Published in The Gazette for New Year’s 2011
In the first decade of the twentieth century, now more than a century ago, affluent Montrealers celebrated the arrival of the New Year with great pomp. The principal source of information about what was happening in the city on New Year’s Day was, of course, the local newspapers.
For instance, on December 31, 1907, the Montreal Star ran a list of functions that would take place in the town the following day. Not surprisingly, as Canada was still a British colony at the time, at least a dozen of these occurrences were military in nature. While more often than not the Old Drill Hall on Craig Street (today St. Antoine) was used as a reception hall for the bigger events, occasionally churches were employed for that same purpose. This was certainly the case with the old Trinity Church on St. Denis Street, a heritage building just recently demolished by seemingly indifferent City Hall.
Houses of worship naturally played an important part in the manner in which the arrival of the New Year was commemorated. Most churches of all denominations had special ‘watch night’ services around midnight with many ministers’ sermons stressing the good fortune of those in their congregation. On January 1, 1909, for example, all clerics inevitably spoke about the catastrophic earthquake which had struck Messina, Sicily, only days earlier, killing an estimated 100,000 people.
In addition to the numerous military and ecclesiastic gatherings, Montreal’s respective curling clubs organized many special happenings with regard to the advent of the New Year. It’s worth noting that in that same 1907 Star report, there were at least a half dozen curling associations listed as sponsoring New Year’s Day activities for interested citizens, clearly reflecting the tremendous interest amongst Montrealers in this winter activity.
As well, the Victoria Skating Rink on Drummond Street (a structure which more or less still stands today as a parking garage) also made itself available to special skating parties to usher in the New Year. An orchestra would usually be present to accompany the skaters as they glided about the historic edifice that had opened to the public in 1862.
Inevitably, the most prestigious events took place in the old Windsor Hotel on Dominion Square. When it first opened in 1878, the hotel was the largest in North America and it quickly became the heart of prominent social events held within the city. This included the traditional St. Andrew’s Day Ball and Fancy Dress Carnival Ball, the latter usually held in late winter. In Edwardian times, the Windsor was more often than not fully booked by the Montreal’s’ elite anxious to see, and be seen by their peers.
Of course, New Year’s celebrations were not limited to the upper classes. The holiday was also marked by those not so fortunate as to live within the confines of the Golden Square Mile. At a time when most labourers worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, a change in the daily routine was greatly appreciated by all.
Not surprisingly, then as today, alcohol played a pivotal role in the year-end popular fête. Montreal had always had a well-merited reputation in so far as the relative ease with which ‘intoxicating spirits’ could usually be obtained. Saloons (as drinking establishments were so often styled a century ago) were to be found a little bit everywhere in the town. Throughout the Edwardian decade many of them operated illegally on Sundays and other holidays. Police were regularly bribed for their ‘understanding’ about the back door of the establishment in question being kept unlocked! However, on at least two occasions in the autumn of 1908, ‘Letters to the Editor’ appeared in a Montreal daily questioning why the law with regard to Sunday drinking was not being enforced.
Therefore, with the build-up to the holidays, City Hall decreed in December of that same year that both Christmas 1908 and New Year’s Day 1909 would be ‘closed door days’, meaning that all city saloons would be locked shut – both doors. The experience, while generally-speaking begrudged by the working class, was reported to have been a ‘success’ with most bars closed in the popular wards of the municipality.
Needless to say, those with money were able to get around the restriction by eating (and drinking!) in the fashionable restaurants in the upper parts of the city.
Below, Drill Hall on Craig Street, circa. 1910 –