The smell of burning kerosene seems almost familiar to someone walking along the lantern-lit paths in Doon Heritage Village during the holidays. Afterall, it wasn’t so long ago that burning fuel in a lantern was the norm when it came to lighting your way.
The Friends of Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum hosted the Starry Night event this season as a fundraiser, inviting guests to come explore the village in the evening during the Christmas season – its shops and homes decorated and filled with volunteers in costume re-enacting Christmas in Waterloo Region in 1914, at the time of the First World War.
When first entering the village, the imposing black Canadian Pacific locomotive looms out of the dark next to the vintage Petersburg Station. You follow the path outlined by bubbles of light coming from the lamps, and make your way past the Martin Farm, through the covered bridge and into the village which includes a weavery, dry goods and grocery store, meat market, post office and tailor shop, blacksmith, sawmill, repair shop, church, firehall, another farmstead and multiple homes.
“That was a really interesting time in Ontario’s history because this is Canada, emerging as an increasingly industrialized society, but one that still had very strong rural roots and still very much an agricultural society as well,” said Sean Stoughton, the village coordinator for the museum. He also notes that this area in particular was interesting because it was a largely German cultural centre during the time when the First World War broke out.
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“It became a very complicated time in the community’s history,” he said.
The general store has dimly lit electric lights hanging from the ceiling and is filled with a variety of goods and trinkets, including a tray of oysters sitting on the counter. Stoughton says shipping seafood on refrigerated rail cars became easier around 1914 and so oysters for Christmas was a trend at the time.
The sound of carols coming from the church hook you in like a shepherd’s crook. The church is lit with electric lights which fill the place with a warm glow. In the centre is a large stove that would have been used to heat the whole place. At the front, three singers – one playing piano – lead visitors in traditional Christmas hymns such as “Lo How a Rose Er Bloomith,” and always finish their sets with a round of “We Wish you a Merry Christmas,” for everyone in the pews to sing along to.
Visitors can also explore the homes decorated in the style of the different cultures that would have been in the village at the time.
The Seibert House represents an English family home with a large Christmas tree and a table filled with traditional English Christmas goodies such as plum pudding, or plum cake, along with the oranges and pineapple that were common to most groups to celebrate Christmas. Other foods that would have been served include onion soup, onion pie, steak or turkey.
“Some people are surprised that the Old Order Mennonites would celebrate Christmas,” said Stoughton. “Christmas celebrations at that time in the Old Order community would have been fairly small, fairly subdued.”
The Martin house is set up as an Old Order Mennonite house at Christmas time, ready for breakfast, said Stoughton. “So you would come down and you would have a plate that had nuts, and maybe a couple of candies and pfeffernusse, which is the kind of hard German cookie. It means ‘pepper nuts.’ They’re spiced. They’re very hard little cookies for dunking in your tea or coffee.”
The Sararas House is set up to represent a German family home and at Christmastime includes a traditional German table-top artificial tree made of dyed goose feathers.
“This was also a time where you could now get an artificial Christmas tree, which was seen as a big fancy thing. It was very nice to have an artificial Christmas tree because it wasn’t just one someone had gotten out of the bush. It was artificial and that was such a great thing to have, because it meant that it was made by someone. They wouldn’t have seen being artificial as sort of the cheaper alternative. It was seen as sort of this nice, fancy thing to have a feather tree,” said Stoughton.
At the time, Christmas trees would usually be lit with candles, which presented a hazard, said Stoughton. People would need to keep a bucket of water handy near the tree because it was common for them to light on fire.
“So you might light up your Christmas tree for a little bit on Christmas Day. Really enjoy the look of it, then put all the candles out. So most of the time, the tree wouldn’t be lit.
“But some people, maybe someone in Toronto or someone in Montreal, they might be able to afford electric Christmas lights. How fancy would that be?”
The site also includes the McArthur House, which is meant to represent the home of a family from Scotland. Scottish people celebrate Hogmanay, said Stoughton. The Scottish would give their holiday visitors oats for health, salt for hospitality, and coal for warmth. They would sweep at the back door to sweep out any negativity from the year, and bang pots and pans to scare away bad feelings and hardships, he said.
Stoughton also said they usually include traditional Christmas characters in the village like the Weihnachtsmann, or “Christmas Man” in English. This is a German representation of a traditional forest spirit type of person that would have been one of many influences on today’s Santa Claus.
“He looks similar to Father Christmas, he’s more woodsy. He’s more closely connected to the kind of Northern European forest spirit characters. There’s been a number of them throughout history and mythology. He wears a green coat. He carries a fir bow or some evergreen with him. He’s more a winter forest spirit.”
Stoughton says most gifts at the time would have been smaller, mostly homemade gifts: “Nice pair of mitts, new scarf, dolls for the kids.”
That said, the hot ticket item at the time was a rifle, said Stoughton.
“We’ve got an advertisement from 1914 advertising the gift that every healthy young lad would love to have, which was a .32 rifle. Yeah, we have an ad of a child – it’s probably like a 10- or 12-year-old boy – with his new Christmas present of a rifle that could come in .22, .25 and .32 calibers. So, not a toy rifle in any way. An actual rifle. That was a hot ticket Christmas item.”
There is so much the village tells about Christmas in the region in 1914. At that point, the first world war had been going on since the summer, and people had expected it to be over by Christmas. Stoughton notes that even though this would have been a first Christmas celebrating without loved ones, people still made a point to carry on their traditions.
“One of the things that I think is so important about the kind of site like ours, is the empathy we can have for people of the past. To really understand them. And when you can stand in someone’s living room, the way they would have had it for Christmas, and you can see what’s like yours, what’s not like yours, but you can recognize the same desires and joy that people are taking from the holiday season that you have in your own life,” he said.
“There’s a universal aspect to the celebrations, because people all over the world, over all times, have been gathering together in the coldest, darkest part of the year to remember that they’re still here and they’re still together with their friends and loved ones. And this is a time to be together because things are going to get better as the sun comes back to us.”