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Christmas at Craigdarroch



From Bruce Davies, Curator

 No one knows exactly how the Dunsmuirs celebrated Christmas at Craigdarroch. If they were like most people in late 19th Century Victoria, they had a Christmas tree, decorated mantles, window frames and pictures with greenery, and sent and received Christmas cards. They likely also exchanged gifts with friends and loved ones. They surely had Christmas dinner - very likely boar or goose.

 We have very sparse specific information on the Dunsmuirs and Christmas. In the Castle's Museum Collection is a book called Girl’s Own Annual (see . Inside the front cover written by hand in ink is..."To Norah, from Mrs. Dunsmuir, Craigdarroch, 1906”. You can see this book in the Sitting Room.

 Also in Mrs. Dunsmuir's Sitting Room, is a nice pastel painting of Mary Croft, her daughter. In a round-a-bout way, this painting has shed light on Dunsmuir's and Christmas. Catherine Waters of Salt Spring Island donated this piece to the Society several years ago. Mrs. Waters is Mary Croft's great niece and great-granddaughter of Robert and Joan Dunsmuir through the Bryden family line.

 Mrs. Waters told me that for a while she lived with her "Aunt Mary" at Mt. Adelaide, the fabulous Croft home at West Bay (part of Victoria's Harbour). She explained that Christmas at Mt. Adelaide was a very festive time. Mary gathered 20-25 small Christmas tree in the huge main hall of the house and decorated them with little gifts. As these were finished, Mary's chauffeur 'Saunders' loaded the trees into the car and delivered them to the homes of less fortunate people Mary knew.

 Christmas parties at Mt. Adelaide were a bit on the wild side. Mrs. Waters recounted one year as a child, when, during a party, she and some friends began riding silver platters down the staircase. Aunt Mary caught them and sent them off to bed. But the adults’ party was too loud and kept the children awake. They got out of bed to see what the commotion was. To their delight, many of the grown-ups were themselves riding down the stairs on silver platters!

 On the side table near the north window you can also see a book called Book of Hospitality and Record of Guests. The front page is signed Laura Dunsmuir and the book was given as a Christmas gift in 1910.

 In the showcase display in Joan’s bedroom you’ll see a delightful little Christmas card featuring numerous kittens and a tiny mouse. The card is signed by Joan Dunsmuir and was sent to someone long ago.

 Several years ago, volunteer researchers scoured old newspapers in search of references to the Dunsmuir family. I had a look through some of the December papers in search of information on Dunsmuirs and Christmas. Here are some details:

 Victoria Daily Times, December 24, 1887: “The Hon. Robert and Mrs. Dunsmuir were amongst the passengers from the Sound this morning. They were amongst the guests at the driving of the last spike on the Oregon and California Railway. Their sons, Messrs. Jas. and Alex. Dunsmuir, of San Francisco accompanied them”. Could we conclude from this story that the Dunsmuir clan might have been gathering in Victoria to celebrate Christmas together?

 Victoria Daily Colonist, December 1890: “The much talked about St. John’s Bazaar, which promises to be one of the best events of the kind ever provided in Victoria, opens in the Philharmonic Hall today. A large number of articles of taste and beauty will be offered for sale by the ladies of the congregation, and a genuine old English luncheon will be served at noon. The great attraction, however, will be the production of the popular operetta, “High Life”, under the direction of Mrs. I. W. Powell. Among the ladies who have kindly consented to take stalls are Mrs. Newton, the Misses Dunsmuir, the Misses Finlayson, Mrs. Snowden...”

 The next issue of the paper reported: “By taking a stroll through the various stalls, something can be found to suit every taste, no matter how critical. At the first, on the extreme right, will be found beautiful dressing cases, fans, and Christmas presents, offered for sale by Mrs. Nelson of Government House, Mrs. Walkem, and Miss Dunsmuir...ceramics occupy the third pretty table behind which stand Mrs. Snowden, Miss Effie Dunsmuir, and Miss Jones...In the evening, the hall was again crowded, the entertainment being in charge of Mrs. Powell who is well known as a provider of good things...The striking sextet—Miss Dunsmuir, Miss Powell, Miss Ida Loewen, Mrs. Barnard, and Messrs. Tytler and Loewen—also made a tremendous hit: their music being of the best quality and well appreciated.”


 The ‘Christmas at Craigdarroch’ Event

 The event known as 'Christmas at Craigdarroch' was started by the Junior Service League of Victoria in 1984. The League came up with the idea as a fund raiser for their charitable organization but operated it only two years. The early events were very glitzy¾many lights, animated gnomes with electric motors, topiary elephants on dining chairs, electric trains, etc. Each year, various major businesses were given whole rooms to decorate. The effect was usually lovely, even breath-taking, but did not accurately reflect decorating customs of the late nineteenth Century. That said, it is very important to acknowledge and thank the League for their early work with the Castle. We are grateful to them for creating an annual event of such prominence in our community.

 Gradually, over the years, we have become somewhat more conservative in our approach to decorating at the Castle. As I said at the outset, we don't really know how Mrs. Dunsmuir and her daughters decorated the Castle. It is safe to say that they didn't decorate the building as thoroughly as we do today. We decorate as comprehensively as we do primarily to please the visitors. Many of our decorative treatments are representative of trends popular in Victoria 100 years ago. Some are not. For many years now, the heart and hands of Sherry Kerr have created the best Christmas decorating the Castle has ever seen. We are eternally grateful to Sherry for her devotion to Craigdarroch.

History of the Christmas Festival

 In order to give you some background on Christmas, I have gleaned some interesting titbits from a Dover Publications reprint of a book by Clement A. Miles first published in 1912 under the title, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. This scholarly work is exhaustive in its analysis of European Christmas customs, and is extensively footnoted with bibliographic references.

Mr. Miles introduces the reader immediately to the underlying theme of the book, which is, that virtually every Christmas custom we now enjoy has at its root the satisfaction of primal human needs coming from early Roman and Pagan traditions. What the early Church could not put down or chose to ignore, was ultimately modified into a Christian (Christmas) festival, ritual, or custom. To quote Mr. Miles:

It has been an instinct in nearly all peoples, savage or civilised, to set aside certain days for special ceremonial observances, attended by outward rejoicing...It is difficult to be religious, impossible to be merry, at every moment of life, and festivals are as sunlit peaks, testifying above dark valleys, to the eternal radiance.

Mr. Miles argues that the object of these festivals in the Christian Church have the object of "quickening the devotion of the believer by contemplation of the mysteries of the faith".

The first Christmas celebration actually held on December 25 took place in Rome about the middle of the fourth century. The first reference to the nativity feast is found in the Roman document called the Philocalian Calendar (AD 354). In 567 the English Council of Tours declared the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany a festival of tide and the laws of Ethelred (991-1016) ordained it a time of "peace and concord among Christian men". In Germany, the Synod of Mainz established Christmas in 813¾in Norway, King Hakon The Good declared Christmas about the mid 10th century.

The early celebrations of the birth of Christ and of his Baptism on the same day stem from Luke's gospel which states that he was Baptised on his 30th birthday. The celebration of both events on one day was considered by the Church to promote heretical views and so it was eventually split into two celebrations. However, the Armenians still celebrate Christmas and the epiphany on the same day.

The French term Noel has equivalents in other languages and comes from the Latin Natalus meaning, birthday. One of course assumes this refers to the birth of Jesus Christ, but it could come from another birthday celebrated by Romans of the Empire on the same day¾that being the birth of the unconquered Sun on December 25 (the winter solstice according to the Julian Calendar). Robert and Joan Dunsmuir’s granddaughter Elizabeth Georgina Harvey was born on December 25 and was called “Noel” by her friends and family.

Virtually every month of the year has been noted or claimed as the month of the nativity, but it is generally believed that December 25 was chosen because of the Pagan festival recognizing the winter solstice. The term Yule is Scandinavian in origin and believed to derive from a Germanic (Teutonic) festival celebrating the New Year. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon hweol (wheel) and relates to the course of the sun and of the wheeling points of the solstices and equinoxes. The Yule festival is believed to have been started around the same time that Christian teachings began expanding into Barbarian lands.

 The Monks of the early Church (and their leaders in Rome) adhered to view that love of the world and the things in it caused a barrier between humans and God. The early Pagan festivals celebrated earthly things like the harvest, fertility and the solstices. The festivals were really celebrations of love or 'yes' to the world in opposition to early Church doctrine. What is today Christmas and New Year’s Day were originally two festivals standing for the most opposed of principles. The Church fought against the lusty Roman Kalend festivals associated with the new year but eventually gave in. Christmas time eventually became "merry, warm, and homely" as it is today.

 From the fourth to the thirteenth century most hymns were doctrinal in nature rather than human, that is, focusing on the child in the manger. This is likely because the whole observance of Christmas was as a Church festival. During the Dark and early Middle Ages there existed a sort of division; Monastic theologians celebrating Christmas in their formal way (often speaking a language people didn't understand) and the lay people celebrating it in their happy way while incorporating Pagan superstitions¾likely attending Church mostly out of fear. As Miles points out, early lay Christmas was "a feast of material good things, a time for fulfillment of traditional heathen usages rather than joyous celebration of the Saviour's birth.

Nativity Scenes

St. Francis of Assisi and his monks were instrumental in melding for the common person the Divine side of the nativity with its human side. St. Francis is the first person documented as creating a nativity scene (Presepio in Italian). He did this in 1224. Through the actions and teachings of Francis, people were "moved by affectionate devotion to the babe of Bethlehem as a living child, God who felt the cold of winter and the roughness of the manger bed".

Eventually, miniature clay figures used to depict the nativity scene, or Presepio, were sold in Rome's Piazza Navona. Centuries earlier, miniature clay figures associated with the Roman festival Saturnalia were sold in the same location.

As I have already indicated, the early ecclesiasts were major antagonists of the early Pagan customs. The customs were repressed and driven underground or they were ignored¾eventually to be assimilated into the Christian customs.

'Saturnalia' was an ancient Roman festival held just a few days before 'Kalends' and was a time of great revelry. According to Lucian (as translated by H. W. and F.G. Fowler, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, Oxford, 1904) Saturnalia festivities were marked by:

 "drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of Kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water".

 According to Lucian, special formal legislation governed society during this festival too, much in the spirit one might ascribe to Santa Claus during Christmas:

 "All business, be it public or private, is forbidden during the feast days, save such as tends to sport and solace and delight. Let none follow their avocations saving cooks and bakers. All men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another. Anger, resentment, threats, are contrary to law. No discourse shall be either composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, conducing to mirth and jollity".

 The Roman 'Kalends' festival celebrated the new year and followed 'Saturnalia' by a few days. A major emphasis of 'Kalends' was the giving of gifts, a striking resemblance to the modern Christmas custom.

 The most important historic festival for children is St. Nicholas' Day. The Protestant Church is largely responsible for the association of St. Nicholas with Christmas owing to its concern with the worship of saints. Saint Nicholas was a fourth century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor and is known as the Patron Saint of boys. Legends of his infant piety and later wondrous works for the benefit of young people abound. In eastern Europe and Italy, he is also the Saint of seafaring men. He brings sweet things for good children, and 'rods' for the bad.

 In various parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, he is mimed by a man dressed as a bishop. Children pray to the Saint and leave hay for his white ass and schnapps for his servant. If they've been good the fodder is gone, replaced by sweets or toys.

 During the middle ages in Germany, the practice of 'Kindelwiegen', or cradle rocking, was prevalent until Protestant influences diminished it. The practice involved people dancing and singing around a recreated cradle of Jesus, rocking it periodically. In upper Austria, the practice of passing around a wooden baby representing Jesus for the congregation to kiss was in practice as late as 1883.

The Christmas Tree, Decorations, and Gifts

A popular story is that Martin Luther set up a tree for his children after walking home on a starry night and thinking about how Christ came down from the sky. The first actual mention of Christmas trees is from the writing of a Strasbourg citizen in 1605:

"At Christmas, they set up fir trees in the parlours at Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured papers, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets...”

The first documented use of candles on trees is 1737.  Pyramids made of wood and decorated with green twigs, coloured paper and candles were common forms of Christmas trees in Europe in the 18th and 19th Century. By 1840, the English version of these pyramids were covered with gilt evergreens, apples, nuts, etc.

Most of you are aware that in 1840 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a Christmas tree. The London Illustrated News featured an illustration of this tree and soon the custom brought by Albert from Germany had spread across England.

 Dr. Alexander Tille (one of the major German Christmas scholars) speculated that Christmas trees came down from a union of two elements: the old Roman custom of decking out houses with laurels and green trees during the 'Kalends' festival of January; and the popular belief (during 18th century) that apple and other trees blossomed at the time of the New Year or on Christmas.

 The use of coloured papers, gilt fruit, glass balls, tinsel, etc. on trees today is believed to stem from a custom dating back to the 'Kalends' festival. The custom involved forcing plants to blossom prematurely by bringing them into heated buildings around the New Year.

 You will notice that Darren and Frank have done a lovely job of putting Christmas decorations on the exterior of the Castle. The practice of decorating building exteriors is documented back to Roman times. In spite of early Church condemnation of the practice, it spread across Europe and was seen on church and domestic architecture in England as far back as the 15th century when Stow wrote "every man's house, as also the parish churches (were) decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green".

 Holly and yew fragments were commonly stuck into the pews at church. There was some early ecclesiastical taboo associated with the use of mistletoe during Christmas, but even that was apparently not universal as it was laid on the alter at York minster during an early period.

 The practice of kissing under the mistletoe seems to be largely an English custom though there are some early references to something like it in Austria involving pine boughs. Mistletoe itself is associated with Tuetonic myth and Celtic ritual. Known as (and still in Welsh) "all healer", mistletoe was believed to be a remedy for poison. It was also believed to make barren animals fertile. In some European cultures, it is believed that mistletoe will avert misfortune. The cutting of the mistletoe from an oak may have preceded the sacrifice of cattle or even humans in Pagan Britain. The actual practice of kissing under the mistletoe seems, according to Miles, "due to an imagined relation between the love of the sexes and the spirit of fertility in the sacred bough, and it may be a vestige of the licence often permitted at early folk festivals”.

 Holly too has Pagan roots. It was tied into a cloth and placed under the pillow of a person who wanted prophetic dreams. It was hated by witches - not because of any pre-Christmas sanctity but rather due to the association of thorns and blood red berries with the Crucifixion of Christ.

Christmas Feasting

In every country with a Christian population, a distinctive meal is associated with the Christmas season. In England, the boar is associated with Christmas for the longest period, and likely due to its early sacrificial role in society. The turkey is relatively recent, seeming to arrive in the sixteenth century. The pig is the traditional Christmas meat in most other European countries as well. In some countries fish and to a lesser extent, eel is the Christmas food of choice.

The term "Wassail" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon wes hal which means "be whole". Wassailing is, in essence, the wishing of a person's very good health. It involves drinking, and historically in England involved singers of carols going to the homes of their wealthier neighbours with cups or bowls which these neighbours were expected to fill with drink. The wassail bowl was often filled with a beverage called "lambswool" which consisted of spiced ale with apples.

Certain types of cake abound as Christmas food in Europe. The most remarkable is the Swedish and Danish "Yule Boar" a loaf in the shape of a boar. The German's placed particular emphasis on the significance of breads and cakes during Christmas. In fact, many German museums hold collections of old Christmas breads and cookies!

There is a custom across Europe to feed farm animals more food and to generally treat them better at Christmas time. The practice is an act of gratitude for the role the animals played in keeping the Lord warm and it may also have relevance to the old Pagan beliefs about fertility and the New Year rituals.

 Relics of Sacrifice

There are numerous instances of sacrifice in relation to Christmas; killing of cats and dogs in Germany and Bohemia; wrens in England and France. As late as 1910, 'Hunting the Wren' was still in practice in Ireland.


Please let me know if you have any questions about Christmas at Craigdarroch. I’ll do my best to answer them. I can be reached at 250-592-5323 or by email:

Merry Christmas! Bruce.