“What did voyageurs do for holidays like Christmas ?” was a question sometimes asked at my presentations.
My short answer was “Not so much.” Our favorite holiday traditions hadn’t been invented yet, so none of the Ho-Ho-Ho Santa stuff, no tree or decorations, no cookies or concerts, no Nutcracker or Christmas Carol performances. In the early 1800s, French-Canadians only observed religious holidays like Christmas.
From “Chez Nous,” (a newsletter for French-Canadians descendants, the Janvier y Fevrier 1985 edition), I discovered that New Year’s Day, Le jour de l’an, was also an important feast day in French Canada. Families knelt for a blessing from their patriarch, kissed the female members and went out visiting friends and neighbors. Gifts were exchanged between adults, because children’s gifts were delivered by the croque mitaine. (“the mitten biter,” who I’d previously thought of as a bogeyman!) The day was full of storytelling, like the Flying Canoe, and was capped with a festive dinner. Dozens of tourtieres, spiced pork pies, and doughnuts were readied to further celebrate Le jour des rois, the days between Christmas and Jan. 6, or Epiphany.
Then I perused “Five Fur Traders of the Northwest,” which contains old journals, to see what North West Company men did on Christmas Day. Because the bourgeois were English or Scottish, they didn’t socialize much with their winterers, the French-Canadian paddlers and workers. (The spelling and capitalization are theirs.)
- Archibald McLeod, a partner at Swan River, Canada, was frustrated to be asked to supply (gun)powder, tobacco and salt to another Swan River post which was destitute. “Santa McLeod” conceded and gave them tobacco and 2 pair of shoes each!
“Jan 1, 1801. Being Christmas I gave the men a dram.”
- John Sayers, a partner at Snake River, Minnesota, offered the traditional liquor which had its unfortunate consequences—several battles! Then the day’s trade proceeded.
“Tuesday, Dec. 25, 1804. Cloudy with Snow at 10 AM La Prairie came & paid me a Visit. good accts from his post, this being Christmas Day gave a treat of Rum &c to my Men which occasiond several Battles. Bellaire brot 2 Deers from Peaux Dourson.”
- Hugh Faries, a clerk at Rainy Lake, Canada and Minnesota, began with a breakfast beverage, and did business as usual the rest of the day.
“Tuesday, Dec. 25, 1804. “This morning I gave each of the men a dram, at breakfast they began to buy rum and drank until 12 o’clock at night. Some of the X.Y. Men came down. …”
Daniel Harmon, an American, became a North West Company clerk at age 21 and kept records of his career trading with the Cree in Manitoba and British Colombia in the book “Sixteen Years in the Indian Country: The Journal of Daniel Williams Harmon 1800-1816.”
On more than half of those years there was no listing on Christmas. Harmon’s first years were discouraging, without conversation with like-minded people. He spoke French and Cree to his wife, who was 14 when they married; she learned English. Eventually they found a few friends and ways to share the holy days with them.
1803, Ft. Alexandria
“Dec. 25, Sunday. This being Christmas Day our people pay no further attention to Worldly affairs than to Drink all Day. Notwithstanding I am now in a Savage Country, yet I cannot forget that in my earlier Days I was taught to believe that this Day ought to be kept as a Day of thanksgiving in comm
emoration for the Birth of a Saviour … yet for all that I cannot flatter myself that I do observe the Day very differently from my associates.”
1805, South Branch House
“Dec. 25, Wednesday. This Day has been passed as all Christmas are in this abandoned part of the World, Drinking all Day by our Men and Dancing in the evening by all hands.”
1806, South Branch House
“Dec. 25, Thursday. As the greater part of our People are now absent from the Fort, I have in some measure been able to pass this Day somewhat like an accountable being and a Christina—that is in reading and in meditating on the birth &c. of our Saviour. In the morning I invited over Messrs. Fidler & Sutherland to breakfast with me.”
1812, Stuarts Lake
Jan.1 Wednesday. … Mr. McDougall & I dined with all of our People in the Hall, and after our repast was over I invited several of the Sicanny (Sekani) and Carrier Chiefs & most respectable Men among them to come and partake of what we had remaining — and I must acknowledge that I was surprised to see them behave with so much decency & even propriety as they did in drinking off a Flaggon or two of Rum, and after their repast was over they smoaked their Pipes and conversed rationally on the great difference there is between the manners & customs of Civilized People and those of Savages. They readily conceded that ours are superior to theirs.”
1813, Stuarts Lake
“Dec, 20 Sunday. Mr. (James?) McDougall &c arrived from McLeods Lake and are come to pass the Holy Days with us.”
“Dec 24, Thursday. On the 20th Inst, Messrs McDougall & LaRoque &c accompanied me to the other end of this Lake, each of us was in a Cariol (cariole) drawn by three Dogs and as the road was fine (upon smooth Ice) we had a pleasant excursion.”
1815-16, Fraser’s Lake
“Dec. 27. Wednesday. All of us except two of our People who remain here to take care of the Fort, are preparing to go & pass New Year’s at Stuarts Lake, and during the few Days we have been together I have past the time agreeable in the company of my two friends.
“Jan 7. Sunday: This afternoon I returned from Stuarts Lake where I remained Six Days but the concourse of People being too great to allow us to indulge ourselves much in such conversation as we would have wished.
Combining their resources
The Christmas spirit allowed bitter rivals of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company to invite each other — with occasional restrictions.
On Christmas Day 1794, William McKay (HBC) noted in his daily log regarding his NWC competitor: “Mr. Boyer invited me & men to a dance.”
- On New Year’s Day in 1824, John McLaughlin (HBC trader on the Rainy River) gave a dance to which he invited the American Fur Company trader and the women of his post — but not any of their husbands.
How the voyageurs observed Christmas depended on whether you were a worker-bee or a muckety-muck. The voyageurs relaxed with drinking and merriment (with disagreements). While the literati missed deep conversation and sacred ceremonies, they found ways to see friends, eat, dance and dogsled and be merry.
- Discover how Andre’s post observed Christmas in “Treacherous Waters.” And read Book 1: “Waters Like the Sky” —buy them through PayPal. Or get an ebook.
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“Harmon’s Journal 1800-1819; Daniel Williams Harmon, a Partner in the North West Company” Touch Wood Editions (Toronto, Canada, 2006). Originally published as “A Journal of the Voyages and travels in the Interior of North America” by Daniel Williams Harmon in Andover, Massachusetts in 1820. And as “Sixteen Years in the Indian Country: The Journal of Daniel Williams Harmon 1800-1816.” MacMillan Co. of Canada Ltd, (Toronto, Ontario, 1957).
“Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, being the Narrative of Peter Pond and the Diaries of John Macdonnel, Archibald. N. McLeod, Hugh Faries and Thomas Connor (John Sayers)” edited by Charles M. Gates. Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, 1965).