Remembering Christmases of years past
By Jenn Watt
Published Dec. 19, 2017
Holiday traditions don’t change as much as you might think. While the kids’ wish lists may have gotten longer and the food easier to prepare, local residents of Highland Wood and Hyland Crest say Christmases over the last 80 to 90 years have remained pretty much the same.
We chatted with four women about what they remember of Christmases long, long ago.
Christmas for Norma Carter is the smell of plum pudding and shortbread, baked with care (and patience) by her grandmother. Carter lives in Hyland Crest, but she grew up in Toronto. Her connection to the area comes from cottaging on Balsam Lake south of Minden.
She said she learned how to make shortbread from her Scottish grandmother, who made it the best. She decided not to continue making the plum pudding, however.
“We used to have to hang the plum pudding down in the basement so it would ripen. Maybe a week or so, 10 days,” she said.
Diane Pratt’s mother was British and brought an authentic recipe over the ocean with her.
“Yorkshire pudding was the big thing [during the holidays],” she said. “It’s between a bread and a biscuit [consistency].” Pratt learned the recipe from her mother, so she could make it for her own kids. She lives in Hyland Crest in Minden, the town she and her family moved to when she was six years old.
For some, Christmas meant the arrival of foods that were unusual to their diets, like citrus fruit. But for Gladys Connelly, born in 1930, her family’s farm near Eau Claire, Ont., was so far from any stores, they used the foods they had preserved.
“On the farm it was eight miles to the nearest grocery store. … We had a cellar under the house and in that cellar we had some bins and in those bins was sand and we would bury the vegetables and fruit and stuff in the sand. There was no electricity. We had oil lamps and no hydro. We had to cook everything on the stove, the wood stove,” said Connelly, who lives in Highland Wood in Haliburton.
The Pleasure of Presents
Ruth Bennett remembers a large box arriving in the mail filled with presents. Her parents lived too far away from her aunts and uncles to get together during the holidays, so they’d send gifts for the kids in one big package.
“After a lovely breakfast it took ages. It took hours. We didn’t just sit down and scrabbly open our presents,” said Bennett, who lives at Highland Wood.
Born in 1931, Christmases of Bennett’s youth presented the additional challenge of being right in the middle of the Depression, making finances tight.
“We thought we were in Seventh Heaven. We made a lot of our Christmas gifts,” she said.
Gladys Connelly was one of five children, so gifts were never extravagant. Nevertheless, she doesn’t remember ever feeling hard-done-by.
“I still think that we were more grateful and I think we were happier with less. Today they get piles of stuff and we did not get that but we were happy with what we got,” she said.
In Norma Carter’s home, there would be no presents to see until the moment the clock struck midnight. In fact, there’d be no Christmas tree at all until that point.
“My aunt and uncle used to come every Christmas Eve and we [kids] went to bed (of course we had to go to bed early for Santa Claus coming) and they … used to come to decorate the Christmas tree,” she said.
“You weren’t allowed to see the tree until Santa Claus had come. I think that was an old tradition. When we came down on Christmas Eve, the lights were all lit on the tree and oh, it was a beautiful sight. My dad was there to greet us and wish us a Merry Christmas.”
A Time of Faith
Diane Pratt, who was born in 1943, said attending church has always been a big part of her celebrations. When her family moved to Minden, they started attending the Minden United Church. For her, “the spiritual part of it” is most important.
Ruth Bennett often had visitors in her home during the holidays, frequently connected to her through the church. The family would open their home to strangers, inviting them to share a holiday feast.
“At Christmastime it’s certainly an element of faith considering the many things Jesus said about being your brother’s keeper,” she said.
As an adult, Bennett’s family moved around Canada and the U.S. quite a lot, spending a decade in Illinois. “We were put in touch with women who had recently got out of prison and were reintegrating into society and could use some help and companionship. We got to know several women that way,” she said. Some of the people they met ended up being long-term friends.
They also welcomed international students from Japan one year and another year Hungarian refugees.
When she asked her daughter, Margie, what she remembered of holidays of her youth, it was the dinner guests that stood out.
Bennett said the tradition of inviting guests into their home was something she learned from her parents. Her mother was a teacher and met many so-called “Newcomers,” who left Europe following the war.
“She got to know a lot of Newcomers and they would invite each family for a meal and this was around 1945 so I would have been around 14 and I can remember so many of them looking around our home and saying this is our first time in a Canadian home. No one else had invited them for dinner,” she said.
Dancing the Night Away
Carter said music was a key part of all of her family Christmases. She remembers members of the Salvation Army going door to door, singing carols and collecting donations.
In her own home, dancing and singing were a staple of celebrations.
“We had so much fun. We used to get together every Christmas and have a sing-along – the whole family,” she said.
As an adult, she and her siblings would gather at her brother’s house and the music came with them.
“[My brother] had these jingle bells he wore around his wrist... and you had to sing Here Comes Santa Claus and dance and give everybody a present,” she said. “We used to dance a lot at parties and things like that. They were the good old days.”