Revelstoke streets are decked for the season. Strands of Christmas lights wind up lampposts. Store window displays are in friendly competition. Cafes brew eggnog lattes and bake gingerbread cookies. The Revelstoke Secondary School band has sold plenty of seasonal wreaths, the grocery store has your pick of poinsettias, and homes are bright with Christmas lights.
It was the beginning of the 20th Century, and commercialism was on the march; religious overtones were becoming less apparent and by the time the First World War ended, Christmas was transitioning into a commercial secular holiday. International traditions including burning yule, hanging mistletoe and singing carols made their way to Canada and became incorporated into Canadian Christmas culture. Turkey replaced goose or beef, presents became more extravagant and Christmas shopping started earlier and earlier.
The history of Christmas is an intriguing one, but what are the changes and similarities between Christmas traditions of today and those of Revelstoke in the early twentieth century?
There are plenty of things that have held their place in our festive hearts. It is a time of nostalgia and tradition and of making new traditions.
The Christmas tree made its first Canadian appearance in 1781, though trees had long been utilized in pagan festivals and, from the fifteenth century, were a mainstay in German Christmas celebrations. Originally decorated with fruit and candles (more than one house fell victim to a tree fire), trees are now decorated according to the tastes of the homeowners. A wide array of ornaments and lights are available. The city of Revelstoke has intermittently had a lit tree downtown since the 1930s.
In contrast to today’s commercialism, a hundred years ago there was little mention of Christmas in papers or stores until the first of December. “The only ads in the paper in November regarding Christmas were from bakeries taking orders for Christmas cakes, which traditionally sit and age before being eaten,” explains Cathy English, curator of the Revelstoke Museum and Archives and local history buff.
Historically, Christmas celebrations were steeped in religion, and it was the churches and schools that had celebrations for the community. These celebrations often took place the week before Christmas in couple of weeks that followed. “The twelve days of Christmas actually start on Christmas eve,” says English. “They extend into January, so Christmas parties in the New Year were normal.”
Examples of post December 25th parties in Revelstoke include a memorable event on December 30, 1902, when the congregation of St. Peter’s church had a tea and dance, and a Santa deputy handed out presents to the children. Another post-Christmas celebration at the Roman Catholic Church involved sleigh rides and games.
The ‘shop local’ concept in rural communities, and embraced by many Revelstokians, hearkens back over a hundred years. The town paper of December 29, 1909 reads, “Christmas trade, although slow in the commencement, brightened up exceedingly towards Christmas eve and a large volume of business was done … The general opinion around the city is that the stock this year put in by the merchants was the best that has been seen in Revelstoke yet, the selection and quality being as good as can be secured in any big eastern house. Never was the fact more strongly demonstrated that our people should buy at home, than during the recent holidays and the merchants deserve all encouragement from the public.”
Winter celebrations hold a special place in our collective hearts, be they secular or religious, Christmas or Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Solstice celebrations or Chinese New Year. The global call for kindness and gratitude, the desire to be with family and celebrate, seems universal in its appeal. Whatever and whenever you celebrate, may your holiday season be merry and bright.
*special thanks to Cathy English
This article first appeared in the December print issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.