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Traditionally, Christmas celebrates the Nativity of Jesus Christ. It was only in the fourth century, however, that December 25 was chosen to celebrate Christmas as a substitute for the pagan feasts celebrating the Winter Solstice. In the 5th century, under Pope Gregory the Great, midnight mass was already being celebrated; by the 7th century the custom of celebrating three masses had appeared.
Christmas celebrations spread across Europe in the early Middle Ages, reaching Ireland in the 5th century, England in the 7th century, Germany in the 8th century, Scandinavia in the 9th century and the Slavonic countries between the 9th and 11th centuries. The first crèches appeared in Italian churches in the 15th century. By the 17th century these were widespread.
Early in its history Christmas was an embattled holiday in England and America, distrusted by the Puritanical Protestant churches which saw it as a Catholic invention out of keeping with true Christian practice. Following the Parliamentary victory in the English Civil War the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations in England, provoking riots by the holiday’s supporters. Similar bans came into effect in parts of New England.
In Catholic New France, however, Christmas was condoned by the Church and enjoyed particular sentimental and spiritual importance among the early settlers and missionaries. Télésphore St. Pierre’s Histoire des Canadiens du Michigan et du comté d'Essex, Ontario offers a brief account of an early Christmas celebration in the Great Lakes region of New France (present-day Michigan) in 1675:
Christmas in French Canada has traditionally revolved around the veillée de Noël and réveillon: after the Christmas midnight mass, family members gathered together to share a large dinner with turkey, meat pies and other dishes, usually including the buche de Noël or Chistmas log for desert.
This illustration from Library and Archives Canada depicts a French Canadian village returning home after the midnight mass:
The Canadian Agricultural Library collection, accessible through the Canadiana Discovery Portal, includes transcripts to a series of weekly radio broadcasts from the 1930s. On December 13, 1934, the Dominion Department of Agriculture aired a show promoting the Christmas Turkey and declared: “To most Canadians, a Christmas dinner without a turkey would hardly be a Christmas dinner at all. A real Canadian graded turkey, when dressed, stuffed, and roasted to a rich brown will assist considerably in radiating the joyous spirit of Christmas and result in such a feeling of satisfaction after dinner that this will elude expression in mere words.”
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) helped to reinvent Christmas as a popular seasonal holiday and inspired much Christmas-themed fiction. Contes de Noël is a book of tales written by Joséphine Marchand-Dandurand and published in Montreal in 1889 with a preface by renowned poet Louis Fréchette. Madame Dandurand was herself well known in the 19th century for her writing advocating women’s rights.
Christmas trees have been traced back to 1521 in Alsace, but it was only in 1781 and the American Revolutionary War that this German tradition found its way to Canada. The first Canadian Christmas tree was set up in Sorel, Quebec by the wife of General von Reidesel, commander of a British garrison in Canada which included many German soldiers. However, the practice did not enter Canadian custom until the Victorian Age when it spread to the rest of Canada and the United States, but mainly within higher society families. It was only during the 1920s that Christmas trees began to appear in urban homes, then in country homes in the 1930s.
The Christmas tree in this 1878 Illustrated News image is adorned with toy soldiers and drums and appears to be crowned with the Canadian Red Ensign flag:
In a 19th century whose sensitivity to social and economic misfortune was rudimentary at best – the poor were expected to better their lot through thrift and hard work – Christmas promoted a rare message of charity towards the less fortunate. L’Opinion publique of December 31, 1874 contrasts the different realities of Christmas for the rich and the poor:
By the late 19th century the Christmas season had taken on the tremendous commercial and economic importance it continues, for better or worse, to enjoy to this day. This December 23, 1876 Canadian Illustrated News article depicts an upper-class home decorated with garlands on Christmas Eve:
Santa Claus is a folkloric figure of Germanic origin whose modern image as a gift-giving Christmas personality dates back to the 19th century. The most influential representation of Santa Claus was an 1863 illustration by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly whose depiction of a jolly, bearded old man found echoes with many Canadian illustrators.
On this 1875 Christmas Day Canadian Illustrated News cover, the traditional British “Father Christmas” figure appears with all the trappings of the modern Santa Claus – right down to reindeer-drawn sleigh!
Scholars have debated the connection between Santa Claus and his Dutch predecessor, Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, who presides over the Feast of Saint Nicholas in Dutch tradition. The two figures are treated interchangeably in the Illustrated News of December 23, 1878:
This 1885 illustration depicts Santa Claus on a rare clean-shaven day:
By 1889 Santa is truly “the children’s friend” as he fulfills his familiar mission:
By the late 19th century, advances in cartography and communications allowed Canadian children to track Santa’s movements with a great degree of precision. In “The Triumph of Science” (Le Samedi), young Tommie explains: "I sure know my geography! You see, when Santa has nothing to do he retires to the North Pole. Several days before Christmas, he takes this route; there, you see it? Then he goes to Notre-Dame church to report to the Baby Jesus during the midnight mass and, on New Year's Eve, he'll bring us all the presents the Baby Jesus said!"
The Canadiana Discovery Portal contains several audio clip records including the two traditional French Canadian hymns below:
Noël des bergers (1920?) is sung by Joseph Saucier, who is believed to be the first French-Canadian artist to make a recording in Canada (circa 1904).
If you prefer something a bit more light-hearted, you might enjoy Noël tout blanc (1940?) by José Lasalle. Lasalle was the stage name of Roland Lebrun, better known in Quebec as "soldat Lebrun." Though perhaps forgotten today, he was extremely popular in Quebec in the early 1940s.