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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter VII - Some Peculiar Local Customs


THERE are some phases of experience that can be looked at under the heading of the social life, though they might possibly be considered with equal appropriateness in connection with the religious services of the time, and such may be the case with the matters touched upon in this chapter. The wide-reaching import of the sacrament of Baptism we sometimes think is not sufficiently understood in some quarters in our time, and this may be due somewhat to the lack of solemnity noticeable in its celebration. In the early days the settlers on the Red River, in their social life and their service of worship, made much of it. Parents, except in cases of sickness, always presented their children for baptism in the church at the regular forenoon service. Of course, there was a certain amount of preparation beforehand that partook somewhat of the frivolities of this world. The "christening robe" (the word survived from a former ecclesiastic connection) was a matter of much concern, and any specially good one, hand-embroidered, etc., was passed around from one family to another in the succeeding generations. It was well understood that the sacrament meant much more than the giving of a name to the child; nevertheless the name was not by any means without great importance. The practice of naming the child "after" some one was in vogue, and led sometimes to dilemmas and difficulties. For instance, when two or more near relatives on either side were to be . considered, the parents were in serious straits lest they should give offence to the one or the other. -The difficulty had to be faced, and the danger braved, or else the child had to be encumbered with a string of names such as only foreign princes can boast, and we have even known, an irate friend or relative mollified by the promise, that on a similar occasion in the future he or she should not be overlooked. Another of the difficulties resulting from the now (fortunately) almost obsolete custom of "naming" was not only the duplicating but the quadruplicating of names in the one neighborhood. The people got over that part of the trouble by introducing the use of "nick-names," derived either , from personal characteristics or by prefixing or affixing some ancestral family name. This was well enough for the people themselves who knew locally "Black Sandy." and "Red Sandy," but since people at a distance did not know these fine shades of distinction, the primitive postoffice or the mail-carrier confronted "confusion worse confounded" when a letter came addressed to a name owned by half a dozen different people in the parish. The difficulty was generally solved by some one of the name opening it, and if it was not for him he passed it on till the right party was reached. A "christening feast" often followed the "bapteezment of the bairn" (on a week-day of course), to this the numerous relatives and friends were asked.

If we pass over now to the sadder side of life, we shall find there also many customs peculiar to those early times. Death then, as now, claimed its victims (once or twice in great numbers, when in the dry years or the locust days epidemics swept the colony), and many practices strange to later years gathered around the dying and the dead. To begin with, there was, without doubt, amongst the people of that time, a certain dread of the supernatural, which gave rise to what was well-nigh, in some cases, superstition. Certain signs and portents as to the approach of death were not without direst significance to many; and the same state of mind and feeling likely led to the custom of holding wakes being persevered in down to a recent date. There may have been extravagances in these directions, but does not a vivid sense of the supernatural imply, where the Bible is held, a corresponding depth in religious life? And is not the effort to eliminate the supernatural, so noticeable in our day, and to substitute for it the blind working of impersonal force, accountable for much of the irreverence and even the scepticism prevalent amongst us? Only let men feel, like the Philippian jailer, that the Power whose hand is shaking the foundations is the immanent God, and the question, "What must we do to be saved?" will come up from hearts that, awakened to a sense of sin, will not rest till they find the Cross, and will follow the light and leading of Christ into valorous deeds for God and for humanity. If there was a suspicion of superstition in the religion of those early people, it was begotten of a profound reverence for the Almighty and a deep sense of the mysteries of infinite things. Like the Puritan and the Covenanter, they were always listening for the voice of God, and feared it with a noble dread that made them fearless of anything finite and earth-born.

When the last rites over the dead were to be observed, invitations to the funeral were given personally from house to house by some near relative of the person deceased, and often people felt much hurt if they did not receive a direct invitation, without which they did not always feel themselves at liberty to attend. On the day of the funeral refreshments were served in the shape of bread, cake, cheese, and often liquors. It was the custom of the time, and even though in general there was not much consumed, the absence of refreshments in the case of people of means would have been severely commented on, not only as a breach of hospitality, but even as a mark of indifference to the event and to the memory of the departed. We have known of people giving directions as to the conduct of their own funerals in other ways, but not in regard to refreshments, except in one case. An old man, a retired Hudsonís Bay Company officer, on his death-bed sent for my father to entrust to him the management of his funeral in this regard, and fearing lest the reputation for lavish hospitality for which he had been noted would suffer through the parsimony of relatives, gave explicit instructions as to the quantity of each article of food and drink to be procured from the Hudsonís Bay store at the cost of the estate, and even urged my father to exactness in seeing these orders carried out, with suggestions of post-mortem visitation in case of default.

The funeral service at the house was generally of considerable length. Several psalms were sung in long and mournful cadence, very impressive in its way; passages of Scripture for the comfort of the bereaved and the admonition of all were read and expounded, besides a sermon or address. One thing especially, noticeable in these services was the absence of undeserved eulogy, and while, in regard to any who had been careless of religious things, no limitations were ever put, expressly or by implication, on the pardoning grace of God, no countenance was given to the idea of salvation for the persistently impenitent. The religion this implies may have been of a stern type, but it was the religion of people who felt that God could not belie His attributes, and must be just as well as loving.

Hearses were unknown in those days, and any proposal to put the coffin into any conveyance to be taken to the churchyard would have been looked upon as a mark of disrepect to the memory of the departed. Hence : the coffin, shrouded, was invariably borne on a bier by four men, who were relieved by other four every few minutes. The order of procession was as follows: The minister, accompanied by one of the elders, led the way; then the bearers with the coffin, followed by the chief mourners, after whom came all who attended, marching in twos. Four were always walking beside the bearers, and at the word "Relief," spoken at intervals by the elder in front, they took the places of the bearers, who dropped out and fell into the rear. Except in cases where the distance to the graveyard was great, none had to carry more than once or twice. In order to show how much these early settlers were op-posed to having the dead borne to burial in any other way than that described, it is remembered that on the death of Donald Ross, a Hudsonís Bay factor, they refused to allow the question of distance to interfere with their paying this tribute of respect to his memory, and so carried his body over eighteen miles from Little Britain to St. Johnís. At the slow pace they would travel, this took a whole long day, and at noon they halted where a cart with provisions met them. Here they had dinner, and again took up the line of march. There may be a medium in such things, but as a solemn and respectful tribute to the memory of the dead, such a funeral stands out strongly marked by comparison with the confused hurry of people who seem to have no time even to bury the dead with decency.


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