A Christmas in York Durham Headwaters is a Christmas like no other. With our abundance of small towns and villages, you’re sure to have a heartwarming experience this holiday season. You won’t find this kind of home-grown, community love at the mall or with online shopping. Our main streets are steeped in tradition this time of the year, with tree lighting ceremonies, familiar decorations and other holiday programming to raise your festive spirit.
You know what these traditions are, but do you know where they come from? To help us answer this question, we’ve asked a few of our resident YDH experts for the history that has shaped the Christmas on Main Street as we know it.
Our Holiday Roots
Today, we are proud to be a diverse and multi-cultural society. Our YDH seasonal traditions come from around the world, and are increasingly an amalgamation of cultures and their beloved celebrations. Alongside Christmas, we celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali and Chinese New Year. You will often see such icons as the Menorah, the Star of David, and flickering red lanterns in shop windows around our region at the same time that you will see Santa Claus, snow angels and beribboned bells.
But York Durham Headwaters, being a historically rural region, was originally made up of pioneer towns that were predominantly British, and its citizens brought with them their British traditions. “People in Dufferin County followed the same Christmas traditions that people all over Canada did in those earlier years,” says Laura Camilleri, Archivist for the Museum of Dufferin. “It was the same turkey, goose or ham for dinner, the same tree, the same lights, the same Santa Claus, and the same church service on Christmas eve.”
Like our evolving traditions today, these earlier traditions were well loved, and the adage Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men was taken seriously. In his 1843 novel A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens famously wrote that it is “At this festive season of the year when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” It is no surprise that people all over York Durham Headwaters sought to extend a little extra bit of kindness for the season. “There was even one year that the Gaol Governor served Christmas dinner to the inmates,” Laura recounts. Even convicted persons in YDH deserved a little holiday compassion at Christmastime.
Decorating Our Main Streets
Let us broaden our picture to our modern main streets. At the holidays, they are a reflection of the warm and fuzzies this season brings us. They are gilded head to toe (or should that be street light to lamp post?) with glittering trees large and small, festive planters, twinkle lights, candy canes, and anything else that will bring holiday cheer to all who live, work and play in YDH.
That being said, we don’t actually know where the specific tradition of decorating main street came from, funny enough. “I’ve often wondered this myself,” says Laura Camilleri of Museum of Dufferin. “My best guess—and it’s just a theory, is that lights were used to symbolize the star that led the wise men to the manger. This home decoration was just extended to the outdoors.” The theory makes sense. Main streets are, after all, where the community gathers, so why wouldn’t communities throughout York Durham Headwaters decorate their public spaces in honour of this story?
Though we don’t know how it started, we do know that the tradition of decorating Main Street has been around for a long time. As they are today, shops in earlier centuries decorated their windows for Christmas. Adorning homes, sidewalks and shop windows with evergreens at Christmas has been popular since the middle ages. The tradition can be traced back to pagan celebrations of the solstice. Greenery, it is known, represented eternal life, and was a welcome reminder of better times to weary people as they hunkered down into long stretches of the Bleak Midwinter.
The Christmas tree—arguably the best-known symbol of a Main Street Christmas—is a German tradition which dates back to the 16th century. In fact, unlike garlands and greenery which came from inside the home to the outside, the Christmas tree did not come into the home until the 18th century, according to Victoria Miller, Supervisor, Historic Programs at Black Creek Pioneer Village. It is interesting to think that those sparkling boughs in our central Main Street squares predate the glittering boughs that twinkle in our living room windows.
“Early European Christmas trees were fairly small and would sit on a table top,” Victoria says. “With large pine trees readily available in Canada and the United States, along with the invention of the Christmas Tree stand in 1876, the large trees we see today became more common.”
Did you Know… Wreathes in Victorian times were not the popular Christmas decoration they are today. “Wreaths on the door meant someone had died and the house was in mourning,” says Victoria Miller of Black Creek Pioneer Village. “Of course, as this practice died out, wreaths became popular at Christmastime. But because of the religious connotations of the era, you will see greenery decorating most of our heritage buildings, but no wreaths on the doors.”
Did you Know… Holly berries are a popular alternative in Canada to mistletoe. “The species of mistletoe which is traditional in Europe cannot be grown in North America,” Laura Camilleri of Museum of Dufferin points out. “Holly is a more abundant form of greenery here, which is why its berries are more entrenched in our North American holiday imagery.”
Story by Katherine Ryalen