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Taking a visit to the Christmas of yesteryear

If you’ve ever lamented that Christmas ain’t what it used to be, the Waterloo Region Museum has just the thing for you: Christmas the way it used to be.

The Country Christmas tours now underway each Sunday feature a nostalgic look at the season, including the various cultural nuances seen in this area a century ago.

The museum’s heritage village takes visitors back to 1914. The First World War was just underway, and just beginning to make itself felt on the home front. Overseas, the now-storied Christmas ceasefire was taking place along the Western front, bringing a brief interlude of peace and shared humanity.

The village includes a range of homes and businesses from the period.

“A number of our buildings are decorated accordingly,” said Kevin Thomas, WRM’s public programs specialist, of the 1914 timeframe “Also what’s happening within the stores is surprisingly similar to today, in that they’re hoping you’re going to buy all sorts of things for your loved ones on your list.”

The retail spaces decked out for Christmas 1914 include a general repair shop, a post office, and a carpet weaver store. The tailor shop showcased was constructed originally in Wellesley. Paths leading to different areas allow attendees to explore the village at their leisure.

There are tour guides, dressed in period costumes to add to the 1914 feel, who provide a history of the various traditions that went on in the buildings.

“What’s a bit of an interesting turning point is that World War I has started,” said Thomas. “So a number of things aren’t in large supply. For example, a lot of postcards were actually produced in Germany. So there’s a shortage of that kind of thing. But it’s still decked out. They’re still suggesting ‘oh we can help check off that Christmas list that you have for everybody.'”

A popular talking point is the prominence of postcards and Christmas cards in the era, a well-established tradition in the early 20th century.

“Postcards were incredibly popular in that time period,” said Thomas. “Millions and millions were sent each year. By 1914 you have a huge range of Christmas cards available, and there were actually people who collected postcards. And they would even trade them.”

That’s in stark contrast to the Christmas of today. With the arrival of the digital age, many of us are now opting to text, use social media, or send e-cards rather than popping something into the mail.

“Postcards are definitely dropping off these days,” said Thomas. “Letter-writing, in general, seems to be going the way of the dodo.”

Traditional cards aren’t the only differences, of course, as a tour through the museum’s displays of residential homes quickly reveals. Just look, for instance, at the Martin or MacArthur homes to see how Christmas was treated across different cultures at the time. Another example is the Sararas house, where the tour features edible Christmas ornaments as well as Advent calendars. There are also the three violet candles with a fourth pink candle associated with Advent.

Advent was a staple with the German version of Christmas, with the concept of the Advent wreath originating from German Lutherans in the 16th century.

“It’s not that much of a stretch to think ‘okay, had you lived either in Germany or say in England, and you came over to this part of the world, you would bring some of your traditions with you,’ and then those would meld with some of the traditions that were already here,” said Thomas.

The tour points out the different traditions of the Old Order Mennonite, Scottish and English communities. There are also horse-drawn wagon rides, Christmas carollers and hot apple cider. Those who visit are also free to join in with some festive singing of their own, taking on classics such as Silent Night, Deck the Halls and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

“It’s a wonderful walk-through time,” said Sean Jasmins, marketing and partnership supervisor at the Waterloo Region Museum. “All of our visitors love the event. It’s a great way to start off the Christmas season with a visit to our Christmas event.”

The Waterloo Region Museum offers the yuletide tours on Sundays – December 9, 16, and the 23 – from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $11 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $5 for children and free for children four and under. For more information, visit Waterloo Region Museum’s website.

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