Published in the Montreal Gazette on December 20, 2014
Ever wonder what it would have been like to experience a Christmas in Montreal many, many years ago? Let’s say, for instance, 1909! Not a bad one to choose – the last Yuletide of the Edwardian Period.
For most Montrealers, Christmas 1909 could not have come soon enough. The year had been a particularly trying one, what with various disasters of local concern.
Explosions, assorted fires, industrial accidents, street fatalities, and later a major typhoid epidemic, all caused frazzled Montrealers to look forward to the festive season, and a new and, hopefully, better year.
Without doubt, the most spectacular mishap of 1909 occurred on St. Patrick’s Day when a fateful train from Boston crashed through the safety buffer at Windsor Station careering onto the main concourse of the depot itself, killing five people and gravely injuring another eleven. Indeed, so calamitous was the affair, Montrealers were still talking about it as Christmas approached.
Other events overwhelmed Montreal in 1909, making the holiday season even more longed for than usual. In fact, an eight – month investigation into whispered widespread City Hall corruption came to an end just 12 days before Christmas. Styled the Cannon Royal Commission, the December report revealed the extensive nature of the patronage practice in the city. Although long suspected, its dramatic confirmation was a bitter ethical pill for most citizens to swallow.
Of course, Christmas was in 1909, as throughout the Edwardian Period, only a one-day holiday. However, as many people at the time toiled a six-day week, the extra day off was much appreciated, and as Christmas that year fell on a Saturday, that simple fact actually resulted in labourers getting two consecutive days off from work.
Certainly, one of the most important differences between Christmas a century ago and Christmas today was the length of the season. During the Edwardian Period, Christmastide, and all that that implied, started on the Christian calendar with the First Sunday of Advent, which in 1909, was November 28. It was only around this time that Christmas advertising for commercial purposes began to appear in the city’s newspapers, including the Gazette. On the other hand, charitable causes usually started their campaigns earlier in November.
In that regard, the kick-off to that joyous time of year was usually the Montreal Star’s ‘Christmas Doll Campaign’. The seasonal drive would see women, both young and old, dispatch to the newspaper’s office daintily – dressed dolls for distribution by Santa Claus to the city’s hospitals and orphanages. Those who played a part had their name and address printed in the paper, along with the number of decorated playthings they were sending in.
Around the same time, a parallel crusade took place specifically for the benefit of the Children’s Memorial Hospital, as it was known then. Located in 1909 on Cedar Avenue, the hospital was always in need of pecuniary assistance. What better time for a financial drive than Christmas!
Entitled ‘Christmas Subscriptions for the Children’s Hospital’, the campaign saw citizens forward a letter to be published in the newspaper, along with a monetary donation for the children’s hospice.
In the true spirit of the season, people of all means and all ages contributed, including one Alice Robertson of Pointe St. Charles, who wrote, on December 1, 1909: “I am only a charwoman, and can send you only a mite for the Children’s Hospital. I enclose two dollars.” That is almost $45.00 in today’s money – from a cleaning lady!
The issue of Christmas shopping hours was, in 1909, rather tricky, mostly because there was really no legal framework with which store-opening hours were regulated – or, at least, not one that was fully enforced. Generally speaking, if there were still Christmas customers in a shop, or even desiring to come into the business, the commerce would remain open.
In 1909, just as the holiday purchasing season opened, a letter to the editor of the Montreal Star appeared on November 30, in which the penman made this direct appeal to Montrealers: “Christmas trade has always been, and to all appearances always will be, more or less of a rush, and the two weeks preceding are a great strain on the nerves and health of the clerks.”
Only a week later, the newspaper itself in a brief editorial encouraged purchasers to show “a certain amount of good-will for the thousands of retail clerks to whom last minute shopping means over-work and a spoiled Christmas.” Aggravating the issue of late store hours was the fact that many of the extra helpers hired for the season were children who found themselves wandering home alone – quite often late at night.
Just a week before Christmas, the Henry Morgan’s Department Store (today, The Bay) took out a full-page ad in local papers to the effect that the Ste – Catherine Street department store would stay open each of the remaining seven days before December 25 until 10:00 in the evening, although the emporium also joined the chorus in urging people to shop early.
The same announcement hinted at an enriching Edwardian Christmas novelty: electrical lighting brightening up city stores and streets.
There were, in addition to Morgan’s, many newly – electrified department stores in Montreal in 1909, most found along a burgeoning and dazzling Ste – Catherine Street: Dupuis Frères at St. André, Carlsey’s at University, John Murphy at Metcalfe, Scroggie’s at Peel, and Ogilvy’s a little further west at Mountain Street.
Affluent Montrealers quite often travelled at Christmas. In 1909, several ships sailed for the Old World surfeit with holiday trekkers. The unhurried voyage took about a week and most passengers did not return until early spring.
One of the principal vessels used for trans – Atlantic passages was the S.S. Victorian that belonged to the Allan Line, which was based in Liverpool. On Wednesday, December 8, over 1,000 holidaymakers left the then slowly restored Windsor Station by train headed for the winter seaport of St. John, New Brunswick, where they would catch the 10,635-ton ‘Victorian’ for England. The S.S. ‘Lake Manitoba’ would leave from that same Bay of Fundy harbour the day after the ‘Victorian.’
By the end of that same week, Windsor Station alone was handling daily some 5,000 festive travellers as they withdrew from the city by train for various North American destinations. This number increased to 10,000 a day or two before Christmas Eve when the diverse railway lines made all of their rolling stock available for passenger conveyance.
Of course, most Montrealers in 1909 could not afford the time off work to journey by train or ship at any time of the year, let alone Christmas. In these cases, the Post Office tried to fill the void.
With the number of immigrants arriving in the city constantly increasing, the demand for postal services in order for them to keep in touch with loved ones at home also rose. Frequently, home-sick individuals would drop by William Notman’s Studio in the Windsor Hotel so as to have a photo taken to send along with their cheerful greeting.
In 1909 alone, the growth in the Christmas postal volume was in the order of 40 percent. That single fact caused the Post Office in Montreal to engage the services of an additional 80 employees for that year’s seasonal rush along with an extra 125 horse – drawn delivery vehicles.
On December 16, two tonnes of assorted greeting cards and packages arrived from overseas on the Royal Mail Ship ‘Oceanic’ to be distributed throughout the city, “including ambiguously addressed ones, which require a special staff to decipher.”
By December 22, the volume for delivery in Montreal had increased to an incredible five tonnes. Not surprisingly, with Christmas so close, distribution postal waggons were given priority on city streets with some police officers mimicking the British habit of doing just that ‘in the King’s name’.
In general, the week before Christmas the pace picked up considerably, what with the Old Brewery Mission making a last minute appeal on December 21 for support for the city’s “deserving poor” and “to let the Mission do your charity.” Churches, including Christ Church Cathedral that was celebrating its 50th anniversary that very year, were all busily preparing for solemn services for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Full attendance at all services was widely anticipated, and usually attained.
An Edwardian Christmas was normally a feel – good time, and 1909 was no exception to that rule. Both the Gazette (which published on Christmas Day) and the Montreal Star (which didn’t) ran the requisite earnest Christmas editorial. La Presse did also, although they too did not put out a paper on December 25.
As for weather, the Gazette merrily reported Christmas morning that snow would arrive later that day – just in time for the traditional family gathering, and mealtime.
Happy 2014 Holidays to all! Joyeuses Fêtes à tous!