A Glimpse into the Holiday Celebrations of a Post-WWII Diaspora in Oshawa

By Mia V., Visitor Host

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.

Here is bandura player George Metulynsky, dressed in Ukrainian folk clothing which is customary for special occasions. Music, such as carolling, was another Oshawa Ukrainian diaspora tradition, as the article describes the church’s youth group partaking in. / Oshawa Times, “Ancient music heralds holiday for Ukrainians” (January 6 1981)

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.

Christmas Eve dinner with the Nabreznyj family. Seated at the far end of the table is Fr. Roman Nabereznyj, of St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. It is interesting to note, that at least until very recently, both Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic believers (especially in the diaspora) celebrated Christmas on January 7th.

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.

Ukrainian Christmas table set up for a display at the Oshawa Museum in the 1990s. The didukh is visible in the left corner, while the special bread and wheat are on the table (centre and right respectively). A018.6.282.

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:


Oshawa Museum’s Holiday Blog

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!

Annotation 2019-12-06 121313

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.

From The Globe, Toronto, December 31, 1914, pg. 2

Head over to the Oshawa Museum Holiday Blog and see what interesting holiday facts we’re shared in the past!

Happy holidays!

Shopkeepers at Christmastime

By Melissa Cole, Curator

This blog post was inspired by our recent partnership with Myseum of Toronto’s Discounted History exhibit that explores the movement of goods, services and ideas that form part of Toronto and the surrounding GTA’s retail landscape.  Following this theme of retail and let’s take a glimpse into the lives of our forebearers that turned this season of goodwill into the modern money commercial season it has become.  The message of Christmas has been drowned in a frenzy of competitive present-buying and consumption on an almost obscene level. However, this complaint is not new; it stretches back to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time when many of us believe the holiday season, infused by the spirit of Dickens, was more homely, wholesome and spiritual.

While there is no doubting the fact that the Victorians in the latter part of the 19th century, partly inspired by Dickens, were fascinated by the celebration of Christmas, they didn’t invent it.   Rather they reinvigorated it and brought together the many Christmas customs of Britain and threw themselves into the season in a way not seen before. Being a nation of manufacturers, industrialists and shopkeepers, it was not long before our forebearers realized that Christmas, with its emphasis on generosity and hospitality could be exploited for commercial possibilities.

Ontario Reformer Ad 1915

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.  Ads in local newspapers such as the ad above from the Ontario Reformer, December 1915 showcases lists of items specifically for sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers.  They make your list making easy by offering suggestions for these individuals in your life.

Jury and Gregory

The local store was not the only retail outlet to recognize the commercial importance of Christmas.  Through their own advertising, pharmacies promoted some of their own products, such as eye glasses, as potential Christmas gifts.  The chemist could rely on an increased demand for medicines by Christmas as winter brought with it the cold and flu season. Everyone knows about the last-minute Christmas shopping rush. “Consumer madness” is not only a feature of modern society but was well known at the end of the last century when a shift could be observed in the custom of giving presents. Shopkeepers were clearly the first to benefit from this “consumer madness.” Around December 10, owners of department stores and grocers would begin their newspaper advertising campaigns. Since presents and food were bought customarily between December 21 and 24, merchants stepped up their hard-sell strategy in the newspapers on those days to attract even more customers.


The desire to entice custom instigated another new tradition – in the increasingly sophisticated art of window-dressing.  At Christmas time, large department stores would mount displays of the most beautiful toys and gifts in their windows and inside the store to give to those nearest and dearest. These beautiful shop windows were a definite attraction for passers-by and always aroused vivid emotions and daydreams.  By the 1900s the stores along the main street in towns such as Oshawa and department stores like Eaton’s in Toronto were putting enormous efforts into outshining their rivals’ Christmas displays.  Gordon Selfridge was one of the great impresarios of Christmas windows. Indeed it was Selfridge who coined the phrase “only X shopping days to Christmas.”  Another equally effective strategy was to suggest to customers that they do their catalogue shopping when it suited them.

Seasr Catalogue
Image found on CTV.ca

The Eaton’s catalogue would have been available for customers to order from at your local store.  For instance the Sears Wish Book was available up until their closure in early 2018.  One annual tradition that can be held above the company’s closer – is the Sears Canada Wish Book.  Even the name Wish Book evokes holiday nostalgia. I know my family misses our annual Sears Wish Book that used to arrive in the early fall every year.  Online catalogues just don’t carry that same nostalgia that flipping through shiny pages of toys, household gadgets clothes and so much more, could be found in the Annual Sears Wish Book.  Today many merchants still send out their “Christmas Wish flyers but nothing compares to the Annual Sears Canada Wish Book.

Melissa’s latest video podcast looked at this topic, and you can watch it on your YouTube Channel here: https://youtu.be/_qn8PUMGJho

Oh Tannenbaum! About the Christmas Tree

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Christmas is just over a week away.  Halls are decked, presents are wrapped, and Saint Nicholas is busy preparing for his busiest day of the year. When he visits the children of the world, he will leave his gifts underneath a Christmas tree, but why a tree? Why is an evergreen tree the prevalent symbol for Christmas?  The history of the tree can be traced back many years.


The use of evergreens and other greenery had been used during the winter months for centuries, with it being a reported custom of  ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.  The evergreens represent life even through the cold, dark winter months. Through the centuries, the customs included adorning said evergreens with assorted decorations, like fruit, nuts, and paper flowers.

It was during the 18th century when the tradition truly took hold.  While the tradition of the Christmas tree had been in England for a number of years, its popularity and prevalence was cemented in 1848 when an image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around a Christmas tree was published.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their Christmas Tree, 1847

The Royal Family were the ‘celebrities’ of their day.  Once people saw that the Royals had a tree, they too wanted to have a tree as part of their holiday tradition.

Early trees were lit with candles.  This is, of course, before the invent of electricity, and having an open flame by a tree comes with its own inherent problems.  A bucket of water would often be kept close to the tree in case any flames had to be doused. These tree candles are part of the Oshawa Museum’s collection.


Early Christmas trees were decorated with fruits, flowers and candles, which were heavy on the tree branches. In the 1800s German glass blowers began producing glass balls to replace the heavy decorations and called them bulbs.The first Christmas trees in Ontario were decorated with edible products, such as strings of popcorn, nuts and cookies.  During the 1870s the first store-bought ornaments were introduced.  They were made of tin, wax, tinsel, cardboard and glass.  The oldest manufactured ornaments, made of tin, came in various shapes such as stars, crosses and flowers.  Wax ornaments soon followed, the most popular design being an angel floating in the air.  Icicles were introduced in 1878 and still remain a popular decoration.

On the Christmas Trees at the Museum, we also hide a glass pickle among our decorations.  Why a pickle?  Some believe this is an old German tradition (although many people from Germany today do not claim this tradition as their own).  When decorating the Christmas tree, it is traditional to hang the pickle last, hidden among the branches. The first child on Christmas Day to find the Christmas pickle receives an extra gift!


Christmas trees and their official lighting are often seen as a symbolic start to the holiday season.  The City of Oshawa always lights its official Christmas tree in mid-November, and this tree is among the large evergreens by Civic Square at City Hall.  Toronto’s official Christmas tree, on the other hand, is usually a white spruce which is selected a year in advance from the Bancroft, Ontario area. In Boston, their Christmas tree is always from Nova Scotia, a gift from the province to thank them for their support after the Halifax explosion of 1917, the worst human-made explosion until the atomic bomb.  They first sent a tree in 1918, a year after the event, and they have been doing it every year since 1971.

So whether you a have white spruce, douglas fir, or an artificial tree that is used year after year, decorate those boughs, thoughtfully hang those precious ornaments, and enjoy the tradition that has been around for centuries.

An Evening of Lamplight

Staff are busy preparing for their favourite event of the year.  The Annual Lamplight Tour takes place on the first Saturday of December, and this year that date is December 3, 2016.  The Oshawa Museum is decorated for the season, and we have activities planned throughout the evening.

Please join us Saturday, December 3, from 6-8pm.  Admission is $5/person or free for members of the Oshawa Historical Society.

Winter 2016.jpg

Oshawa Museum: 1450 Simcoe Street South, Lakeview Park, Oshawa, ON

http://www.oshawamuseum.org; 905-436-7624 x 106; info[at]oshawamuseum[dot]org

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