On Christmas Day 1865, the Montreal Gazette issued a special holiday supplement (below) for the enjoyment of its many faithful readers. This unique edition provides a wealth of information about what our city was like at holiday time, 150 years ago this month.

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By the middle of the 1860’s, it should be recalled, Montreal was a colonial town of slightly more than 100,000 people. Some were rich, while others, many others, were wretchedly poor. Christmas was a short but welcome distraction for most.

The year 1865 had not been a particularly easy one for the burgeoning municipality. Indeed, the Victorian town was becoming noticeably dirty, with household garbage and various animal carcasses littering numerous public places. Youth crime was up, with the wayward youngsters, many of “tender years”(as was so often reported), being sent off to the common jail to serve their time in near proximity to hardened criminals.

Boys were no longer even permitted to play baseball in city parks and other public places as the activity had been curiously forbidden by civic ordinance earlier that same year.

Christmas shopping was more judicious in the 1860’s for there was not the abundance of relatively inexpensive products to choose from that we are so familiar with today. Neither was there, a century and a half ago, the widespread wealth and easy credit that we currently come across.

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In 1865, the first Christmas advertisement to appear in the regular daily Montreal Gazette did so on December 9 (below), considerably later than what occurs nowadays. In it, the James Morison Dry Goods Store on Notre Dame Street peddled a variety of women’s dresses all greatly marked down, and disseminated in the old British currency that Canada used at the time. No images whatsoever accompanied the rather modest and matter-of-fact announcement.

Gazette,December9,1865

On a different note, even though the disastrous American Civil War had ended earlier that same year, the United States economy was still struggling. The end result being that most imported Christmas goods to our island city still came from Great Britain, although a profusion of items was also manufactured within Montreal itself.

In this regard, Savage & Lyman (below), one of the town’s most reputable businesses of the 1850’s and 1860’s, promoted their famous merchandise in the 1865 Gazette supplement. Silversmiths in the finest Canadian tradition, Savage & Lyman manufactured gold and silver watches, fine jewellery, electro-plated ware, table cutlery, and marble mantle clocks. The superior quality of their products was such that the Gazette at one time volunteered that they were “the most convincing proof that Canada need not in future import presentation sets from abroad.”

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Their celebrated shop was located in the ‘Cathedral Block’ diagonally opposite Notre Dame Church in what is today Old Montreal. The historic structure that housed the firm still stands to this day, although the commerce is now long gone.

Unlike the times in which we live where the secular nature of the joyful holiday is front and centre, religion played a major, if not the primary part in Yuletide festivities in the 1860’s. Churches abounded, with several new ones having just recently made an appearance on Ste. Catherine Street (today’s Christmas avenue of choice), two of which, Christ Church Cathedral (1859) and the Church of St. James the Apostle (1864), survive to this day. Parenthetically, the latter house of worship was erected on the southwest corner of the city’s nineteenth century cricket field, necessitating the positioning of a metallic grille over the edifice’s colourful stain glass window overlooking Bishop Street. Despite, the disappearance of this sports pitch at the turn of the twentieth century, the protective screen was only removed in September of 2003!

Two other ecclesiastic structures were also present on St. Catherine Street in 1865 but have since disappeared – Erskine Presbyterian Church (below),nearing completion in December of that year, at Peel Street and Eglise St – Jacques at St. Denis, today two ongoing elements of which are incorporated into the Université du Québec à Montréal.

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In addition to the four churches, there were a few other non-residential buildings on Ste. Catherine Street of note. For instance, the Sisters of Providence nunnery stood at the corner of St. Hubert Street where, for 120 years, the good sisters served a soup lunch to the city’s needy, which was particularly appreciated at Christmas. Moreover, the Protestant Orphan Asylum, where an extra effort was always made at Yuletide to bring a little joy to the heartbreaking lives of the young ones, was found at the corner of Stanley in the town’s west end.

Finally, the city’s Crystal Palace (inspired by the massive glass citadel erected in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851) stood near University Street (below). As Montreal was at the time a garrison town, our own Crystal Palace was frequently used by the British military to stage seasonal productions. One such ‘Promenade Concert’ attracted some three thousand Montrealers to the site in 1865, just eleven days before Christmas.

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Whether located on Ste. Catherine Street or elsewhere in the city, Montreal’s many churches were almost always chock-full for Christmas services. In 1865, however, the tiny avenue (“an unpaved road, on marshy ground with a stream running through it”) still served mostly a residential vocation. As well, since 1861, a single track ran down the centre of the road to facilitate the town’s omnibus public transportation network, which, just before Christmas in 1865, took the form of several horse drawn sleighs running the length of the soon-to-be famous road (below, on Craig Street in 1870).

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In December of that year two eminent Montrealers resided on the street and were surely preparing for the period revelry in their own separate sectarian ways. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, then colonial Minister of Agriculture, lived at the corner of Drummond Street and the famous printer and publisher, John Lovell, dwelt at the corner of Union, where today is located The Bay Building. As we all know, the former was assassinated in 1868 and buried through Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Church while the latter, a devout Anglican, died in 1893. They were close friends.

As Christmas Day approached in 1865, the weather, after an unusually mild autumn, became increasingly cold and snowy. For that reason, ‘Guilbault’s Glaciarum’ opened for skating on the evening of December 20. Located on St. Urbain Street, just north of Sherbrooke, the popular city site was a  botanical and zoological garden during the summer months. In the winter, however, it had a very different vocation.

“A gala night will take place at this popular rink on Christmas evening, when the ice will be in fine condition, and a first – rate band will be in attendance,” reported the Gazette two days before the big day.

And if that didn’t tickle the fancy of Victorian Montrealers, the Officers of the 30th Regiment were staging their much-anticipated Christmas play in their very own Sphinx Theatre in the Molson Barracks in the city’s east end. “We understand,” pronounced the Gazette, “that every exertion has been made to make the entertainment one of the pleasantest of our Christmas festivities.”

Speaking of which, Happy Holidays to all / Joyeuses Fêtes à tous!

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