From us at the Oshawa Museum, we wish those who celebrate a very Merry Christmas.
Please enjoy this passage from the classic Victorian story, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,’ returned the nephew. ‘Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, Oshawa’s post-WWII religious landscape had pre-war roots and was quite vast. The significance of this, of having cultural institutions built by and for one’s community, cannot be overstated, especially for the holidays. For many immigrants and their descendants – such as those in Oshawa at this time – intentionally connecting to one’s heritage was and is central to the celebration of Christmas.
Christmas in the diaspora – many thousands of kilometres away from home and extended family – could not have been easy at first. However, a sense of community could still prevail, as newcomers were often embraced by members of their own community and adjacent communities. For example, for “Ukrainian” Easter, newer immigrants were incorporated into holiday celebrations of more established individuals. This point was shared for the museum’s oral history project, and it is also documented in the article “DP Girls Entertained by Oshawa Polish Groups” (March 23, 1948). This article, as you can read below, describes how newly arrived Polish and Latvian women from a German camp to Whitby were welcomed to an event at the Olive Avenue Polish Hall.
Left image: This Times-Gazette newspaper clipping describes how the women were welcomed, their reactions, and also that they will likely be welcomed at “festivities in connection with the approaching Easter season.” Right image: Polish Alliance of Canada Hall on Olive Avenue, 2020
Despite this, the lead-up to the holidays would have been entirely different, marked with unfamiliar holiday habits and missing most of the familiar ones. For those that may celebrate different holidays or the same holidays on different dates, the resulting feeling might be that of disconnection from the cheerful hustle and bustle of the season. For instance, with Advent and the Nativity Fast in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the official start of the Christmas season might actually be earlier than one would expect and lasts well into January, until Epiphany is celebrated on either the 6th or 19th. (You can read more about the difference in calendars here!) Whether or not individuals strictly participate in the entire fast, this period certainly drives up anticipation for Christmas – with all the delicious foods and treats that are associated with it.
The Ukrainian custom is to have twelve dishes on Christmas Eve – or Sviatyi Vechir (“Holy Evening”) – representing the twelve apostles, as the Oshawa Times reported on January 7th, 1984. Kutia (wheat cooked with barley and race and other flavourful ingredients such as nuts, poppy seeds, and honey) is eaten at the beginning of the meal – and is not to be confused with the more savoury buckwheat that is also served. Other sweets include uzvar (a fruit drink) and baked apples. The side dishes and main courses include a kind of vinaigrette (from beets, carrots, beans, and boiled potatoes), vareniki (dumplings similar to pierogies), cabbage soup, pickles, borscht, pastries (which can also be sweet or savoury), stuffed cabbage rolls (or golubtsy), and vegetable stew.
Some other key Ukrainian customs include kolach, special braided bread – which is also similarly essential to many other traditions across Europe – along with a didukh, or carefully gathered sheaf of wheat. Kutia (or wheat cooked with barley and race and other flavourful ingredients such as nuts, poppy seeds, and honey) is also an important part of Christmas Eve dinner in Ukraine.
In Canada today, many of the holiday practices with which we might be familiar came from diverse origins around the world. One of the main ways in which these traditions came to be incorporated is by immigrants who brought them over from the old country. This post covers one small portion of those traditions, but hopefully you’ll have learned something new about the way the holidays were marked here in Oshawa!
Many thanks to Mia for researching and writing about many holiday traditions from Eastern Europe for the Oshawa Museum’s Holiday Blog! You can read about them by clicking through the links in the post, or by visiting:
Amid the global pandemic, the Oshawa Museum realized holiday programming would look very different this year. We saw this as an opportunity to try something new and creative, and, in partnership with Oshawa based Empty Cup Media, we are excited to announce the premiere of An Oshawa Yuletide.
This short film, created in considerations of COVID-19 restrictions, celebrates the magic of a traditional Victorian Christmas experience! Follow Mary Cameron along as she helps the Henry family prepare for their Christmas celebrations in Victorian Oshawa.
“The OM made the difficult decision to cancel one of our most anticipated events of the year, the Annual Lamplight Tour,” says Oshawa Museum Executive Director Laura Suchan. “Christmas has always been a favourite time at the Oshawa Museum, and the spirit of this holiday is perfectly captured in An Oshawa Yuletide. We are very proud of this film and what was created by Colin Burwell of Empty Cup Media.”
The Oshawa Museum is pleased to present this short film to the community, and we hope you enjoy the film as much as we do.
Did you know that the Oshawa Museum has a holiday blog? Since 2011, we have hosted oshawamuseumholiday.wordpress.com, where every day in the month of December, there is a new post full of interesting facts and information about the holiday season!
You can search the posts by topic, or you can simply scroll through reading posts from the year and years before. Topics include carols, legends, local history, photos and postcards from our archival collection, Christmas artefacts, significant holidays that occur throughout the month (Christmas, Hanukkah, winter solstice, Kwanzaa), New Year’s celebrations, and more!
One of the interesting stories told on the blog in years past has been the story of the Christmas Truce. When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, many soldiers thought the war would be easily won, and that they would be ‘home by Christmas.’ As history tells us, the war would last from July 1914 through to November 1918. That did not stop the men fighting in the war from celebrating Christmas.
For Christmas 1914, German and British soldiers stopped fighting, broke out in song with Christmas carols, crawled out of the trenches, dropped their guns and wished their enemies “Merry Christmas”. This series of widespread unofficial cease-fire that took place along the Western Front has come to be known as the Christmas Truce. Despite the First World War being one of the most devastating and gruesome wars fought during the 20th Century, there was peace, humanity and goodwill shown during the holiday season.
Oshawa newspapers from the 1860s and 1870s are a window of insight into the celebration of Christmas past. By the 1860s Oshawa businesses were advertising their wares for both Christmas and New Year celebrations. The merchants advertised their Christmas stock on printed posters and in newspapers, hoping to catch the attention of holiday shoppers. They also used the printed ads as well as handmade posters to thank their regular customers for their business over the past year and wish them season’s greetings. The Christmas season meant increased business for the average local store in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The store would be stocked with many specialty items such as exotic fruits, spices, holly, mistletoe and glass-blown ornaments, as well as staple products to ensure that the customers found all that they needed for their holiday preparations. Merchants in Oshawa started advertising their selection of gifts a week or two before Christmas. Hawthorn’s ad stated “the most suitable holiday present is a good pair of boots or shoes” (Ontario Reformer, Dec. 19, 1873). The Pedlar Co. had another gift suggestion, “how would this do for Christmas, 5 gallons of oil and a new 5 gallon can for $1.50” (Reformer, Dec. 19, 1873). Other gifts advertised included photograph albums and pocket diaries from J.F. Wilcox (1864) toy tea sets, and other Christmas toys at Murdoch’s (1864). There were even pre-Christmas sales such as the 7% off all cash purchases over $5.00 advertised by Mulcahy and Cashman in 1865.
Rather than gift giving, the focus of the Victorian celebration was the Christmas Day dinner. In 1865 Murdoch Brothers store invited people to “prepare for 1866” with their choice stock of groceries which included “a splendid lot of Layer, Bunch, Valencia and Sultana Raisins – also currants, figs, preserved ginger, preserved peaches, candied lemons and oranges.” The December 16, 1868 issue of the Oshawa Vindicator carries an ad by R.C. Steele and Co. requesting 2,500 turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese in time for Christmas. Perhaps they were supplying the factories of Joseph Hall, Whiting and Cowan Works with turkeys for their employees. Every year it was the custom of these employers to hand out Christmas turkeys to their married workers. In 1868 it was especially difficult to procure enough supply to meet the need for turkeys even from the neighbouring villages. The price of turkeys was up from 8 cents a pound to more than 11 cents a pound and even at that price it was difficult to get a respectable bird according to the Oshawa Vindicator (December 30, 1868).
Special announcements of business hours, best wishes and social events are also found in the early newspapers. The postmaster wanted it known that the post office hours on Christmas Day 1862 were from 9 to 10 am for the delivery of Christmas mail. Churches also placed special event schedules in the newspapers for the Christmas season. The Methodist Episcopal Church was charging 15 cent admission for their seasonal social with singing and Christmas tree viewing (1873). As part of their celebration, the Disciples Church in 1868 had a Christmas tree, singing and recitations by the Sabbath School children. There were addresses by notable residents W.H. Gibbs and Dr. McGill followed by refreshments of cake and fruit.