What better way for an author to brush up against the hardships and daily lives of pioneers, than to participate in a living history event? Before the snow flew this winter, I visited Pickering Museum Village to experience Christmas and New Years traditions as celebrated by some of the earliest settlers in our region. History was brought to life throughout the village by museum staff, volunteers, and a group of performers known as The Backwoods Players.
I followed a winding path toward the village and discovered a small party of women working at a camp. Here, the families struggled through their first winter in the new land. A cast iron pot hung above the fire and a second rested in the coals. Inside, potatoes boiled and stew simmered for an evening meal. Next to a canvas tent, a tin lantern hung from a pole, and in the background, laundry lifted on the wind. I couldn’t help thinking of the perpetual cold and damp these people must have endured.
While the women busied themselves with food preparation and, undoubtedly caring for children, their husbands worked to raise log shanties. These permanent homes must have been a relief after the discomforts of the lean-to or canvas tent each family had endured beforehand. Cedar was the wood of choice owing to its natural oils, beneficial in deterring rot and bug infestations.
Upon entering the village, I sought out the Temperance Hotel, a fine establishment operated by Quakers, otherwise known as Friends. The proprietors, a young couple, greeted me at the door. “We’re able to offer a meal, ” the wife said, “but no lodging, as our overnight guests are still upstairs and quite ill.” Her husband was quick to ask if I’d seen the doctor in my travels. He’d sent word for one to come and was anxiously awaiting the man’s arrival.
They ladled warm apple cider into a cup and offered me a drink, then directed me toward the kitchen where the wife’s mother and some other ladies were baking Johnny Cakes. The mother served a slice along with what she considered to be sage advice. “Avoid the Welshman’s house across the way. They’re quite free with the drink.”
“I’ll take that under advisement,” I said. Then I walked directly to the Welsh house where I was greeted with the phrase “Y Nadolig“, meaning Merry Christmas or Happy New Years.
The women of the house had prepared Welsh cakes, along with a hot rum and cider drink. A group of singers soon knocked at the cabin door. They were wassailing with the ‘old grey mare’, a horse skull mounted on a tall stick festooned with ribbons. One of the wassailers carried the old grey mare house to house, and held it upright as the group sang to the occupants therein. The residents sang back to the wassailers, then the old grey mare indicated which group had performed best. The winners were entitled to their own cup of rum punch and a piece of Welsh cake.
The Welsh women spoke of other traditions. An apple, turned candle holder, propped on twig legs, and studded with clover was set in the window for good luck. Paying off one’s debts before the start of the New Year was thought to bring good fortune, as was setting a small plow, complete with dirt clods, under the kitchen table. The best stalks of wheat from the previous year’s crop were trimmed and bound together in a lovely fan, then displayed above a doorway inside the cabin. When spring arrived, the seeds from this wheat were planted in the field.
Next, I visited the log house of a Scottish family whose wives and daughters were preparing for Hogmanay, their traditional News Years celebration. The room smelled of baking oat cakes and a burning wood fire, and the table was covered in Hogmanay treats. The women clearly communicated that drinking was frowned upon in their Presbyterian home.
Part of their New Year tradition involved ‘sweeping spirits out of the house’. Guests formed two lines, each facing the other. They banged pots, stomped their feet, making as much noise as possible. Then the hosts swept their brooms vigorously through the aisle, from the front door to the back. The back door was flung open for a final good sweep to knock the spirits outdoors.
The Scottish wives explained that after midnight on December 31, the first dark-haired man to arrive at the door, was the man to whom the eligible girl of the house would be married. He’d arrive with a basket containing: a piece of wood, so there’d always be warmth and cooking; bread, so there’d be a supply of food all year; and salt an esteemed and precious commodity. Also, the first girl of the village to stand at the well on News Years day, would be the first girl married that year.
A moment must be taken to tip my Canadian toque to the Pickering Museum Village for their attention to detail and their passion for history. From the carriage house to the blacksmith and the chapel to the general store, every moment of my visit was a joy.
I returned home with rosy cheeks, hair perfumed with wood smoke and my fingers numb from the cold. These are the hallmarks of a beautiful December venture outdoors. Such occasions inspire my writerly imagination, and this day was no exception. I look forward to inhabiting the village on future afternoons while I gather further inspiration for my upcoming novel.