Christmas: Old Style on the Canadian Prairies

Christmas: Old Style on the Canadian prairies


by Arthur Topham
December 23, 2011

Growing up on the prairies of Saskatchewan back in the late 40s and early 50s was, to say the least, a far cry from 2011.

Living without electricity or running water in itself was enough to ensure that your lifestyle would be different in so many ways. Yes, we did have a telephone and it was a community effort so to speak with a number of neighbours in the surrounding area also enjoying this modern new technology and learning how to evesdrop in so that conversations of a supposed private nature sometimes became just the opposite!

My parents were farmers. We had a quarter section of land and they worked it in order to survive. It was no easy task. For many years my father worked the fields with our team of horses before finally being able to afford a small Ford tractor in the first half of the 1950s. As well, we lived about five miles away from the nearest small town called Togo where one could buy essentials and haul your products to town in order to sell them. Apart from the actual grain crops that went in to the wheat elevator in the fall we also would take in milk and cream and butter which would then be sold to the local buyers.

It was a simple life and a challenging one but at the same time it was also a life full of riches that no money could buy or no computer might simulate. Our food came from the sweat and toil of our hands. My mother would grow a big garden each year and then in the fall can and preserve all the essential items necessary to keep us healthy throughout the long, cold, windy winter months ahead.
Dad's woodpile. Every year when winter came my Father would go out with the horses and the sleigh and chop with his axe enough standing poplar trees to last for the next year's winter wood supply. Each tree would be loaded by hand onto the sleigh which had bunks on the sides similar to what we now see on the logging trucks of today. At one point one of the neighbours would arrive with his mobile sawmill unit and there would be wood cutting day or two and all the trees bucked into stove length. In our case we used the wood in our wood cook stove that my Mother had in the kitchen. It would go throughout the day and for the most part heat the kitchen and the living room areas of our small house. When the temperatures plummeted to the minus 20 to 40 below levels we also had a small coal burning heater in the living room that my Father would load up for the nights.

Winter was a special time in that much of the hard labour of the spring and summer and fall months was over and done with and we would have way more time for recreation. Once the winter wood was cut and split and stacked and the hay and grain were in the barns and the canning and vegies were in the root cellar below the kitchen floor us kids would be free to spend our non-school hours and holidays basically doing our own thing.

Here's a shot taken with our Kodak Brownie camera back around 1952. My sister Audrey is on the far left grinning like a Cheshire cat. Next to her is my older brother David (covered in snow with his hood of fringed fur around his head) and then my eldest brother Ray with the stick in his mouth. That's me in on the right, cozy and warm in my winter coat. My Mother was a fine seamstress and would make most of our clothing on her Singer sewing machine or else knit our mitts and gloves and socks by hand. In the forefront is our dog Pal who was my constant companion for the years that I lived on the homestead. The snow is piled up and we're all enjoying it.

When we weren't building snow forts or digging tunnels we could be found either skiing or tobogganing on the hillside that sloped down to the creek next to where we lived. We would shovel off the frozen ponds by the creek and have skating parties or else play hockey or a somewhat crude form of curling. The game of curling was a lot of fun. We filled jam cans or other tin containers with water, let them freeze, then used them for curling rocks.  We had little in the way of store bought articles so being innovative and creative was not only the one option available to us but it also served to build a sense of self-reliance and ingenuity that would be useful throughout our lives.

When winter began rolling in on the prairies it also created certain challenges for those who lived out of town. As long as the snow wasn't too deep our family would be able to make it into town in our 1928 Model "A" Ford that Dad had scored somewhere along the way. Here's a shot of the family just prior to leaving for Togo on our Saturday run to deliver the cream and milk and eggs and pick up maybe $5.00 in spending money that my parents would then use for other essentials deemed necessary. That's me standing in front of my Mother. From the looks of it I would guess it was around 1950 or '51.

Of course when winter set in and the snow began mounting up and the winds began to blow as they always did the car was parked and left until the springtime. No such thing as plugging it in to keep it warm. There wasn't any "plug in" and all the current bushes at that time were under snow and not producing any voltage! It was the wind that played such a determining role in all of this. Whenever a snow storm would hit, the dirt road that led into town would be subjected to strong winds that would produce snowdrifts of varying sizes and shapes some of which would pile up anywhere from 4 to 6 feet deep. There was just no way that you could take a chance of getting stuck somewhere along that 5 mile stretch of barren landscape with the temperatures down around 30 or 40 degrees below. It would have meant freezing to death within a very short time.

Our mode of transportation during these cold periods was a small, rectangular shaped wooden structure that had a back door in it and no windows other than a very small one in the front right above the open slot where the reins from the team of horses entered into the van. Inside was a small wood heater and two benches running along the two outer walls. The whole thing sat on sleigh runners.  You can see the van behind my Father in the photo above. We would go into town during the daylight hours and usually we didn't return until after the sun had set. I can remember those trips home as vividly as though they were just yesterday. Dad would stoke the little stove up before we were ready to leave for home and after we were all inside he would give the team a signal to go and they would head off into the darkness steadily plodding their way westward toward our farm.  It was snug and cozy inside the van and pitch dark except for the glow from the damper on the little stove. Many times on our trip home we would encounter high snow drifts and the horses would have to sometimes practically leap into them and our little house on sleigh runners would jerk and sway and tip at times right over on its side as the horses struggled and lunged and pulled their way through the drifts. Once through the van would right itself and we'd carry on in the night. I recall many a trip while the moon was bright in the night sky and this gave us kids an opportunity to peek out through the little window to view the frozen white landscape glowing in the winter night and gaze at the twinkling canopy of stars above.

The other mode of transportation around the farm and within the local area was the larger sleigh that Dad would use for various tasks, be they hauling hay or wood or grain or whatever.

Here you see my sister Audrey, myself and brother David getting ready for a journey. Our cat is also giving some serious consideration to joining us on this trip.

When Christmas time came my Mother would begin baking goodies and bringing up treasures from down in the root cellar. We always raised chickens and turkeys and pigs and so there was always a fine "organic" turkey for the table along with all the vegetables and fruits also grown in a natural fashion. Fresh butter, fresh cream, fresh milk from the cows. As kids we took this all in stride never given a thought to the fact that later in our lives things such as these would eventually become the exception rather than the norm. Gifts were rare and in many instances were things that we would make for each other. My parents would always do their best though to purchase at least one present that could be shared amongst us kids. Seeing as how 3 out of 4 kids were boys it usually meant the present was something that normally males would appreciate more. My sister Audrey though was not one to be dismayed by it all and she learned at an early age how to do boy things just as good or even better than us. One Christmas we would get a Crokinole Board and it would become the center of attention throughout the long winter nights with everyone joining in to see who could shoot the best.

The next Christmas might bring us a hockey game which we would set up on the table after dinner in the evenings and everyone would join in playing. My Father was a big fan of hockey and like most of the young men of his time he had learned to skate and play the game when he was young and also played with the local team that was usually composed of the neighbourhood boys. They would travel from one small town to the next during the winter months and play for sheer sport of it all. When winter came that was when hockey also started on the radio the only other modern piece of technology that we had in our home. Saturday night was Hockey Night in Canada on the CBC and it was the big event of the day. Dad and whoever wished to would sit around the radio listening intently to the game. When hockey wasn't on though there were all sorts of other radio programs that we could tune into for entertainment.
This is a photograph of that little technological wonder that used to keep us listening for hours throughout the winter evenings. It was only about a foot long and maybe 7 or 8 inches high. It was a tube radio that Dad would hook up to a battery. We had an antenna hooked up to the side of the house on a long pole and that was our link with the outside world. No satellite dishes, no high speed internet, no television. It's hard to image really just how quickly we've developed our technological skills over the past half a century and longer.

Apart from our immediate family we would of course get together with our relatives who also lived on farms around the area. Cousins and close friends would gather at someone's home and while the adults would gather round the table for drinks and card games and lively talks all the kids would play outside until they were either half frozen or they heard the call to come in for supper. It was all so simple then and so uncomplicated. Little did we realize that within a decade or so the intensity and commercialism of today's Christmas season would soon be upon us. Looking back now I can appreciate just how lucky I was to have grown up in that environment and had the opportunity to experience life in that way.