Later models, or tableaus, representing the scene of Jesus Christ’s birth were displayed in homes and public places around Christmas.
Christmas has lost much of its religious significance at this time, in English Canada and among upper-middle-class French Canadians. The holiday evolved into a celebration of the community and families.
In Britain, roast turkey was first served to wealthy people during the Victorian era. Before that, the traditional main dish was beef and goose. Due to its ideal size for family gatherings, turkey gained widespread popularity among the general population at the turn of the 20th century.
Britain is also credited with providing holly and mistletoe, as well as yule logs and carol singing. Before Christmas became more important to the Victorians, the exchange of gifts had been a New Year’s celebration in Britain.
The most significant influence on how Canadians celebrate Christmas today is from the United States. Santa, for example, has been portrayed in a variety of roles, including a tall Santa, an elf, and even a mean Santa. Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom (June 22, 1899–March 10, 1976), a Michigan-born artist of Swedish descent, was hired by the Coca-Cola Company in 1931 to change St. Nicholas into the Santa Clause that we know today as part of their Christmas advertising campaign. This laid the groundwork for the current level of consumerism surrounding the holiday.
Speaking of St. Nicholas, the Christmas stocking is said to have originated in Europe during this fictional character’s lifetime, when children first hung regular stockings on the mantel and small gifts of fruit, nuts, sweets, and trinkets were placed inside the stockings. This tradition eventually progressed into the festively decorated Christmas stockings we buy in stores today. Children in Quebec waited until New Year’s Day to open the rest of their gifts, which were placed in these stockings hung on the mantel beside their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. This custom continued well into the twentieth century and may still be practised in some households today.
As gifts became more lavish and larger, they were then placed beneath the Christmas tree. Christmas trees are a 16th-century German tradition, first appearing in Canada in 1781 at the Sorel, Quebec home of Baron Friederick von Riedesel. Christmas trees were slow to catch on at first, mainly because Canadian homes were either too small or the settlers were too worried about fires. Candles were frequently used for illuminating the trees, resulting in numerous fires. Before 1903, lighting a typical Christmas tree with electric lights would have cost around $2000 in today’s money, so this custom was typically reserved for the wealthy. That year, Christmas light strings were invented, and as they became available for purchase, they became increasingly more affordable and popular.
On December 7, 1898, Canada became the first country in the world to issue a stamp commemorating Christmas. It was around this time that postage was changed from a penny to a two-cent stamp. To commemorate the British Empire’s unprecedented growth, the face of the stamp featured the word “Xmas.” The next time Canada issued a commemorative Christmas stamp was during WWI, when regular stamps were overstamped with the words “Xmas 1935-3 Milliemes” and given to soldiers to mail Christmas greetings to their family and friends back home.
Finally, in many provinces across Canada, neighbourhoods will have pickup hockey games at the local neighbourhood rink, on frozen ponds, or in the street. After a fun-filled afternoon of hockey, the players return to their families for a big Christmas dinner.
I wish you all a joyous and safe holiday season as you celebrate. We’ll see you in the new year.