Christmas in Port Sarnia 100 years ago was everything that today’s “jet- age” greeting cards portray… horsedrawn cutters, muff led carol singers, chestnuts roasting on an open hearth, frosted windows, snow-drifted roads.
Sleighs? Because that was the only winter travel method in Lambton. And only a well-to- do villager could afford such luxury. The rest walked on their Christmas shopping rounds. This wasn’t too bad for the village limits were from where the Federal Building is today to about Maxwell Street and from the river front to about McKenzie Street.
The shops were hardly today’s department stores. But the busy general merchants supplied everything from tea by the pound to whiskey by the barrel. Cloth, enamelware, stovepipes, boots – these were the stock in trade. Hence Christmas gifts were mostly homemade things.
A sweetheart would knit homespun yarn – and only if engaged would she give the man of her choice anything as personal as a pair of socks or gloves.
The children, unsophisticated, unspoiled ref lections of the age, were lucky to get a hand-carved toy, a heavy coat or awkward mittens.
Picture a small frame home (brick ones in Sarnia 100 years ago were few and far between). Three feet from the fireplace or the glowing Franklin stove was three feet to cold! There was frost on windows not for effect, but because it was that chilly in the house.
Nor was there any of that “pop down to the supermarket” for ready- mix foodstuffs. Black walnuts were harvested or bartered or, in the fall, painfully shelled and put away in a covered crock. Raisins were dear, eggs were cheap and the King Mills produced Sarnia’s flour for countless Christmas cakes and puddings.
The Christmas fowl was more than likely a fat goose or a couple of plump hens… bought live for one dollar a pair at the market near the Town Hall where Hudson’s Bay now stands. They were brought home cackling, dispatched with a hatchet, plucked and hollowed out, stuffed with bread, onions and sage – and that was the main course. A far cry from the speed- frozen dressed turkeys at $.49 a pound in 1962.
The bread? Baked at home. The onions? Grown in summer’s vegetable garden out the back door. Women’s work was truly never done. Christmas must’ve taken an enormous amount of labour by the pioneer women.
Life was simple yes, but yet oh how complex. How many overworked servant girls (surplus on the farms of Moore and Plympton) cried themselves to sleep in an attic room far from their own kind hearts and gentle people? They worked from dawn ‘til the last candle was snuffed out and although many spent a forlorn maidenhood and a neglected middle-age with the same family, the hired girl she was and the hired girl she remained.
Nowadays Violet has been replaced by the Hoover Company, Sunbeam Mix-master, the A&P frozen scalloped potatoes and TV dinners! She has become an anachronism or an undreamed luxury and we say, good enough. It must’ve been a terrible life.
We recall when the old Flintoft home opposite Firestones was torn down. The maids had pokey little rooms 70 feet away from the nearest heat!
The Christmas Market brought farm folk in to Sarnia from all parts of Moore and the other townships. Freshkilled pork, ducks and geese, apples packed in straw against the cold, homemade sausage, fresh eggs, butter rich from the churn, maple sugar candy were among the offerings.
Sarnia’s Indian folk, relatively newly confined to their reserve, had some 20 years earlier made their first land sale or “surrender” and had sold (for a pittance) what is now Sarnia from the Post Office to about Devine Street.
But to market they came with bark, fur and wooden products, dressed venison and braces of wild duck for barter.
The brick churches we know today, St. Andrews, St. George’s, and Our Lady of Mercy were yet to be built – but frame temples rang with the Christmas songs. Down Corunna way St. Joseph’s remains as it was a century ago and the river road was truly that, for the old wooden church faced properly towards the main road from Port Sarnia to the settlements.
The village taverns across Lambton did a roaring trade on Christmas Day, and many was the spoiled dinner which awaited a lingerer in the Belchamber bar.
Christmas 1862 in retrospect conjures up a nostalgic vignette of “good old days.” Without a doubt it was a feast day for the pioneers of Port Sarnia, most of them thousands of miles away from crafters cottages and miners’ towns of the old lands. S
omehow, even with all the work and the crude comforts, the pioneers of Port Sarnia were nearer the real spirit that today has been nearly drowned out by jingle of the cash register and the blare of the TV.”