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Old Time Customs
Memories and Traditions and Other Essays
Christmas Scenes


IT IS the evening tide of December 24th, 1837—the year in which "Victoria the Good" came to the British throne. It is Sunday evening; the morrow is Christmas, and some preparation must be made for its due observance. But first things first:

And so all gather around the ingle - father, mother and children. But why should this scene of joyful anticipation of things to come be mingled with alloy of sadness. Mark the tear that trickles down the furrowed cheek of her who with maternal pride looks on the seven who will some day rise up and call her blessed? Ah! One is not, and this is a broken circle that now foregathers around the hearth stone. The mother's eyes rest on the vacant chair. But the Comforter whispers softly—"He is not dead! He fell asleep in Jesus, breathing sweetly—"Praise the Lord ."

And now the husband and father takes the book wherein is record of births and deaths on the pages provided for this purpose between the Old Testament and the New.

"And `Let us worship God' he says with solemn air.
They chant their notes with simple guise;
And tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim."

Then turning to the Gospel of Luke he reads the story of how Jesus, taking our nature, was born in a manger, and how the Shepherds, while watching their flocks by night, were visited by an angel sent by God. Supposing that he was a messenger of evil, the shepherds were alarmed, but he spoke to them in kindly words—"Fear not; for I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord." Then, suddenly, there appeared a heavenly host praising God and saying—"Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men."

The father now briefly narrates the death of Jesus:

"How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed;
He who bore in heaven the second name
Had not on earth whereon to lay his head."

Then, on bended knee, they close the service with thanksgiving to the Father God in heaven for His wondrous love manifested in the gift of His Son Christ the Saviour and in supplication for that other Comforter to guide them into all truth, and to the better land.

Then follows brief converse and questioning on that wonderful digest of Bible truth which tells us "what we are to believe concerning God and what duties God requires of man."

It may be interesting to know that the edition of this catechism most favored by the young learner was that old time square page pamphlet known as "The New England Primer." In these days this memorable booklet is seldom seen, and its face and make up are almost forgotten. Probably prepared as a First Reader, it began with the alphabet, followed by the a b abs and the b a bas; and then by the capitals, each letter having a quaint picture illustrative of a riming couplet. For example with A, B and C we find the following:

A In Adam's fall
   We sin-ned all.
B My Book and Heart
   Shall never part.
C The Cat doth play
   And after slay.

And so on to Z which is honored with a triplet,

Z Zaccheus he
   Did climb the tree
   His Lord to see.

Then followed a Catechism for very young people, as

Who was the first man?
Who was the first woman?
Where did Adam and Eve dwell?

Other contents were "The Lord's Prayer." "Now I lay me down to sleep," "The Apostle's Creed," "John Rogers, the First Martyr in Queen Mary's Reign," "The Shorter Catechism," "Dialogue between Christ, Youth and the Devil."

All hearts are now overflowing with cheer, and ready hands make preparation for the great Christmas Holiday. Notably must be put in place the Christmas back-log—the largest and chief foundation of the roaring fire on whose efficiency depends the most important elements of the Christmas dinner. Putting in the back-log usually made some stir as well as some smoke in the kitchen. The half-consumed sticks were removed from the fire-place, the andirons were set aside, and the ashes were drawn forward. The log was then rolled into proper position hard to the rear, and the smaller sticks, beginning with the brands and the kindling, were built up in front with proper adjustment on the replaced andirons. The smoke clears away and order is restored. Meanwhile others had twisted a long cord from the coarser fibres of home-grown flax, for suspending the Christmas roast before the fire on the morrow. And now the stockings were hung up, and the hour had come when Santa Claus had sole right of way. So old and young seek repose in balmy sleep.

This is Christmas! Cheery voices ring through the house—"Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!" But what about Santa Claus? Did he come?" Yes! Yes! Good old fellow!" What followed, you, my reader, can easily guess.

When breakfast was over immediate attention is given to the piece de resistance. Whatever it may be—turkey, goose, cut of beef, or perchance, young pig,—attached to one end of the flaxen cord, the other end of which is tied to a large beam immediately over the hearth, it is suspended in front of the fire. That the process of cooking may go on evenly on all sides, the roast must be kept ever on the whirl, bringing all parts in turn to the direct rays of heat. The impetus for this circular movement is given by some person in constant attendance. Then to avoid catastrophe—that is to keep the cord from being untwisted and falling to pieces with consequent disaster to the roast, the whirling must be now in the direction of the hop vine and now in that of the scarlet runner. Thus goes on apace the roast and the varied accompaniments.

Meanwhile we shall leave this essential feature of a "Merry Christmas" to the cook and take in a side show with the boys.

The Canadian rebellion of 1837-8 was then at the climax. The small boys of the family had been interested in the progress of the story as it had been told in the columns of that pioneer Halifax newspaper the Acadian Recorder, whose old time face, peculiar folding and crooked head-lettering made on the youthful mind a picture never to be deleted.

Well, these same boys were intensely loyal—almost too much so. Having little knowledge of aristocratic tory government by "The Family Compact" of that day, which had given rise to the rebellion, they held in bitter execration the rebels Papineau and MacKenzie. And so from blocks of wood they had fashioned in effigy these leaders in the forefront of the popular movement—rebellion or reform, one may call it, according to the point of view from which it is regarded. The boys called it high treason. In this judgment the court agreed, and the traitors against country and Crown were sentenced to be hanged between the hours of 9 and 10 on Christmas morning. The execution was now carried out in due form,—Papineau and MacKenzie were hanged from a projecting log in the wood pile. A characteristic of such events, however, was lacking—there was no thronging of the streets by a concourse of people from far and near to witness the event.

In the evening interest centered around the parlor hearth. Pater familias tells the oft repeated story of his early exploits while home-making was going on in the forest—which even then was so near that the voice of the hooting owl could often be heard at the twilight hour when he awakened from his all day sleep. The story was told of the first clearing in the forest, of the wigwam near the brook, of the stone heap on which the bed of fir boughs was made, of exploits in hunting the bears that killed the sheep and of the foxes that came to the very door to prey on the poultry. Nor did the tale forget to describe the piling frolic and the jovial scene that followed it in the evening after the work was done. Or it may be that the evening was prolonged by tales of ghosts and apparitions until every shadow on the wall seemed to be a visitor from the spirit world.

The most sacred spot in all the house was the hearth. In our homes of the present day we seldom have such a place, nor if we had, do we know what it meant to those who preceded us in the long ago. There is in this profane age of ours no holy place—all places being alike common. There is no central spot around which to form the family circle, where under the inspiration of the gloaming, we rehearse old time legends, while the dancing shadows on the wall behind us keep time with the flickering light gleaming from the open fire. What fondly cherished memories have some of us of such a circle with its beautiful picture of father, mother, brothers and sisters of varied age and stature—a circle as yet unbroken by the relentless hand that severs affection's strongest bonds. In the present day we are so engrossed by concerns that appeal to sense that we scarcely believe there is a spirit world or a never ending hereafter.

In fancy we still hear the outside driving wind, the drifting snow and the rattling hail against the window pane, by contrast emphasizing the comfort, the peace, the joy within, as yet untouched by forecast of rift.

The family to-day consists of disjecta membra—scattered members, one here, another there, so that the very term "family circle" is itself a relic of the past age. With the old Romans the hearth was the shrine where dwelt the penates and the lares—the household gods—spirits of departed ancestors who lingered around the home, keeping guard over its inmates from generation to generation. Why should it not be so? Is this thought too strange for you? Shall we say that such a sentiment is a mere idle fancy or superstition of ill-balanced minds? Why may we not believe that the spirits of our departed dear ones, though they speak to us in no voice audible to the fleshly ear, appear to us in no form visible to the eye of sense, yet love to linger around the home they once inhabited, watching over and guarding those who now occupy these homes? If you cannot sympathize with such a thought, allow those of keener apprehension, to whom God whispers in the ear to cherish the thought that the dear ones with whom they once held sweet converse and fellowship are still near them as God's messengers sent forth to minister to them in times of joy and of sorrow, seeming to say:

"There is no death! An angel form
Walks through the earth with silent tread;
He bears our best loved things away,
And then we call them dead.

"And ever near us, though unseen,
The dear immortal spirits tread;
For all the boundless universe
Is life:—There is no dead!"
—Lord Lytton.


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