Here's what Christmas on P.E.I. was like 100 years ago

What was Christmas like on P.E.I. more than 100 years ago? The short answer is: very different. 

Presents were scarce, Christmas trees were rare and dinner was goose, not turkey

A Victorian Christmas tree decorated with flags, dolls, cards, garlands and gifts circa 1895, from P.E.I.'s public archives. (PARO)

What was Christmas like on P.E.I. more than 100 years ago? The short answer is: very different. 

Store-bought presents were scarce, many homes did not have a Christmas tree, and the festive feast usually featured a goose rather than a turkey. Those are common themes, and Island seniors shared their personal stories of Christmases past with P.E.I. historian Dutch Thompson. 

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Dorothy Palmer was born in 1904 and lived to be 94. Her father was mayor of Charlottetown in the 1920s and had the first car on Dorchester Street. 

Her mother Mary Jane was a great cook, and when Dorothy was a schoolgirl at Notre Dame Convent, she told Dutch that Christmas was her favourite time of year. 

"When I was about 14 or 15, we'd get out of school about half-past three and it was beginning to get dark, and a few of the girls we'd walk up Richmond Street and we'd look in the windows at Stanley Brothers and Moore and MacLeod, and we'd come down Sunnyside and go into White's Restaurant and get an ice cream or some sort of a treat," Palmer said. "The windows would be all decorated and lit up."

'The windows would be all decorated and lit up,' recalls Dorothy Palmer, describing how she and her chums would walk down what was called the 'Sunnyside' block of Grafton Street in Charlottetown between Great George and Queen streets. This image of Sunnyside is from between 1900 and 1910. (PARO)
A group of eight women who worked for Stanley Brothers dry goods business in Charlottetown, circa 1897. (PARO)

One interesting footnote: before 1900, the shops in England were always open on Christmas Day. In his famous diary, Samuel Pepys wrote that on Christmas Day 1662 he bought mince pies from the local baker because his wife was ill. And two centuries later in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge bought a prize turkey on Christmas morning for Tiny Tim and the rest of the Cratchits.

Goose, not turkey

One change in tradition over the years — the goose was the barnyard animal looking over its shoulder as Christmas approached, not the turkey.

Two boys identified as Fred and Tom Peters in the 1860s, with hunting rifles and Canada geese. (PARO)

"We always had a goose at Christmas, always," recalled Hilda MacDonald from Selkirk. She was born in 1904, the baby in the large close-knit MacPhee family of 10 children. 

"We always kept a lot of geese, but we always kept one for Christmas. So you'd have a big stuffed goose for Christmas, plum pudding, everything. Christmas was a big, big day." 

Turkeys were hard to raise and were mainly a rich person's food until the 1950s, Dutch said. Then a vaccine was found that solved a disease problem, and turkey became the popular meal at Christmas.

We all waited for Santa Claus — we'd hear him on the roof.— Pansy Reid

Queen Victoria's reign began in 1837 and Canadians can thank her and her husband Prince Albert, who was German, for many Christmas customs. She sent Christmas cards and she liked turkey at Windsor Castle for Christmas.

For dessert everyone at the table got a gingerbread man, a German Christmas tradition.

The MacRae sisters from French River grew up in a large family and lived in a lighthouse. Four of them — Evelyn, Joan, Mary and Isobel — spoke to Dutch in 1996 and shared Christmas memories.

One of the sisters recalled their father and a friend always went to McEwens Island to shoot birds in November. They'd come home with two dozen brant — small wild geese — and the children would pluck and clean them and put them outside in the lighthouse tower to freeze. 

An apple and an orange

Irene MacNevin was born in 1900, and said "an apple and an orange" were the exciting things in her Christmas stocking.

Children were lucky to receive much for Christmas beyond an apple, an orange and perhaps some candy in the bygone days, although some girls recall getting handmade or store-bought dolls. This photo was taken in Charlottetown about 1900. (PARO)

Sheldon Dixon from North Tryon recalled receiving an orange and an apple too, as well as a small gauze bag of cream candy. Others said ribbon candy was a highlight.

"We just got one thing for Christmas," said Isobel MacRae, recalling she got "a nice pair of slippers, and I thought that was pretty good." She said her family made their own toys and "made our own fun."  

"We had more fun than any kids, I'm sure," added here sister Evelyn.

The MacRaes also recalled apples and oranges and nuts and raisins in their stockings.

Presents were practical

Pansy Reid lived to be 100 years old. Born Pansy Myers in 1898 in Millview, she grew up down the road in New Perth and Brudenell. Her father was a blacksmith and a country vet, and he was good with animals — even reindeer, it seemed.

Hilda MacDonald was born Hilda MacPhee in Selkirk, the youngest of 10 children. (Dutch Thompson)

"We all waited for Santa Claus — we'd hear him on the roof," Reid said. She never did see those reindeer, but says she heard them. 

"Christmas morning was a big time, you'd be up early, see what's in your stockings, I guess wake everybody up. I used to get a doll and some fruit and candies. A little basket with pretty things in it and things like that, it wasn't too bad."

Kay Wood from Victoria was one of a family with five girls and three boys — the presents she remembers were practical.

"It was usually a pencil box or something like that we could use, crayons or something like that."

'Dad always got the tree the night before'

Christmas trees weren't all that common on P.E.I. until the last 75 years or so. Most Islanders did not have Christmas trees growing up.

Kay Wood, as a young woman and in her later years, recalls being excited to get schools supplies for Christmas, and says she didn't have a Christmas tree until she was married. (CBC)

Dutch speculates that might have something to do with so many Islanders having Scottish roots, and the big holiday in Scotland is New Year's. Christmas trees are an English custom popularized by George III, who became king of England in 1761 and was from Germany (he was Queen Victoria's grandfather).

"We never had a tree. I think my mother was a little afraid it might go afire — with that many children under her feet!" recalled Kay Wood. Trees 100 years ago were lit using real candles, since there was no electricity. 

"When I married my husband Howard Wood, we said we'd always have a Christmas tree, and we did, and I still do!" On a side note, Kay and Howard's house was the first one in Victoria to get electric power.

There was no Christmas tree in the MacPhee home either, said Hilda MacDonald.

"Hang your stockings up then, there'd be no trees," MacDonald said. "Get up before daylight in the morning, your stockings [would] be all full of everything! Oh Christmas, a great day!"

"We'd always be wondering when the Christmas tree was going up," said Mary MacRae. "And we'd get up Christmas morning and the tree'd be up and all trimmed! Dad always got the tree the night before."

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