Ah, Christmas—that celebration of light and greenery in the midst of short, cold, often grey days. We take it for granted these days but even a brief perusal of the history of Christmas reveals that the shape and character of the celebration has evolved greatly over the centuries. Since the birthdate of Christ is not actually known, the December 25 date was a compromise reached by church authorities the 4th century AD. 1 From its earliest days the Christian church co-opted even earlier pagan traditions into the celebrations, including the Roman feast of Saturnalia—a celebration of winter solstice—which peaked on December 25. 2 The by now iconic symbol of Christmas—the evergreen Christmas tree—is another example of the adaptation of pagan custom to a Christian celebration. 3
With the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, however, church reformers were anxious to eliminate the pagan trappings of official church celebrations, especially anything propagated by the Catholic Church. Christmas was banned in England in 1647 by the Puritan regime that had ousted King Charles I. “Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted Royalist slogans.” A book published in London in 1652, The Vindication of Christmas, argued against the Puritans. It noted what had already become characteristic features of Christmas celebrations, including dinner, roast apples on the fire, card playing, dances with ‘plow-boys’ and ‘maidservants,’ and carol singing. 4
It’s fitting in the context of child emigration therefore that one of the greatest revivalists of Christmas tradition was Charles Dickens, whose stories and novels exposed social injustices in 19th century Britain. Dickens’ immortal novel A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, was consistent with the rest of his works as an allegory against the excesses of industrial capitalism. His earlier novel Oliver Twist had openly exposed the brutalities of the British workhouses and orphanages and in A Christmas Carol Scrooge’s unreformed attitudes are an obvious satire of capitalist attitudes toward poverty. When asked by local gentlemen to donate to a Christmas fund for the poor, he retorts: “Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons? I help to support the establishments I have named; those who are badly off must go there.” 5
By the time Thomas J. Barnardo, Annie Macpherson, William Booth and other Christian evangelists were reaching out to the poor of London’s East End in the late 1860s, it was clear that literally thousands of people were ‘falling through the cracks’ in the workhouse system. As one of the good-hearted gentlemen soliciting from Scrooge points out, many of the poor would rather have died than gone into these bleak, punishing institutions. Barnardo was revolutionary in his belief that the poor were not irredeemable. While he likely held the common Victorian attitude that poverty was a result of ‘inherent sinfulness,’ he believed that, given a chance, the poor could improve their lot in life. And he was determined to offer their children that chance. There was a trade-off, of course: once a child entered one of his homes, he or she was considered one of ‘his’ children and it was Barnardo alone who would then decide their fate, regardless of the parents’ wishes. For those who were physically fit, this generally meant being emigrated to Canada as indentured child labourers. Yet he also established homes for ‘crippled children,’ as the disabled were then known, at a time when they were mostly abandoned by society.
Despite his high-handed approach, Dr. Barnardo seemed to have a genuine affection for children. Although his homes were run on a strictly disciplinarian and Christian model, children were given not only food, shelter and clothing but a basic education and trades training. Women in Victorian society were still subordinate to men so the girls were taught mostly household skills. Depending on the account you read of Barnardo’s Homes, the food was basic but nourishing and probably a step up from the workhouse diet. Even for working families at this time in British history the diet would have been fairly basic, with none of the variety we consider commonplace today. Thus, a Christmas dinner with roast fowl would have been for most families an incredible luxury—a genuine event to mark the year, just as Dickens depicted the Cratchit family in A Christmas Carol. Only the wealthy could have afforded such a luxurious feast at other times of the year.
Not only Dr. Barnardo but other philanthropic agencies established by churches and private individuals attempted to make Christmas a special time for the children in their care. In the annual reports of the Church of England’s Waifs and Strays Society is noted that fundraising drives sought not only basic necessities for children but also toys, books, music, etc. 6 Sadly for many children emigrated to Canada Christmas could be a lonely, Spartan affair, its celebration left to the individual whims and circumstances of the farm families they were boarded with. Most farming Canadians in the late 19th century were no better off than their working class counterparts in England. In households dominated by men or women of cruel character that could often mean a British Home Child would be required to work on Christmas Day. Their Christmas dinner might be little more than the usual daily fare of oatmeal or table scraps.
Where possible, however, Barnardo’s Homes made an effort to share the joy of the Christmas season with their wards in Canada. Great effort and expense went into Christmas celebrations at the receiving homes in Toronto, Peterborough, Winnipeg and at the Farm School in Russell, Manitoba. These celebrations would likely be attended only by those children who were newly arrived at the homes and awaiting placement with host families, or older boys and girls who could travel. Christmas at Barnardo’s in the early 1900s, according to accounts published in its official newsletter Ups and Downs, was an event designed never to be forgotten. In my research I discovered just such an account of the 1901 Christmas events celebrated in the Winnipeg and Toronto homes. The children were lavished with gifts and a sumptuous feast, and entertained with carol singing, concerts and dramatic performances. 7
Enjoy the following excerpts from the February 1902 issue of Ups and Downs, offering us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these new young Canadians just over 100 years ago. The writers were: for the boys’ event in Winnipeg, Edmund Amos Struthers, 8 manager of the Farm Home at Russell, Manitoba; and for the girls’ event in Toronto, Mrs. Emilie Owen, wife of Barnardo’s Canadian Superintendent Alfred deBrissac Owen. 9 In the true spirit of Christmas so eloquently advocated by Dickens, may it move us to generosity and kindness of spirit year round.
1. According to Wikipedia, “The earliest known reference to the date of the nativity as December 25 is found in the Chronography of 354, an illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome.”
2. “It is cosmic symbolism…which inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the southern solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the northern solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception. While they were aware that pagans called this day the ‘birthday’ of Sol Invictus (the sun), this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas, according to modern scholar S.E. Hijmans.” Source: Wikipedia.
3. “The Christmas tree is considered by some as Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship… The English language phrase ‘Christmas tree’ is first recorded in 1835 and represents an importation from the German language. The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century though many argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century.” Source: Wikipedia.
4. Source: Wikipedia.
5. “Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Superimposing his secular vision of the holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit. A prominent phrase from the tale, “Merry Christmas,” was popularized following the appearance of the story.” Source: Wikipedia.
6. Our Waifs and Strays magazine, March 1927, Vol. XXV-493; Library and Archives Canada catalogue MG281335, microfiche reel A-1167 (1925-26).
7. Ups and Downs, February 1902, ‘Manitoba Farm Notes’ by E.A. Struthers, p. 9; ‘Toronto Topics’ by Emilie G. Owen, p. 31.
8. Edmund Amos Struthers, a surveyor by profession, was manager of the Russell Farm Home for Barnardo’s from its opening in 1888 until its closure in 1909. He retired to Winnipeg where he managed the new Barnardo’s distribution home at 75 Bannerman Avenue until his death in 1935. Source: Memorable Manitobans, http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/struthers_ea.shtml
9. Ups and Downs, February 1902, ‘Toronto Topics’ by Emilie G. Owen, p. 31.
NOTE: While as a historian it is not my habit to rely heavily on a single source, in this case the Wikipedia entry for Christmas is heavily annotated and supported by respectable sources.