Pages Navigation Menu

Connecting church & community

Traditions across Canada, for better or worse

The Mother Goose float in the 1930 Eaton's Santa Claus Parade. Photo: City of Toronto Archives

The Mother Goose float in the 1930 Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade.
Photo: City of Toronto Archives

Here’s a little quiz appropriate for the season.

1. What country invented the department store Santa?
2. What country invented the Santa Claus parade?
3. In what country do young people go door-to-door at Christmas begging, threatening to torture the oldest daughter of the house if a donation is not made?
4. What country has magical gift-bringers such as Father Time, Queen Mab, Aunt Nancy, and Mother Goody?
5. Where can you find janneys, ownshooks, belsnicklers, and fools demanding entrance into a neighbour’s house at Christmas?

The answer, of course, is Canada, which has celebrated Christmas for centuries with unique customs.

Take, for example, the now-universal presence of Santa Claus figures in department stores and malls around the world. The very first of these appeared in Sampson’s Department Store in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1869 where Santa filled stockings for customers. Three years later, the store boasted that Santa himself would deliver gifts bought at their store and would be out to scout the houses on December 22 for chimney suitability. In 1905, Eaton’s department store in Toronto staged the very first Santa Claus parade.

In Quebec, where groups go door-to-door at Christmas in a custom called la guignolée. They sing a medieval French song in which one verse goes:

We will take the eldest girl,
And roast her feet for her,
The Ignolée, the Ignoloche,
To grease our pockets,
We do not ask for much
For our visit.
Twenty-five or 30 feet of pigs’ tails
If you like.

Today the jocular threats are meant to solicit charitable donations instead of food. Other Quebec customs include la tire (the toffee-pull), the revéillon (the post-midnight mass feast), and scary stories about werewolves and ghost-canoes.

Atlantic Canada also has peculiar customs. There the excess candy of the holiday season is distributed in children’s stockings on New Year’s Eve by Mother Goody, Aunt Nancy, Mother New Year, or Father Time. In Newfoundland, masked house visitors called mummers descend on homes demanding hospitality. Depending on their costumes, they might be called Fools, Ownshooks, or Janneys; in New Brunswick, they are called Belsnicklers after a shaggy German creature of folklore named Belsnickel.

But Christmas has also produced dissident voices. In the period following World War II, one of the world’s most famous Canadians was Brock Chisholm, known as the “Man Who Killed Santa Claus.” A military general, high-ranking civil servant and the founding Director of the World Health Organization, Chisholm claimed that, “Any child who believes in Santa Claus has had his ability to think permanently destroyed.” Chisholm announced in 1951 that he was going to bring the case of Santa Claus before the United Nations as a means of denouncing all such local and national fictions. He claimed that belief in Santa Claus sapped children of that universal spirit which was necessary for humanity to solve the planet’s problems. “Santa Claus,” he said, “is one of the worst offenders against clear thinking and so an offence against world peace.”

In November 2000, a number of businesses in the Westmount district of Montreal found themselves trashed by splashes of paint, oil, and eggs after they brought out their commercial Christmas decorations too soon. The vandals, a group styling themselves as “L’Anti Noël Avant L’Temps” or “No Christmas Before Its Time,” said, “We are a group of people who are saddened and frustrated by your ill breeding. We refuse to let you destroy autumn for a reason as pernicious and disgusting as making a little bit of money…. We demand that you take down all of your Christmas decorations without delay, and not put them back up until the first of December. If not, we are going to strike again.”

More recently, if you are in a Winnipeg shopping mall during December, you might run across a band of protestors from the Buy Nothing Christmas movement singing a cheeky parody song urging shoppers to rethink the meaning of the holiday. Said one of its leaders, “By resisting the impulse to shop for deals on Black Friday we stand at the feet of

Gerry Bowler is a historian who attends St. Margaret’s, Winnipeg.

Gerry Bowler is a historian who attends St. Margaret’s, Winnipeg.

the retail titans and, with the power of non-cooperation, we challenge the injustices of poor labour conditions, exploitative hiring practices, unfair monopolies, and irresponsible resource extraction.”

Christmas, however, is too deeply entrenched in the Christian and national consciousness to be much bothered by critics. The deep meanings that it bears and the myriad of memories that it evokes yearly are enough to ensure its celebration for centuries to come.