Dinners of Christmas Past A History of Our Festive Feasts

November 2019

The Yuletide season will soon be upon us once again and with it comes all the rituals, social gatherings, traditions and food that make up this time of year.
I don’t know of any other holiday season that is so steeped in traditions, or is as cherished as Christmas. No matter how modern it becomes, Christmas will always be synonymous with family, friends and festivities. For many, Christmas dinner is the staple for festive meals. Namely, roast turkey with all the trimmings. But this was not always the case. Not much more than a century ago, roast goose was the fare. Think of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Our fur trading pioneer ancestors

For our fur trading pioneer ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries, turkey was not always available, but there was no shortage of substitutes. A favourite was the Passenger Pigeon, now extinct, which once darkened the sky in great flocks. Almost any animal would do, though, from moose to venison and squirrel to lynx. Another possibility was roast beaver with the tail being a dainty treat. Another delicacy was dried moose nose called mouffle. Fish and vegetables had a place on the festive table too. Of course, there was plum pudding for dessert made from imported flour and currants. When the currants were in short supply, Saskatoon berries were a good stand in. And all of this was washed down with a lot of liquor in the great halls of the forts. Those Christmas feasts were not only to celebrate the season, but also a time to forget, for a while, the very real threat of starvation which haunted the minds of those who lived in the isolated forts during the long, bitter harshness of the winter months.

As the years passed

As the years passed, the town of Fort William grew around the fort and the risk of starvation diminished. Other industries came such as mining in near by Prince Arthur’s Landing. The establishment of the transcontinental railway brought prairie wheat, and with the start of the 1900s, a sense of prosperity gripped the region. As the town grew, restaurants and hotels sprang up. If you wanted to eat out for Christmas dinner, there was no shortage of choices. In 1910, you could have a full course dinner for $0.25 at Lin’s Café, Superior Café, the Alexandra Hotel or the Olympia Cafe. For just $0.15 more a plate, you could dine at the Victoria Hotel while being serenaded by a five piece orchestra. And if you wanted a really sumptuous meal, the Prince Arthur Hotel was the place to go for $1.00. Of course, you could order roast turkey with all the trimmings, but that wasn’t all. There was roast beef, chicken, goose and pork as well. Oysters, an assortment of vegetables, white fish and salad appetizers to start. With all that food, you had to make sure to leave room for dessert. You had a choice of plum pudding, apple, mince or orange meringue pie, various cakes and bon bons. Then wash it all down with tea or coffee. It’s safe to say nobody went home hungry.

Rich tapestry

Fast forward to the present day. Our Christmas celebrations are still the rich tapestry embroidered with the many cultures and customs brought here by explorers, merchants, and immigrants.

I asked the members of Thunder Bay Memories what they ate for Christmas dinner and 72 people generously shared their comments. Roast turkey with all the trimmings still reigns supreme, especially with those of us that have grown up with these traditions. But some of the kids are content with chicken nuggets. Oh well, they’re young. Among the other meats served are roast beef and pork and ham with scalloped potatoes. My roots are English and Irish, and it was always roast turkey with stuffing and roast potatoes. With the influence of other European cultures, cabbage rolls and perogies have become staples with roast fowl in many families. Someone shared she serves all 12 dishes of a Polish Christmas which they eat on Christmas Eve. One man said he has roast moose. It’s good to see our fur trader past is still with us.

The true meaning of Christmas

Two people said they didn’t care what was for dinner as long as they shared it with family and friends. Maybe that’s a large part of what makes the Yuletide meal so special. The partaking in the age-old tradition of sharing dinner in the company of those we care most about during this special time of year. Christmas is a time when we can relive that magical world of childhood where we can see good in everyone and everything. It is a season of wishing peace on Earth and good will to all we meet, and sharing the spirit of friendship by breaking bread together. And this is where we can find the true meaning of Christmas. Let us hold that feeling dear in our hearts now and throughout the coming year. As we prepare for this Holiday Season, stop and think of what makes this time of year special to you. I will close with my wish for all of us by reciting the immortal words of Tiny Tim, Dickens’ most humble and beloved character. “God bless us, everyone.”

Brian G. Spare PhD is a local author, freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview magazine. Watch for Brian’s upcoming memoir “The Boy Who Couldn’t Smile” to be published later this year. Contact him at bgspare@gmail.com.

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