Throughout the years, the celebration of Christmas has changed. So has our society, which has seen its citizens moving from rural areas to urban metropolis in search of more job opportunities, recreational facilities, educational venues and more. But there is no doubt that the spirit of this important time of the year still remains strong. Many older citizens look back with some nostalgia on those days of simple but meaningful celebrations.
Many of those who now live in our Valley reminisce on the days they came from other lands—from prairies farms, to fishing or mining on the west coast, to small villages far away from the major Canadian urban locations. It was a time when running water was not always available and electricity did not reach many remote areas of this vast country, which made life in itself so different.
This simple—although at times harsh—life was not a deterrent for families and their neighbours to spend special calendar events together, such as Christmas. Food came from their own gardens and meat and milk was procured from their farms. Gifts and decorations were mostly homemade items.
“I used to get dolls that my mother would make for me,” says one Alberni Valley senior named Mary. “I loved it. But one of the most special presents I got was a violin. This gift opened the doors for me to learn how to play a musical instrument. Once I learned how to play, I performed at different community events.”
Raffaela, who was born in Italy, recalls, “My mother liked to bake crostoli on Christmas day every year and we loved it!” Crostoli is a traditional Italian pastry consisting of small sweets (dolce), often prepared for special celebrations such as Christmas and New Year.
Another resident named Alice states: “My mother would grow a big garden each year and can some food items for the winter. My father worked the fields with team of horses. I always remember my mother’s tasty food she prepared for us on Christmas Day!”
Joan said, “Although we didn’t get many presents for Christmas when I was growing up in Alberta (we would be lucky if we got a pair of gloves or mittens, and occasionally a doll!), we all had a great time!”
Hilda recalls that one of her favourite memories of Christmas took place in Germany.
“It was shortly after the ending of the war in 1945, and we were living under difficult conditions during a time of great famine living on a farm in a small room until the war was over,” she said. “We got word that my dad had made it through the war and was working on a farm in West Germany. Great news!”
Pat Rogers remembers, “I was only five years old when I got the scarlet fever just a few days before Christmas.”
She became very sick, to the point that she might not make it, according to her doctor.
“As Christmas drew close, my mom asked me what I wanted from Santa and I said that I wanted an Eaton’s Beauty Doll,” said Pat. “This was the year that this store had brought out their popular doll, which had real hair!”
On that Christmas morning, Pat was allowed out of bed for the first time in a week. “And right under the tree was my new Eaton’s Doll!” she recalled. “My grandmother, who was a skillful sewer, hand made me some clothes for my doll, which included a baby coat with a lace collar, two dresses and a baby blanket. Although I wasn’t allowed to stay up, other than getting my doll, it was a happy day for me!”
Marie says that Christmas was a joyous occasion in her household and a day of true family togetherness. They sang and laughed, except the year her father passed away early December when she was very young.
“As a young girl, we enjoyed the food my mother prepared on Christmas Day, especially the turkey!” she said. “And, unlike the way it is today, all our presents were knitted or sewn in our house, such as mittens, socks, coats, etc. There was no money available to buy things.”
John, originally from Ontario, says, “Our Christmases were old fashioned, meaning traditional. We used to go to church on a horse and sled on Christmas Eve and to the seasonal concerts the days before December 25. There we all took part at the events by singing and acting. I remember to have our horse all nicely decorated for the trips to those events.”
Betty reminisces, “We were lucky because my father, who was a logger, always had a job, even on the suffering days of the Great Depression.”
Every Christmas during her childhood, she saw the family enjoying the lovely meals prepared by her mother.
“I was raised on a farm and each year at Christmas time we got together for a good social time with about 12 other families who lived relatively close to each other,” said Betty. “It was very nice. I had a pleasant childhood and Christmas was always so special for me!”
Winnie Koal, who has lived all her life in Port Alberni, was the oldest of a family of 14. The celebration of Christmas by her family always took place on the evening of Dec. 24.
“On that evening we waited for our grandparents to come over, and, once they arrived, my mother would play the piano and we all sang along the traditional Christmas carols, followed by my grandpa’s reading verses from the Bible,” she said. “As young children, we used to recite verses from a Christmas book.
“It was nice to have our house full of decorations, streamers, garlands, etc. And on Christmas day we all opened the presents. As a pre-teenager, I was very devastated to find out the truth about Santa!
“Then, the special dinner, cooked by our mother, followed. What a treat! I miss a lot of those Christmas days!”
And while today’s pandemic might not stop us from putting up our Christmas tree, tucking into our turkey dinner, phoning our relatives and friends, watching those festive movies or listening to Merry Christmas carols, we know that there are other aspects of the festive season which will almost certainly feel the impact of the virus.
But the essence of this seasonal celebration will undoubtedly be present among seniors and their familes this year. This an opportunity to focus on the true meaning of this event.