Christmas in Canada
Christmas is celebrated in various ways in contemporary Canada. In particular, it draws form the French, British and American traditions. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it had become the biggest annual celebration and had begun to take on the form that we recognize today.
While Christmas is generally defined as the Christian celebration (see Christianity) of the birth of Jesus, the festival has complex origins and ambiguous non-religious resonances. The origin of the name Christmas is the Old English Crïstes mæsse, "Christ's mass." The French Noël derives from the Latin Dies Natalis, "Day of Birth."
Why is Christmas on the 25th of December?
Whatever the origins of the festival that is held on the 25th of December, it cannot be the celebration of the actual birth date of Jesus. That date is unknown. So while Christmas is the day on which the birth of Jesus is celebrated, the day chosen seems more related to the many festivals that mark the winter solstice, most of which in Roman or Celtic times predate the birth of Jesus. While it cannot be said that these festivals are the origin of Christmas, they have left their legacy not only in the time of year, but also in many of its symbols and traditions.
Winter solstice festivities of course celebrated renewal and the return of light, a perfect complement to the birth of Christ, which, according to the Christian faith, brought light into the world to dispel the darkness of sin and radiate the love of God. In the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice occurs everywhere at the same time between 20 and 23 December, based on the Gregorian calendar, but local time may be on 21 December in Western Canada and 22 December in Eastern Canada.
The Pagan Antecedents to Christmas
Solstice festivals, marking the low point of the sun, the shortest day of the year, the time from which days will lengthen and hopes for light and warmth will reappear, have been celebrated perhaps for millennia in northern climates, where winters are more severe.
One of these festivals, the Roman solar feast of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, may have a strong claim as the origin of our late December date for Christmas. This solar cult reached its climax under Emperor Aurelian (270-275). Later Christians, eg, Chrysostom in the 4th century, made a connection of this festival with the birth of Jesus: "if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice."
Also in Roman times, Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored with a festival. The Saturnalia was officially celebrated on 17 December and, in Cicero's time, lasted seven days, from 17 to 23 December. In the Roman calendar, the Saturnalia was designated a holy day, on which religious rites were performed. But it was also the most popular holiday of the Roman year, an occasion for visits to friends, for drinking, and for the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles, perhaps to signify the return of light after the solstice. The Saturnalia continued to be celebrated down to the Christian era, when, by the middle of the fourth century AD, its festivities had become absorbed in the celebration of Christmas.
In North America, some First Nations also held winter ceremonies and festivals as a time for regeneration and introspection. Some, such as the Iroquoian groups, held week-long festivals at mid-winter, with the time determined by observing the moon and stars. It eventually came to be associated with the winter solstice. Typical practices, some of which continue to this day, were healing rituals, making tobacco offerings, prayer and ceremonial drumming and dancing.
Early Christian Dates for Christmas
Some of the earliest records for the celebration of the birth of Jesus come from Alexandria, Egypt. Several scholars, dating back to Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 AD), have attempted to determine the exact date of Jesus' birth. The date has yet to be determined, but Clement notes that Epiphany and the Nativity were celebrated on 10 or 6 January, indicating that some sort of consensus was reached. The commemorations became popular in Egypt between 427 and 433. At the end of the fourth century, in Cyprus Epiphanius asserts that Jesus was born on 6 January and baptized on 8 November.
In Jerusalem in the fourth century the Birth and Baptism were still combined in a single event. There is a record of Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) writing to Pope Julius I (337-352), declaring that his clergy cannot, on this single feast, make a double procession to Bethlehem and Jordan. He asks Julius to assign the true date of the nativity based on the census documents brought by Titus to Rome, and Julius assigns 25 December. But Julius died in 352, and by 385 Cyril still had not made the change.
Hence there were precedents when Pope Liberius I (reigned 353-356) preached a sermon at St. Peter's, instituting the Nativity feast in December. By the end of the fourth century the feast was established, and every Western calendar assigned it to 25 December. The new date reached Constantinople by 379. In the Western church, Epiphany is usually celebrated as the time the Magi, or Wise Men, arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Epiphany, also called Twelfth Day, is typically celebrated on 6 January, culminating the observance of Twelfth Night on 5 January. Since Eastern Orthodox traditions use a different religious calendar, they celebrate Christmas on 7 January and observe Epiphany, or Theophany, on 19 January (see Orthodox Church).
The Second Council of Tours proclaimed, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the "twelve days" from Christmas to Epiphany and the duty of fasting on particular days of Advent (period beginning on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew, on 30 November, and including four Sundays) to prepare for the celebration of Jesus' birth. Fasting was forbidden on Christmas Day and eventually popular merry-making so overwhelmed the religious aspects that the "Laws of King Cnut," c. 1110, ordered a fast from Christmas to Epiphany.
The Christmas tree, along with the Nativity scene is the chief physical symbol of Christmas across Canada in homes, businesses and public spaces (see Fir). The tree is a symbol of evergreen, of life, of magical powers in deepest winter. Varieties of evergreen boughs adorned homes and temples during solstice festivals across the Roman Empire. Pagan German tribes as well set up fir trees in their homes to welcome the domestic goddess of home and hearth. Coniferous Trees as a strong symbol of eternal life and longevity acquired a parallel symbolism with the feast of Christmas, despite the futile attempts of the Christian Church to ban their use.
Historical evidence for the decoration of trees at Christmas dates from Riga, Latvia (1510) on Christmas Eve. Descriptions of German Christmas trees date to 1531 in Alsace and 1605 in Strasbourg, where the firs were decorated with paper roses as symbols of the Virgin, along with apples, candy and pretzels. Gifts for children were placed among the branches. Popular legend attributes the custom of lighting the trees with candles to Martin Luther (1483-1546), who supposedly used the candles to symbolize the stars he saw on a clear Christmas Eve.
In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert's childhood in Germany. The custom spread to almost every home in Britain, where trees were decorated with candles, candy, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts. Whatever its origin the custom gained wide popularity over the next 200 years.
Christmas Trees in Canada
The first Christmas tree in North America appeared on Christmas Eve 1781, in Sorel, Québec, when the baroness Riedesel hosted a party of British and German officers. She served an English pudding, but the sensation of the evening was a balsam fir cut for the occasion and placed in the corner of the dining room, its branches decorated with fruits and lit with white candles. The baroness was determined to mark her family's return to Canada after a trying ordeal with a traditional German celebration (see German Canadians).
Baron Frederick-Adolphus Riedesel was commander of a group of German soldiers sent by the Duke of Brunswick to help defend Canada. Riedesel and his family were taken prisoner during the disastrous British offensive in northern New York in 1777. They were not released until 1780, when they returned to Sorel.
It is commonly said that the Christmas tree's popularity dates from the time of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, who decorated a tree at Windsor Castle in 1841 to celebrate their first-born son. However, though Albert may have popularized the Christmas tree, the English royal family had been decorating trees since at least 1800 when Queen Charlotte raised one at Queen's Lodge, Berkshire. The tradition only gained popularity among the general population after the illustration of the family's decorated tree at Windsor Castle was published in 1848.
The first time a Christmas tree was lit by electricity was in 1882 in the New York City home of Edward Johnson, of the Edison Electric Company. He lit a Christmas tree with a string of 80 small electric light bulbs, which he had made himself. These strings of light began to be produced around 1890. One of the first electrically lit Christmas trees was erected in Westmount, Québec, in 1896. In 1900, some large stores put up illuminated trees to attract customers.
Today the Christmas tree is a firmly established tradition throughout Canada, where the fresh scent of the evergreen and the multicoloured decorations contrast with the dark nights and bleak landscape. Beyond its pagan and Christian origins, the Christmas tree is a universal symbol of rebirth, of light in the darkest time, of hovering angels, and of the star that points to the place of peace (see also Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree).
Christmas Tree Industry in Canada
Christmas tree production in Canada is a profitable enterprise, the value of freshly cut Christmas trees an estimated $65 million annually (domestic and foreign sales). About 1.8 million trees are exported annually, primarily to the United States. All provinces export Christmas trees, except Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The province of Québec exports the highest number of Christmas trees to the United States, at 827,863 trees (2008). The value of trees exported from Canada in 2008 was $34.2 million. In contrast, the value of artificial Christmas trees imported to Canada that year was $46.9 million, the vast majority from China.
Tree farming is primarily concentrated in Québec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario. British Columbia, too, plays an important role in the fresh cut Christmas tree industry. Christmas tree farms in the other provinces account for just over 10% of total Canadian producers.
Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
Popularly accepted as the predecessor to Santa Claus, there is scarcely anything historically certain about Saint Nicholas (died 6 December, 345 or 352). According to tradition, or legend, he was born at Parara, in what is today southern Turkey. He made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine in his youth, became Bishop then Archbishop of Myra and was imprisoned during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians. He died in Myra and was buried in his church, where it is said manna (pure water with healing powers and in this case a religious relic) formed in his grave, fostering the growth of devotion to him. In 1087 Italian merchants removed his remains from Myra, and brought them to Bari in Southern Italy.
Stories of Saint Nicholas's acts of charity made him a patron saint of mariners, merchants, bakers, travellers and children in numerous countries from Greece and Russia to Germany and the Netherlands. In Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, he was believed to be the secret purveyor of gifts to children on 6 December, the day on which the Church celebrates him and supposedly the date of his death. In Europe it became a custom for people to place nuts, apples, and sweets in shoes left beside beds, on windowsills, or before the hearth on his day.
It is a popular notion that these traditions of charity and gift giving surrounding Saint Nicholas were brought to the United States by the Dutch when they founded New Amsterdam (New York). By the early 19th century, the character was depicted more as a convivial Dutch burgher than a saintly bishop, and his name had been corrupted from the original Dutch dialect Sante Klaas into Santa Claus. The legend grew with the wide popularity of Washington Irving's satirical fiction, Knickerbocker's History of New York (1809), with its numerous references to a jovial St. Nicholas character. Overtones from references to the Scandinavian god of war, Thor, added an airborne chariot pulled by goats, which were transformed into a sleigh with flying reindeer. The appearance of an anonymous poem in 1823, now known as "The Night Before Christmas" confirmed jolly old St Nick in the Christmas celebrations as an elfin figure with "a little round belly/That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly."
The image of Santa Claus was definitively set during the Civil War in a series of black-and-white and coloured drawings by political cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, buckled shoes, a red coat, fur, sleigh and reindeer.
Santa's physically challenging task of delivering his gifts personally while climbing up and down chimneys may have been suggested by a Scandinavian or German tradition of preparing altars and fires of fir boughs to entice the Norse goddess of home, to descend through fire and bring good fortune.
While these traditions of family, charity, the goodness of children and jollity have combined to make the Santa legend endure, its popularity has inevitably been commercialized. The most famous example occurred in 1931 when the Coca-Cola Company appropriated Santa as a shill. Today in Canada as in the United States and now much of the world, children are encouraged to "believe" in Santa Claus as a gift-giving benefactor, and he is a fixture on television, in movies and in books, and in the celebration of Christmas.
The Origins of Modern Christmas in Canada
The Christmas that is celebrated in its various ways in contemporary Canada is very Canadian in one way - that is, it is not only the product of French, British and American traditions, but of many others as well. The time frame for the origins of this modern Christmas is fairly clear, when it is considered that Christmas was hardly celebrated at the beginning of the 19th century. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, it had become the biggest annual celebration and had begun to take on the form that we recognize today.
Christmas was essentially a religious festival in the early days of New France. In 1645, French colonists gathered together in a church in Québec City to attend midnight mass and began to sing Chantons Noé, an old Christmas carol that they had brought from France. The procession of the Christ Child and display of the crèche (a physical representation of the Nativity) were primary activities.
Early Christmas Among the First Nations
The earliest mention of the celebration of Christmas by First Nations dates back to 1641. Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary who lived among the Huron of Georgian Bay from 1626, composed a Christmas carol, "Jesous Ahatonhia" or the "Huron Carol," in their language telling the story of the birth of Jesus. Father Brébeuf adapted his story, written in verse, to the distinctive characteristics of the Aboriginal culture. Thus the Infant Jesus was wrapped in rabbit skin rather than linen and slept in a lodge of broken bark rather than a manger. Hunters replaced the shepherds and, in a final touch, three First Nations chiefs stood in for the Wise Men and, in place of gold, frankincense and myrrh, offered fur pelts to the holy Child.
The "Jesous Ahatonhia" (Jesus is born) of Jean de Brébeuf survived as Huron descendants, who settled in Lorette near Québec City, passed it down the generations. Today the Huron, like many other First Nations, continue to celebrate the Nativity as well as the festival of Saint Anne (July 26), the grandmother of Jesus, whom they venerate as their patron saint.
The Victorian Origins of Modern Christmas
In Canada, by the 1870s, Christmas had lost much of its religious character, at least in English Canada and among the upper middle class in French Canada. The holiday became a community and family festival. Customs, such as the decorated Christmas tree, gift-giving and the Christmas réveillon (the "awakening") became part of family tradition.
By the end of the 19th century, most of the familiar attributes of the modern Christmas, including Santa Claus, Yule logs, holly and mistletoe, carol singing and Christmas trees, were popular. Many attribute the change to Queen Victoria, and claim that it was her marriage to the German-born Prince Albert that introduced some of the most familiar aspects of Christmas. British immigrants naturally brought these practices to Canada. These new practices were incorporated into Francophone culture much later, after the First World War, with the increase in commercial advertising. By the 1930s, the working classes of both language groups had joined the Christmas "rush."
The first Christmas card dates from 1843 in England, commissioned by Henry Cole. The illustration showed a family around a dinner table and featured a Christmas homily. Though expensive at first, the sentiment caught on and many children were encouraged to make their own Christmas cards. As printing and postage costs dropped, the Christmas card industry took off. Millions were sold every year in Canada until recently, but this is one tradition that is threatened, as electronic greetings via email, e-cards and Social media wishes replace the printed versions.
Another contribution of Victorian England to Christmas was the cracker. Inspired by French bon bons ‒ sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper ‒ British confectioner Tom Smith invented the Christmas cracker, which snapped when pulled apart revealing the candy inside. Small gifts and paper hats, the form we recognize today, replaced the candies in the late Victorian period.
Gift giving had traditionally been at New Year in Britain but moved as Christmas became more important to the Victorians. At first, modest gifts of fruit, nuts, sweets and trinkets were hung on the Christmas tree. Over time gifts have become more elaborate and are stored under the tree.
The roast turkey dinner also came about in Victorian Britain, replacing the older meals of beef and goose. The turkey was a perfect size for a middle-class family gathering and reflected rising incomes.
Victorians did not originate carol singing but they actively revived and popularized the custom. Old words were put to new tunes and the first significant collection of carols was published in 1833. The Christmas carol originated in the Middle Ages as Latin song, mostly about the Virgin or the saints. There were a number of types of carols sung, including the French caroles sung at court, popular religious songs such as Corpus Christi and hymns. In the 17th century the singing of carols came under stricture by the Puritans. However, popular tradition continued with carols passed on orally or in broadsheets. Many of what we consider carols were Christmas hymns, such as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Joy to the World," and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" (set to a tune by Mendelssohn). Much of what we think of as traditional carols were either collected or written by those hoping to revive older traditions in collections such as Christmas Carols Old and New (1871). The earliest Canadian carol to be published was probably "A Canadian Christmas Carol" by James P. Clarke, which was published in Anglo-Canadian Magazine in 1853 (See also Christmas Music).
All Christian nations have traditions that have become a part of the Christmas season. England contributed holly and mistletoe, carol singing, Christmas cards, much of the menu, and gift giving. The Christmas tree is a medieval German tradition and the sublime carol "Silent Night," among others, also comes from Germany. The United States first transformed St Nicholas into Santa Claus and made the major contribution to commercializing Christmas.
Canada being a multicultural nation also inherited traditions from many other regions as well. One of the richest of these is from Ukraine. Sviata Vechera, or "Holy Supper," is the central tradition of the Christmas Eve celebrations in Ukrainian homes. The meal features 12 Lenten dishes, symbolizing the 12 Apostles of the Last Supper, made without animal products. Christmas is preceded by a period of fasting to symbolize Mary's hardships on the way to Bethlehem. A few wisps of hay on the embroidered tablecloth are a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem. Many Canadian families wear their Ukrainian embroidered shirts on this occasion.
When the children see the first star in the eastern evening sky, which symbolizes the trek of the Three Wise Men, the Sviata Vechera may begin. In farming communities the head of the household now brings in a sheaf of wheat called the didukh (meaning "grandfather spirit"), which represents the importance of the rich wheat crops of Ukraine. A prayer is said and the father says the traditional Christmas greeting, Khristos rodyvsya! (Christ is born!), which is answered by the family with Slavite Yoho! (Let us glorify Him!).
Of course one of the most striking differences in the Ukrainian Christmas is its date. The Orthodox and Eastern rite churches such as the Ukrainian have maintained the Julian Calendar for ecclesiastical purposes, ignoring the reformed calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1528. The difference between the two calendars placed Christmas on January 7th in the new calendar and, because of the size of the Ukrainian church the date has become widely known as "Ukrainian Christmas." However, other smaller Eastern-rite Orthodox national churches, such as the Greek, Syrian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Byelorussian, follow the same calendar.
Traditions of Christmas in Contemporary Québec
Christmas traditions in Québec, as elsewhere in Canada, are a blend of changing traditions brought from France, unique to the region or adapted from British and American influences. In late November and early December, Christmas markets appear throughout Québec, traditionally held in the streets but now also held indoors in halls and special places, such as the Marché de la Gare de Sherbrooke and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. Artisans, long-time participants of these markets, set up stalls, often packed around a gigantic Christmas tree outside, where they display their pastries or festive decorations. Traditionally established in front of the church, these Christmas markets present the choirs and songs of the season outside and inside. One can stay warm outdoors, thanks to a fire stoked all day, and drink hot chocolate and sample other traditional treats. Choirs, both church and school, plays an integral part in the festive scene. Elementary school students practice Christmas carols, which they will introduce during a Christmas concert for their parents assembled in the school gymnasium.
Horse-drawn sleigh rides provide a magical element to the season in the countryside around cities and villages. Bundled in warm clothes and wrapped up in blankets, taking a daylight or early evening sleigh ride is an exhilarating way to observe the wintry scenery and reconnect with the Québec of yesteryear.
The réveillon (midnight meal) was traditionally enjoyed on Christmas Eve after the messe de minuit (midnight mass), which is celebrated nowadays a little earlier, towards 10:00 pm. The Christmas choir sings religious hymns that have been passed down from generation to generation. After the mass, family and friends gather for the traditional meal. Today, it is served before the mass on Christmas Eve or perhaps on Christmas Day. Traditional dishes that have been passed down from year to year are served. Turkey is on the menu, as well as cranberries, and tourtières (meat pies), house marinades and finally, la bûche (Yule log), which is "the" Christmas dessert.
The Christmas Nativity scene (crèche de Noël) still occupies a place of choice in contemporary Québec, as it does across Canada. In former times, the village children played the parts of the principals in the scene, before the assembly for midnight mass, and the most recent newborn in the village took the place of the baby Jesus.
Music holds the limelight of the evening, and contemporary artists do not hesitate to launch their Christmas albums, always inspired by the songs and the folkloric dances of old.
While the family is at mass, Père Noël visits the house to leave gifts. After the opening of the gifts, as the hearth fire dies out, visitors depart in the cold, and the household falls asleep. December 25 is a day for visiting friends, perhaps playing pick-up hockey in the neighbourhood rink and enjoying a hearty bowl of onion soup.
An old custom, now lost, is the blessing made on the morning of 1 January by the family father, who gathers his children to bless them and wish them bonne année (Happy New Year). Nowadays, the festival to mark the last day of the year and the arrival of the new one occurs among friends and family. A well-established New Year's Eve tradition is "Bye Bye," a TV broadcast that presents a humorous retrospective of the events of the year just past. As politics is a meal to the Québécois, it is the denouement of the highs and lows of the always animated political life of Québec.
La fête des Rois (Feast of the Kings, or Three Kings Day), which was traditionally marked on the first Sunday of the New Year, is still celebrated in certain families, especially those of European descent. Today it is celebrated on January 6, which is Twelfth Night. Celebrating the gifts brought to Jesus by the Magi, the fête des Rois is above all a family meal that ends this period of festivities. The galette des Rois is featured (puff pastry with frangipan filling eaten traditionally in most regions of France; in southern France the gallette is simply a brioche). It may be homemade or purchased, and contains a small item, such as a penny, but traditionally a bean. Whoever finds it is crowned the prince or the princess of the evening and receives a small present, the last for this festive season.
Performances and Entertainment
A large part of Québec traditions are popular activities and performances returning year after year. The most anticipated performance is certainly The Nutcracker ballet, presented by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens at Place des Arts in Montréal. Pure artistic enchantment, the performance of The Nutcracker rallies large and small, even teens. Of course The Nutcracker is performed across Canada every year. In 2014, performances included the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto and Hamilton, the Goh Ballet in Vancouver, the Alberta Ballet Company in Calgary and Edmonton and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Winnipeg.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts also offers a popular tradition of decorating trees. Each cultural community of Montréal sends a class to decorate a Christmas tree in its own way. Installed in the hall of mirrors in the museum, the trees speak in their own way of what Christmas is for each person.
Since 1985, capital cities throughout the country are brought together by the annual celebration of Christmas Lights Across Canada. In Canada’s Capital Region (Ottawa-Gatineau), the winter landscape glows with hundreds of thousands of multicoloured lights during the holiday season. The festivities begin with an illumination ceremony in early December and continue until early January.
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Dorothy Duncan, Feasting and Fasting: Canada’s Heritage Celebrations (2010).
Megan Durnford, Joyce Glasner, Cheryl MacDonald and Rich Mole, Christmas in Canada. A Collection of Heartwarming Legends, Tales and Traditions (2004).
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Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas (2003).
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Martyne Perrot, Le cadeau de Noël. Histoire d’une invention (2013).