Ed Nicholson steps back in time to share with us what Christmas was like over 100 years ago.
The first snowfall of the year arrived in Ladysmith, just in time for Christmas. On December 24, 1912. several inches of the drier, powdery-type of snow fell on the city to the delight of children of all ages, more accustomed to the wet, sloppy variety usually experienced at this time of the year. There was also a rapid increase in the town’s population if, as the Chronicle’s editor suggested, “the many snow creatures popping up in lanes and yards around the city were to be included.”
Having finished their own snowman earlier that morning, Euphemia Nicholson and Sandy Strang were now on their way downtown to do some chores and last minute shopping. The exhilarating combination of no school, spending money and falling snow made Christmas 1912 especially exciting for the two close friends. But best of all, Euphemia’s father had promised her that if the snow continued, he would ask his business partner, Sid Weaving, to exchange the wheels on their large delivery wagon for runners, and they would all go for a sleigh ride on Boxing Day.
Their first stop on this busy Christmas Eve day was the livery stable behind the Opera House where the horses were kept. Euphemia, or “Phemie” as her friends called her, had two carrots and an apple in her coat pocket to give to the big bay Clydesdales “Ben” and “Prince” when they arrived. If Mr. Weaving agreed, they were going to ask him to use their favourite horse to pull the sleigh. On the way, they passed schoolmates Jamie Bland, David Gourlay and Russell Inkster. The boys were heading for the Opera House to see a special matinee.
“What’s playing?” Sandy asked as he ducked away from Russell’s hastily constructed snowball.
“Ida’s Christmas,” replied Jamie. “It’s about a poor girl who finds a purse and goes looking for the owner. Are you going sledding tomorrow? We can use High Street in the morning, and they may let us go down Symonds in the afternoon if it keeps snowing.”
“I don’t know,” Sandy replied. “Last time it snowed, Mom said I could only go down Donkey Hill by Phemie’s house.”
“That’s just because she wants you to marry Phemie,” teased Russell, as he ducked return fire from Sandy, and then ran to catch up with his friends.
After successful negotiations with Mr. Weaving, Sandy and Phemie headed back up Roberts Street, singing “Jingle Bells” as loudly as possible, until they arrived at Belle Thompson’s Dry Goods for their first purchase of the afternoon. Sandy’s mother had asked the two children to pick out a gift for Dr. Frost and his wife for their baby, who had arrived the week before in the new hospital. They selected a hand-embroidered sleeping gown and left the shop just as Charlotte O’Connell and Vera Bickle were entering. The older girls, who both attended Ladysmith High School, were also doing some last minute shopping. Vera’s father had decided to close his shop early and gave her permission to accompany Charlotte to pick up her dress for the New Year’s party and dance at the new Finn Hall on Roberts. Charlotte had to be home by 6:00 to help her mother and sister finish baking the tourtieres and other holiday dishes for their late night supper. A new priest — the third for St. Mary’s since Father Nicolaye had left in 1910 — was sharing the special meal with them after the Midnight mass. Her mother wanted everything to be “perfect.” Vera and close friend Belle Gourlay would also attend a special Carol service that evening in the Presbyterian Church on High Street, but unlike Charlotte, they would have to wait until Christmas morning to open their gifts.
The children made quick stops on First Avenue to pick up some pressed shortbread at the Scotch Bakery and raisins, dates and figs from Morrison’s. Her mother had cautioned her to make certain the Christmas pudding ingredients were weighed accurately, as the dried fruit cost 25 cents a pound! Mr. Morrison also had holly for sale at 50 cents a pound and a number of bedraggled Douglas fir trees leaned against the storefront, with a sign reading “Christmas Eve special: Your pick for 2 cents a foot.” They were amazed that anyone would actually buy a tree when the town was surrounded by them. Next, it was off to Cavin’s Shoe Store to buy a Christmas present for Phemie’s dad. Her brother and two sisters had decided to pool their money this year, and they had all agreed that a pair of sheepskin slippers would make a perfect gift.
Next, they hurried down Gatacre to the “Big Store” to pick out something for Sandy’s mother. It was getting close to supper, and Mr. Leiser was already putting away the two sandwich boards from in front of the building. One sign listed the “daily holiday specials,” while the other reminded customers that the store would be closed for Christmas Day. The paint on the front of the building still showed scorch marks where the terrible fire in March had come perilously close to adding Leiser’s to the list of Gatacre Street businesses that had been destroyed. Inside, the friends considered several gift possibilities: an embroidered silk handkerchief for 25 cents, a tortoiseshell barrette for 75 cents or Lowney’s chocolates. They were his mother’s favourite candy, but cost $1 for a box! Noting the children’s quandary (and anxious to get home for his own dinner), Store Manager Mr. Weaver let them have the chocolates for a “special Christmas price” of 50 cents.
The delighted children now crossed the street and entered Ladysmith Pharmacy to buy a stocking gift for each of their siblings. Every year, Mr. Jessup brought in Christmas ribbon candy all the way from England for the Christmas season. The children preferred this treat to the peppermint candy canes for sale at both Mr. Thomas’s confectionery and Ed Jones’s grocery. As they made their way to the cash desk with their delicacy, they politely greeted Mrs. Gould and Mrs. Giovando, who were just leaving Jessup’s after purchasing cherry cough syrup for their friend, Mrs. Hutchinson, who was “down with the flu.”
Now it was off to the Ladysmith Hardware Store. Sandy’s father had recently purchased a new paraffin stove from Mr. Rollston, but to his wife’s chagrin, had neglected to enter his name in the New Year’s Eve draw. First prize was a choice of either a new McClary range or a Champion washing machine, and Mrs. Strang would be delighted to win either one. They paused to admire the Nativity scene in the window of Thomas & Harris Dry Goods and waved across the street to Mr. Clay, who was clearing the sidewalk in front of his High Street home.
Their final stop was Knight’s new bookstore on First Avenue. Mr. Knight always made a special effort to decorate his shop window for the holidays and this year, the display included for the first time a string of the new electric lights that were rapidly replacing the traditional (but very dangerous) candles on the Christmas tree. Inside the shop, a new Edison phonograph played Christmas carols. Special wax cylinders were for sale at 40 cents for two minutes of play or 65 cents for four minutes in the deluxe concert version. After watching Mrs. Knight change cylinders, Phemie and Sandy spent time selecting Christmas gift wrap, ribbon and tags, as well as special greeting cards for their parents.
It was almost dark now, and the snow was falling heavily. However, the new cement sidewalks on First provided good traction, and in a few minutes, it was time to part. As Sandy began the slippery climb home up Roberts Street, he turned and cried out, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
“I’ll see you after supper at church, silly!” she called back. As Euphemia walked the last two blocks through the snow to her home on the corner of White Street, she imagined the excited faces of her family as they opened their presents Christmas morning. It’s just like Reverend McMillan told us last Sunday, she thought. It is fun opening presents, but it is even more fun giving them.
– Ed Nicholson