The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Most of us would find a Christmas celebration of a hundred or more years ago to be a rather simple and dull affair. Many of our Christmas traditions seem timeless, but the full-blown celebration of the Yuletide as the major holiday of the year dates only to the 1920s.
Elora had a strong Scottish Protestant tradition through the 19th century. For these Scots, New Year’s was the more important holiday, reflecting old Scottish traditions and the fact that many of these people viewed Christmas as a Roman Catholic holiday.
Many Elora stores and workshops stayed open on Christmas in the 1850s and 1860s. In the 1850s, merchants advertised the fact when they would be closed for both holidays.
After 1870, Christmas and New Year’s Day became generally observed as holidays. Employers began to feel that they owed their workers some time off. A few closed for several days. Newspapers, for example, began to miss the issue between Christmas and New Year’s, or to publish a smaller issue.
For many years, municipal elections were held on New Year’s Day, despite the fact that it was a Scottish holiday. Nomination meetings occasionally took place on Christmas Day.
Christmas Day political activity peaked in 1874, when Edward Blake, premier of Ontario, addressed a large rally at Fergus.
Christmas tea meetings afforded a popular alternative to politics in the 1870s. In Elora, the Methodists took the lead in sponsoring these. The Drill Shed (now the liquor store) provided the venue; there was a Christmas tree, and a special program for children, complete with small gifts.
The Anglicans and Catholics always held special Christmas services, and the other congregations usually did as well. The day, though, was already becoming secularized: the evening Christmas program at the Drill Shed highlighted the day. Interestingly, these events were initially held on New Year’s Day, and were not moved to Christmas until 1873.
The first confirmed sighting of Santa Claus in Elora occurred in 1873. That year, he spent several days at Perry’s drug store during the week before Christmas.
This may be the start of the commercialization of Christmas in Elora, but it was a weak start. Very few merchants placed any Christmas advertising before the 1890s.
For many families, Christmas purchases consisted of special and luxury food items: fruits, nuts and expensive imports. Indeed, some items were available only at the Christmas season. The Christmas cakes produced by Elora’s bakers enjoyed a sustained popularity over the years.
Gift-giving consisted of small articles: sometimes fancy items, but more often practical ones. Toys for children were still something of a novelty in the 1870s.
December is now the busiest month for merchants, but Christmas spending 140 years ago seems to have been far less significant.
Glancing through the Dec. 24, 1875 issue of the Elora Observer, only four advertisements mention Christmas at all. Two note special Christmas items, and only one business ran an advertisement completely oriented to Christmas.
In an editorial, “Observer” John Smith noted that several merchants had reduced some prices prior to Christmas. Smith noted that Elora’s merchants liked to dispose of most of their winter stock before the end of January, and that many made use of the Christmas and New Year’s trade to reduce their inventories. There was no mention though, of a Boxing Day Sale in 1875.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Dec. 17, 1991.