by Brian G. Spare
Christmas is fast approaching once more, and with it comes all the rituals, social gatherings, food and traditions that make up this time of year. I don’t know of any other holiday season that is so steeped in tradition, or is as cherished as Christmas. No matter how modern it may become, Christmas will always be synonymous with age-old traditions. Our Christmas celebrations are a rich tapestry embroidered with the many cultures and customs brought here by European explorers, merchants, and immigrants. They built homes, had families and created memories that would establish communities and support future generations. Part of the legacy they left to us was their customs, dishes, songs and stories that would make up the Christmas season. German immigrants brought the Christmas tree, the Advent wreath and gingerbread houses. Carolling and plum pudding came with British, Irish and Slavic settlers. The Scottish brought us shortbread and with the French came the nativity scene. Dutch, German and Scandinavian immigrants brought us Santa Claus.
Along with their traditions, European immigrants to this land brought their faith. “The Christmas season begins on December 13th, the winter solstice on the old Julian calendar,” said Pastor Matthew Diegel of Our Savior’s – Immanuel Lutheran Parish, “when the church celebrates the feast of Santa Lucia (St. Lucia’s Day).” It is a custom started centuries ago in Scandinavia that is also called the festival of light and which heralds of the coming of Jesus. As part of the service, a girl wears a white dress, a red sash around her waist, and a wreath of candles on her head just as St. Lucia did in the Roman catacombs. Pastor Diegel said the most important part of the season is Christmas Eve when they hold a candle light service in the church and sing carols with the last one being Silent Night.
My friend Elsa’s mother came to the Lakehead from Sweden when she was 17, married a man from Sweden and they settled down on a farm in the Forbes and Goldie Township to raise a family. Christmas was always a special time of year for Elsa when she was growing up. Preparations started at least months before Christmas making the food and the ornaments for the Christmas tree. They made Christmas cake (with coffee in it instead of rum), rice pudding with berry sauce, gingerbread cookies and fruit cake. The main course for Christmas dinner was always roast pork as in Sweden. Another festive dish from her heritage, Elsa remembers lutefisk (lye fish), which is air dried white fish soaked in lye then steam cooked.
After the feast of Santa Lucia, there was a concert with singing, dancing and skits in her one room school house in Flett. The Christmas tree was chosen and on Christmas Eve it would be decorated with glass ornaments, paper chains and candles in holders that clipped to the branches that they were never lit. She and her six siblings would be given the Eaton’s catalogue so they could each choose a Christmas present. Elsa told me they were not well off, but Christmas time was always rich with the traditions of her parents’ homeland and the warmth, kindness and goodwill of the holiday season.
Another friend, Jo-Ellen, remembers her childhood Christmases with fondness too. Preparations for Christmas started in the fall. They made plum pudding with rum that would be served flaming after Christmas dinner. Jo-Ellen and her mother made fruit cake, mince pies and Scottish shortbread cookies. She made strings of popcorn to decorate the tree. At least one of them was eaten before it ever got to the tree.
On Christmas Eve the family went to Midnight Mass. For dinner on Christmas Day roast turkey with all the trimmings was always the main faire. And as they ate, in the corner stood the Christmas tree festooned with lights and tinsel and draped with popcorn garlands and candy canes. The crown and glory was the glass baubles that that hung from the branches. Jo-Ellen said you could see these glass treasures were very old. They had decorated many trees, and were handled by generations of family members who had immigrated to here from The Ukraine, Britain and Ireland. Each bauble had a story.
Where would the Yuletide season be without the Christmas tree? It’s the Christmas tradition that I am most fond of. The first Christmas tree recorded was in the late 1580s in Germany. The evergreen tree was chosen because it was the symbol of everlasting life since it stayed green all year round. A century later, the Christmas tree was a well entrenched German custom. During that century, the Christmas tree spread across Europe, Great Britain and Ireland, and across the Atlantic Ocean. As the tradition spread across Europe, each country developed its own custom of decorating the tree. Garlands of dried fruit, nuts and popcorn, cookies, candy and pastries, miniature dolls, furniture and musical instruments were some of the things used to decorate the Christmas tree. The trees were lit with candles, and while the candles were alight, a bucket of water and ladle was on hand to douse the inevitable fires. Every year, members of the Norwegian Canadian Association of Thunder Bay decorate the Norway Christmas tree at a local hotel. For them, it’s a labour of love. Straw, paper and wooden ornaments symbolic of their Norwegian heritage adorn the tree.
I know what I’ll be doing this Christmas. It’s what I have done since I was a kid, and it’s what has become my own Christmas tradition. I’ll sit on the sofa in the living room in the dark watching the beautiful glow from the Christmas tree lights and their reflection off the ornaments. I’ll bask in the warmth of its radiance and be awed by its serene, peaceful silence. It’s wonderful!
The Holiday Season is upon us once more. As we prepare for the occasion, stop and think of what makes this time of year special to you. What is your favourite Christmas tradition?
Thank you to the following who assisted with this article:
Pastor Matthew Diegel, Our Savior’s – Immanuel Lutheran Parish
Friends Elsa and Jo-Ellen
The Norwegian Canadian Association of Thunder Bay
Thunder Bay Public Library
Thunder Bay Historical Museum
Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com
*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*