Christmas in Canada (1870) | “Canadian life is fast losing its picturesqueness”


Canadian life is fast losing its picturesqueness. Whatever of romance may cling to the life of the woods, or of the shores of the great lakes, the life of towns is growing colourless in its monotony. In Quebec and Montreal everything is European.

There may be a dash of novelty in costume, when winter compels the use of fur cloaks and gloves, fur-lined coats and clumsy boots as a protection against snow; but in the main Paris and London are copied with slavish fidelity. With the exception of the houses, with their double windows, triple doors, and Russian stoves, there are few touches of local colour, and these are growing fainter every year.

This applies, among other things, to Christmas observances. Christmas is kept with great heartiness; but much in the English way. As with us, it falls when winter has reached its intensest point: only, while we sometimes have a mild December, when roses will bloom in the open air, the month in Canada is always intensely cold.

All the northern part of the St. Lawrence is frozen over; the ground is covered with snow, often to some feet in depth; and the cold, even in towns, is intense. The advantages are, a blue sky and a bracing air; not, as with us, skies of fog and sharp northeasters. They get their fogs earlier, their snow-storms earlier; but about Christmas time the weather is generally fine, though the cold is terribly severe.

Severity of climate always leads to social enjoyment; and as the Canadian looks out upon the desolate world white and cheerless, no birds left on the trees, and not an animated object in the wide waste of snows, it is not surprising that he seeks to draw nearer to his kind, and gives himself up to such pastimes as are within his reach.

In some parts—in Quebec, for instance—trade is practically suspended, owing to the cold; and amusement becomes the business of life. This is the case, to a certain extent only, in Montreal, where the supply of the markets is not interrupted: agricultural produce continues to be brought in by means of sledges from all parts of the country, and it is a sight to witness the arrival of the frozen carcases of animals and the pinelogs destined to blaze on the whiter hearth.

As with us, Christmas amusements are of two kinds—hearty outdoor exercises and home-gatherings of a festive nature. Canadians are born sportsmen; but a time of year when even the crow retreats from the cold and the bear subsides into torpor is not very favourable either for hunting or shooting. It is a curious fact, by the way, that in winter the hare changes its colour to a pure white, assimilating to the snows around it; no doubt a wondrous provision for its safety.

Time was when wolves abounded, and the country offered sport in the way of beavers, martens, and musk-rats; but these are pretty well extinct. Those expert with the rifle, and who must have amusement, get up turkey and geese shooting-matches; the birds are put up at from fifteen to thirty rods distance, and he who hits wins.

Athletic sports find favour where they can be combined with betting; but the chief winter amusement is sleigh-riding, and the country is everywhere enlivened by the ringing of the sleigh-bells as the drivers dash merrily along. Over the snow-covered ground and over the frozen lakes and rivers the horses career wildly, as if the blood in their veins tingled, and the bracing air afforded them exhilaration in common with their owners. Sometimes getting over the ice is attended with no inconsiderable danger; the treacherous ice will break, and the horses and the sleigh with its occupants are suddenly engulfed. The Canadians are said to have a curious contrivance for saving the horse under these circumstances. There is a rope with a running noose about the neck of every animal, and as soon as the ice cracks the driver pulls this till partial strangulation ensues.and there can be no struggling, consequently no further breaking-up of the ice.

When the passengers are safe, the horse is dragged on to a firm block and the rope loosened, respiration recommences, and the journey is continued as if nothing had happened.

In this sleigh-practice we certainly get a feature that does not smack of Europe; but the indoor Christmas amusements are pretty much those we are familiar with. Public and private balls are given; friends receive, give dinner-parties, music-parties, and “crushes.” There are private theatricals, acted charades, and similar inanities; while the middle-classes amuse themselves with the round games, romps, and pleasantries which have been familiar to French and English children for centuries.

Source: Belgravia ,  Mary Elizabeth Braddon, 1870
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