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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter VI - Social Life


THE winters on the Red River are undeniably long, though as land cultivation has extended (so some state as the reason) they are less severe than formerly. But when people can point to the magnificence of the root and cereal crops as resultant in some measure from the depth to which the ground freezes in the winter time, they are not disposed to quarrel with the course of nature: In the early days the problem of how to while away the long winter, when little work beyond the feeding of stock had to be done, was much in evidence, but generally found solution. The nearness of the houses to one another was conducive to much freedom in the interchange of social visits, and stands out in marked contrast to the isolation of people on square farms in the thinly populated districts; "The latch-string was always. on the outside," and as for locks they were practically as much unknown as in Acadia, "home of the happy," of whose people it is said:

"Neither locks had they to their doors, nor bars to their windows;
But their dwellings were open as day and the hearts of the owners."

Hospitality was unbounded, and as no caste or color lines were drawn, not only was the white friend made welcome, but the belated Indian, still far from his wigwam, was sure of a good supper and the warm corner by the chimney as a couch for his innocent sleep. Such things as calling cards were unheard of, and except in the evening time even knocking at the door was dispensed with by near neighbors. The older people delighted principally in long talks to gether, ofttimes doubtless of the dangers they had passed. Legends of their ancestors far and near, with the struggles of their Fatherland for civil :and religious freedom, were recounted proudly and thankfully, and as I, the youngest child of the family, was generally in the "old folks" group when these tales were told, there was "poured into my veins a Scottish prejudice which shall never cease to boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest." I suppose Eutychus found Paul’s sermon too long because he took no interest in the subject, but it was a farewell sermon, and the last words between people of kindred heart never seem to be enough. Hence it was that these old people. never seemed in a hurry to part, and that the way in which they lingered in saying good-night sometimes amused the younger folks who could not enter into their feelings. It is but little more than ten years gone by since my father bowed his grey head to meet the coming of the Lord, and on the day of his funeral one of the few survivors, of that early band stood with me beside the coffin and looked upon that worn face marked amidst its massive strength with the deep lines of suffering and toil. And as he stood there, that aged man (Donald Murray by name.), with tears streaming down his own deeply furrowed cheeks said, indicating the body of my father, "It’s seventy years since Robert and I have been friends together." Threescore years and ten! What a retrospect! and across what a rugged plain of hard experience! I knew then in the light of that statement how those long talks and slow leave-takings were to wear in my memory henceforth a halo of sacredness, as I would see those two, who had clung together during the long years and fought their trials with the splendid valor of their race and a noble faith in God, standing where the ways parted down near the sunset of life. Amidst such scenes as these the old survivors of the colony waited for the end undisturbed by the newer conditions beginning to obtain around them.

The younger people had in the winter time their social gatherings and their literary and other meetings. The question of dancing is much discussed in the abstract, and we are not going to enter upon a discussion here, but the dancing of those days in a simple and pure state of society was practically as much an outlet for the physical exuberance as were the games of ball, etc., in the summer, and no more harmful morally so far as we know. Round dances had not come in, and the reels, strathspeys, etc., were a test of physical endurance as well as of skill, A special dance known as the "Red River jig" we have never seen any one but a native of the country do to perfection. The music was always the violin played to the vigorous accompaniment of the foot, and we have known men carry with them an extra pair of moccasins, so that when one pair was worn out on the rough floor they might not be at a loss. New Year’s Day calling was much in vogue, and without any impartiality every house in the settlement was visited. It was a great day for the Indians, who in bands, firing off their shot-guns occasionally, went from house to house,, and were feasted, to a dangerous degree. The New Year’s dinner was a feature in every house, and the skilled makers of plum-pudding displayed their talent without stint. In the evening many social parties were held as a close to a busy day.

The "oft-told tale" was doubtless repeated in effective ways, for "marrying: and giving in marriage" became the order of many a day. All efforts at "surprise weddings" were rendered futile by the necessity of publishing the banns in church, and the parties had all the celebrity that this public disclosure of their plans could give them. Invitations were given verbally from house to house, generally by the bride’s father. Marriages, were as a rule celebrated in the church, and all the guests drove there often to the accompaniment of shot-gun salutes of honor by the way. This drive to and fro was par excellence the time for displaying fast horses, whose decking in gay ribbons called "wedding favors;" took up more attention than the adornment of the person. The speediest horses were secured for such occasions. We have known men go long distances to secure some noted horse, and consternation reigned when it leaked out that some one had secured so and so’s "Charlie" or "Tom." for the wedding. On the way home speeding could be indulged in to any extent, with one well-defined limitation, namely, that no one was to pass the bridal party on pain of social ostracism. On the Sabbath succeeding the wedding the "kirking" took place, the bridal party and "best young people" in all their wedding bravery of millinery driving together with their gaily decked horses to church and there occupying a special pew. When the groom brought his bride to his ancestral mansion, a "home wedding" was given with practically the same amount of social function as had attended the ceremony of the marriage. As a general thing the dowry was not large when the people were poor, but in addition to the outfitting such as the custom required a few choice cows were driven over to the bridegroom’s farm as a nucleus for future wealth in flocks and herds.


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