Here we are past the first week of December and Christmas is very present in my house. The tree is up and my whole neighbourhood this year turned on the outside decorations early to cheer the mood and brighten the dark dreary days and nights of December. It’s hard to know what people did to counter the shortened days and long nights of December in the nineteenth century but many of our current Christmas traditions were only beginning in the late 1800s in Canada.
A West Coast Christmas, a book by Anne Tempelman-Kluit has been on my bookshelf for many years. This book includes stories and recipes of Christmas drawn from books, diaries and magazines from the nineteenth century. Emily Carr’s memories of Christmas in Victoria taken from A Book of Small are included. Carr remembered sewing Christmas gifts for weeks before Christmas – kettle holders, needle books, pen wipers and cross-stitch bookmarkers. She recalled going into the woods to cut fir and holly to decorate the house – behind all the pictures and on the mantle. They chopped their own Christmas tree from the woods. Everyone had helped to stone the raisins and contributed to making the plum puddings, weeks in advance. On Christmas eve the Carr family would walk into town to view the specially decorated windows of the stores and to choose the meat to purchase for Christmas dinner. Stockings were hung on Christmas eve and some would attend church on Christmas morning.
In the introduction Templeman-Kluit reflects on the experience of writing the book.
I discovered West Coast Christmas tales of comfortable lives in blooming new cities, with loving affluent families. But more often, Christmas memories involved hardship and isolation. I was reminded again of the hardships people accepted as simply part of life; told with humour and, from today’s perspective, an amazing matter-of-factness. People embarked on long journeys, mostly by sea, often in uncertain weather, to keep Christmas with their “neighbours,” sometimes the first people they had seen in months. Money was scarce, but people were generous. Christmas dinners were a community effort and turkey was a rare treat, but someone usually managed to produce a duck, or catch a fish. Christmas trees grew outside the door and decorations could be improvised from pages of a catalogue or even from overwintering berries. (p. 1-2)
One recipe included in A West Coast Christmas caught my attention – The Empress Hotel’s Warm Christmas Scrumpy. What was scrumpy?
2 ½ cups apple juice
2 ½ cups boiling water
5 tablespoons maple syrup
3 drops bitters
4 cinnamon sticks
4 slices each lemon and lime
Combine apple juice, water maple syrup, bitters and cinnamon sticks in a large saucepan. Heat for a few minutes to preferred serving temperature and to allow flavours to blend. Do not boil.
Pour into glasses or mugs. Garnish each with a twist of lemon and lime. Sprinkle with nutmeg and add an additional cinnamon stick for garnish. Serves 4.
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Scrumpy is a type of cider originally from the west of England. It is made from ripe fallen apples, associated with rural areas and small farms that made a “rough” or harsh cider, not from “choice” apples.
Christmas this year may be more like Christmases of the past – low-key, quiet, with many people isolated in their homes. Virtual feasts are recommended so if you are looking for some dinner ideas for one or two people, check out:
In past years we have had several blogs on Christmas foods and traditions. Getting Organized for Christmas appeared on December 1, 2018 and included recipes for Dark Christmas Cake, Christmas Pudding and Plum Pudding
On December 1, 2016, we had a blog on Fruitcake and Christmas Cake https://bcfoodhistory.ca/fruitcake-christmas-cake/
On November 13, 2016, the blog was on Vernon Applesauce Fruit Cake
For an extensive look at the varieties and history of fruitcakes, check out
If you would like to curl up with a good book that sparks memories of Christmases past, look for:
Tempelman-Kluit, Anne (1999). A West Coast Christmas, Celebrating the Season on the Edge of the Pacific. Vancouver: Whitecap Books.