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Manitoba History: Review: Hugh A. Dempsey, Christmas in the West

by Richard Grover
St. Paul’s High School, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Christmas in the West. Hugh A. Dempsey. Saskatoon, Western Producer Prairie Books, 1982. 178 pp., ill. ISBN 0-88833-095-2.

Hugh Dempsey, editor of Christmas in the West, maintains that much western Canadian history is revealed through recollections of the holiday season. His volume contains 56 different sources, ranging from books to newspapers and magazines, each accompanied by a brief introduction by Dempsey. Supplemented by more than 100 interesting illustrations, the work attempts to reflect “the spirit of Christmas as seen by the pioneers of western Canada.” Chronologically the book divides into two parts. Part one contains 24 documents in a 71-page spread and describes the fur trade frontier of the pre-railway era. The oldest document examines an 1843 Christmas at York Factory. The last item concerns a 1905 Christmas of an Anglican missionary at a Sarcee mission west of Calgary. Part two, various documents as well as Dempsey’s own recollections, fills 99 pages and describes the years after the construction of the CPR and the flood of immigrants. It concludes with sources from the 1930s.

What is reflected in the spirit of Christmas that the documents present? First, we see Christmas as a holy day, the birthday of Jesus Christ, a day to go to church. But Christmas is shown to have other connotations. From the fur traders to city businessmen, Christmas is shown to be a time to strengthen trade relations and to boost the morale of employees. For example, memories of Christmas at Fort Edmonton in 1876 concludes with the far-distant post managers leaving “for another long year of isolated wilderness where their duties held little of entertainment and no social life whatever ... No wonder the Chief Factor had put so much effort and attention for their comfort and entertainment while they were in Edmonton.” (p. 23)

Christmas is further shown as a time of feasting, socializing, sporting events, and the joyful school Christmas concerts whereby is “transformed a very tangible little mortal into a fairy by the ruffly magic of crepe paper and tinsel.” (p. 141) Christmas is also seen as the culmination of a year’s work by the new pioneers in the West. One wrote:

I now had a home of my own ... Even if this was not the place where I had really wanted to be, even if I was still unsettled, still feeling like a fish out of water, at least the worst of the rough edges had now been worn off and the future promised a little smoother sailing. (p. 136)

By chronicling Christmases past, Dempsey also illustrates the great speed of technological change in the last 100 years in western Canada. A Scottish immigrant recalled that since coming to Canada in 1870 he had “watched the buffalo trails give way to ribbons of steel and highways filled with automobiles ...” (p. 33). To Dempsey’s credit, and perhaps his consciousness of the native Indians of Canada, the book also includes many documents that detail white European-native relations, from blatant racism to the realistic (if not somewhat grim) humour of a Blood Indian. This man related that the main reasons his parents took him to Christmas service at Fort Macleod in 1894 were the supply of hard candy and such useful items as coats, scarves and mitts which were distributed as presents. (p. 67)

Several criticisms may be made of Dempsey’s book. There is a definite imbalance in the ethnic profile among the documents Dempsey has chosen. Of the 57 items, all but six are by authors of apparent British origin. Archbishop Taché’s two-page memories and a photo of a Christmas eve mass in Bellevue, Saskatchewan, in the 1920s are the meagre representation of the French fact in western Canada. Recollections totalling eleven pages, by a Norwegian, a Ukrainian, and an Icelander do little justice to the varied ethnic and religious settlements in the West. Among others, surely the editor could have found memories of the Germans, Russians, Poles, Jews, Mennonites, and Hutterites. Second, the sources of all the Christmas stories are not to be found beside the documents in the text of the book, but inconveniently in the last pages. Third, and perhaps not surprisingly since Western Producer Prairie Books is a “unique publishing venture owned by a group of prairie farmers who are members of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool,” Christmas in the West contains almost nothing from people working in mining, railways, lumbering, fishing, or cities in general. Finally, sloppy editing shows up beneath an illustration of early Winnipeg, incorrectly labeled Lower Fort Garry (p. 46) and when Rev. James Hunter, an Anglican missionary, is named John Hunter.

In spite of these criticisms, Christmas in the West does provide insights and a sense of the deep feelings of Christmas. It is also interesting to note the similarities of the past and present in Western Canadian history. Westerners then, as now, gloried in describing the cold and wide spaces of their land. As a Norwegian settler in southern Alberta in 1894 noted gracefully and simply:

And while outside the stars shone brightly in the sky and the northern lights flashed in flowing and ever changing colours across the heavens, these God-fearing pioneers out in the wide open spaces of Alberta, Canada, celebrated their first Christmas in this community. The children who were present would never forget that wonderful evening in their new land. (p. 124)

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