Ghosts of Christmases past in Peel and beyond

While not a religious person, I love the Christmas season, and find many of its assorted traditions fascinating and enjoyable (especially Christmas trees, greenery, eggnog, and mince pies!).  A few years ago, I happened upon an extremely interesting book on the natural history of Christmas, and was captivated by the way the authors characterize the intertwined histories and complexity of the Christmas season:

“The picture perfect version of Christmas we recognize today is a Victorian invention…The Victorians gathered and knitted together myths, legends, foods, and traditions from many periods in history and an unlikely number of apparently unconnected cultures. They produced a festival built of icons and beliefs imported from five continents.”[1]

They continue, intriguingly comparing the modern-day Christmas festival to a palimpsest:

“Christmas is an ancient and complex palimpsest and we are reading traces of traditions written and re-written over centuries. A palimpsest is a manuscript or writing surface that has been used, reused, erased, or altered while retaining traces or ghosts of its earlier content.  It is a useful way of describing how people experience Christmastide, that is, as a layering of present experiences over faded pasts.”[2]

One way that we can explore the various ghosts of Christmases Past in the Peel area is by examining some of the wonderful archival records in our care. So, in a similar vein to my Halloween records post from a few years ago, I will here highlight some neat Christmas related records found across our collection, hopefully shedding a sliver of light on the history of the celebration/observance of Christmas in Mississauga, Brampton, Caledon, and beyond. Plus, some of these records are simply gorgeous, offering a feast for the eyes at this festive time of year.

Santa Claus & polar bear postcard, [ca. 1910], Betty Odlum fonds

This colourfully illustrated postcard depicts Santa Claus using a polar bear to move presents from his “depot” at the North Pole (such a depiction reminds me somewhat of scenes described in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass). The postcard was sent to and kept by Lavina Bella, the mother of Brampton resident and noted photographer Betty Odlum.

Sending postcards and folded greeting cards to family and friends was a very popular activity at Christmastime, firmly entrenched as a tradition by the 1880s. Another option for sending well-meaning messages at Christmas was via the telegraph system, and we do have some neat Christmas examples of such material as well! More on this below.

Wm. Perkins Bull Christmas telegrams [193-] and card, [192-?], Wm. Perkins Bull fonds

One of the foundational fonds in our Archives is the Wm. Perkins Bull fonds. Bull was a larger than life figure – born in Downview (Toronto), Bull was raised in Peel County (southern Chinguacousy Township, now the City of Brampton) and was a famous lawyer, businessman, and amateur historian. We hold his surviving papers and other records, including a great deal of material pertaining to his research into the history of Peel, as well as his personal correspondence.

Bull from a photographic Christmas card he sent out in the mid-1940s

While processing an accrual to his fonds a couple of years ago, I happened across two really neat Christmas related telegrams that Bull had received from friends and associates in the 1930s (at that time splitting his time between Toronto, Chicago (USA), London (U.K.), and Bartle (Cuba)). The messages themselves are routine, but the header on the paper used by Canadian National Telegraphs to print and convey the message is what drew my attention.

The first example shows what appears to be a medieval scene of men dragging a log behind them, with that log likely destined to be a “Yule Log” for a family and/or clan. Here we have a very interesting mishmash of legends – the Yule Log tradition was imported to Britain’s shores by the invading Vikings, who arrived starting in the late 700s CE. Originally a Scandinavian winter solstice based custom, a large log would be lit on fire as a part of a ceremony celebrating the lengthening of the days after the 21st of December.

Over time, this ceremony morphed into a British tradition of bringing in and lighting a Yule Log on Christmas Eve, and was for centuries one of the most important customs at Christmastime in Britain. [3] The log would have been tended to carefully, as it was considered bad luck for the log’s fire to go out before the end of the twelve days of Christmas (December 25th to January 6th).

Nowadays, most of us are more likely familiar with the cake variety of Yule Log available this time of year, but it is interesting to know what those tasty treats harken back to!

The other telegram illustration (above) shows a family gathered by the fireplace in a room decked out with Christmas greenery (including a Christmas tree and wreath), watching an older couple reading from what is likely a printed telegraph message. Very cozy!

Circling back to Christmas cards for a moment, one of the most visually appealing examples in our collection is also found in the Wm. Perkins Bull fonds:

This card (ca. 1920s?) was sent to a friend of the Bull family, and somehow ended up in the Bull family’s possession – it depicts a quintessential “Victorian” Christmas scene.

Peel Courier newspaper, Dec. 1965, RPA Newspaper collection

The Peel area has been well served by local newspapers over the years, including the Streetsville Review, the Mississauga News, the Brampton Conservator/Guardian, the Bolton/Caledon Enterprise, the Peel Gazette, and others. Another interesting (and seemingly short-lived) paper was the Peel Courier, which we do not know as much about.

Of particular interest for our purposes here, we have issue 14 (volume 1) in our holdings, being a really neat Christmas edition of the paper. Alongside current news write-ups, one also finds a range of festive advertisements, recipes, and community stories.

Here are some neat local ads from the edition, placed by businesses/groups based in Malton, Brampton, and Bramalea.

And here are some local community stories.

Finally, here are some recipes (though I have to ask: what was it about the 1960s that led to people wanting everything “jellied”?!)

Christmas in Streetsville, Dec. 1965, Al Betts fonds

I have spoken about Al Betts and his amazing photographs in a previous post, and as predicted, every time we delve into an envelope of his Streetsview Review photographic negatives we end up finding archival gold!

In a recently reviewed Betts file, we came across this black and white shot of a bungalow somewhere in the Streetsville area (now the City of Mississauga), decked out with Christmas lights. We can also see what appears to be a gloriously retro aluminum Christmas tree through the front window! Such metal trees were particularly popular between 1959 and ca. 1965, although they enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early 2000s.

Christmas cards sent to Helen Tucker, [197-], Helen Tucker fonds

Helen Tucker (1904-1998) was a peace advocate who lived in Mississauga but who travelled widely in support of her passion for world peace. Her fonds here in the Archives reflects that interest, containing, among other things, correspondence, diaries/journals, subject files, photographs, and speeches. For my purposes here, I am most interested in her correspondence series, containing as it does Christmas cards sent to her from all over the world. Here are some neat examples from the 1970s:

A Taste of Peel recipe booklet, [ca. 1980], Region of Peel Archives cookbook collection

In ca. 1980 the then Peel Museum and Art Gallery (now part of PAMA) decided to publish a compilation of recipes submitted by area residents, some being modern (late-1970s/early-1980s) recipes, with others being much older, having been passed down through families for generations.

From the booklet’s introduction:

“The purpose of this book is to show to the young and the new residents of Peel County [Peel Region] that this is an interesting and exciting place to live, and its people, both past and present, have made it so. The Peel Museum and Art Gallery is a mirror reflecting this through its collection of art and artifacts. We are aware that the daily life of a people tells the story of its development in a most revealing manner and that food and cooking are essential elements. This book is a light-hearted look at the changes over the years through its use of food, its preparation and enjoyment.”

We have made the entire volume available online, but I would like to highlight the Christmas section specifically. Here are some festive highlights:

Hopefully this brief exploration of some fun, informative, and at times quirky Christmas records in our care has lifted some spirits! 2022 was yet another challenging year, so it is my hope that everyone reading this will be able to find some time over the holiday break to rest, reflect, and recharge as we head into 2023.

Happy holidays from all of us here in the Region of Peel Archives! 

Kyle Neill, Senior Archivist

NOTES

[1] Michael Leach and Meriel Lland, A Natural history of Christmas: A Miscellany, 2014, pg. 6

[2] Ibid pg. 6

[3] Linda Clements, The Spirit of Christmas Past: Evocative memories of years gone by, 1996, pg. 35

FURTHER READING

Bernd Brunner, Inventing the Christmas Tree, 2012

Jennie Reekie, The London Ritz book of Christmas: The art and pleasures of a traditional Christmas, 1989

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