New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

A Holiday Special: Christmas as it Was in Saint John in 1808

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From the blog at

This  reflection on Christmases past in Saint John was written by Clarence Ward, and appeared in The New Brunswick Magazine, Volume 1, 1898. It first appeared in this blog in 2012, and is repeated this year for its seasonal interest.

This description is interesting and revealing, though overly air brushed and varnished. My only objection to it is the remark that “all the people were fairly well to do”, which was definitely not the case. Only the people of that class and of that neighbourhood were as well to do as described. I cannot object to all of the references to servants, even though many of them were slaves, because that is just the way that it was in 1808. It would have been better if the air brushing and varnishing had not been so thick on that matter.


Christmas Treat for Soldiers’ Children, Soldiers’ Wives League,

Centenary Church, St. John, N.B., December 1915. New Brunswick Museum


A Holiday Special: Christmas as it Was in Saint John in 1808

The year 1808, time about three o’clock in the afternoon, of a fine winter day in the middle of December. A portly gentleman, considerably past middle age, is standing on the stoop of his residence on the corner of King and Germain streets, and a young lad is on the sidewalk, looking inquiringly at him. “Run Charles, there countryman coming down the street to ‘Kent’s.’ See what he has got in his saddle bags, before Col. Billop gets hold of him.” The boy starts off and brings the countryman to the old Major, and submits his load for examination. He has two geese, a fine turkey and several pairs of chickens and partridges, which are quickly bargained for and carried into the house. Christmas is at hand and it is necessary to have the larder well supplied.

At that period the country was but sparsely settled, roads were few and did not extend far in any direction from the city, except the main road to Sussex, in which direction the country was being rapidly cleared and opened up for farming. There was no market in St. John; farmers came to town, some in wagons in summer and sleds in winter, and others from remote clearings on horseback. The only market they had was the public highway on King Street.

About this time of the year there was great rivalry amongst the householders to get first chance from any countryman coming into town with poultry or game, hence the words of the Major to his son.

The summer business was over. The West Indian fleet had sailed, the fishermen and coast settlers had loaded their “Chebacco” boats with tea, sugar tobacco and with clothing, not forgetting a “cag” (so pronounced) of Jamaica “spirits” and other necessary articles for winter supplies, and had gone to their several destinations. The town was very small and all were acquainted, and the long winters were devoted to comfort and enjoyment. The houses were solidly built to resist cold, with low ceilings and fire places wide and open; the best of hardwood was plentiful and cheap, and all the people were fairly well to do.

The Christmas holiday at that period was long looked forward to by old and young as a time of great enjoyment, and every preparation was made to give it due honor. The housewife, for many days before, was in the kitchen with her maids and the cook, who was always a colored woman. In most cases she had come with the master from the old home by the banks of the Hudson, or some other pleasant place in the land of their birth. The old Loyalists were fond of good living, and in their reunions would boast to one another of the capabilities and wonderful resources of their old black cooks, somewhat in the manner that the nabobs of the old world would talk of their “chefs”.

The old fashioned kitchen had an open fire place, in or before which all cooking was done. The poultry and meat were roasted before the open fire on a spit, which being slowly turned, greatly “did” the meat all through and preserved all the natural juices and flavor. In these degenerate days we bake our meats, and very few now living, I suppose, ever ate a roasted turkey.

In the kitchen, the cook was paramount and despotic. Even the mistress was somewhat in awe of her on these occasions, and would never venture to give an order, but meekly suggest what she thought might be done.

All supplies were laid in, early in the winter: beef by the quarter, a pig, poultry of all kinds, and maybe some moose meat and caribou. All the meats, not salted or pickled by the mistress, were kept frozen in a place prepared in the barn. The cellar was well supplied with potatoes, turnips and other vegetables, and in one corner, carefully railed off, was a space especially under the care of the master of the house, and his deputy, the old family servant, who generally spent his life in the household, and considered his master a greater man than the governor of the province. In the corner was stored a cask of Madeira, another of port, and one of sherry, and chief among them, the main stay of the supply, a cask of Jamaica rum, very old, and very fragrant. Brandy and whiskey and other fiery liquids were not then in general use. There might be a bottle of brandy in the house, but only to be used as a corrective of internal disturbance arising from too generous an indulgence in the good things of the season.

Every preparation was made for a befitting celebration of the important day. Those who had been remiss or improvident, scoured the adjacent country to see if any unfortunate fowl or bird had escaped the promiscuous slaughter. The girls and their mother were unremitting in their work in furnishing a bountiful supply of pies of all kinds, and cakes and doughnuts. In that day the doughnut was king of the feast, fat, juicy and crisp, well cooked and wholesome. In these degenerate times his glory has departed. We are half ashamed of him, and though still considered a requisite of the Christmas holidays we eat him in a furtive manner, and many loudly declaim that they never eat doughnuts, call them bilious, and apply other heretical calumnies to what in old times was considered indispensable to the festival. Most old fellows carried doughnuts about in their pockets, and ate them at all sorts of unseasonable hours, and I have heard of some of the old families who made them by the barrel!

But the principal party was old Dinah, the cook. She was in her glory. Fat, and at ordinary times the soul of good nature, on this occasion, under the weight of the responsibilities put upon her, and to uphold the reputation of her master’s house for gastronomic superiority, she became a very tyrant in her domain; none dare dispute her orders, or suggest changes or improvements in her dishes. They simply became humble assistants in the great work of preparation for the Christmas dinner. And this dependence was well repaid when the festal day arrived and the products of her culinary art were proudly placed on the table, and elicited delighted encomiums from all who partook of them, but her greatest reward was when the old master turned to her and said, “Well done, Dinah!”

Early on Christmas morning, the young men assembled in some open field and tried their skill as marksmen by shooting at live turkeys buried to the neck in the snow, leaving the head only visible. Their guns were old flint muskets, which formerly had done service in the war of the Revolution across the border. The range for shooting was about 30 or 40 yards, so the unfortunate turkeys had a poor show for their lives, but as the killing of them was the main object of the gathering it is to be hoped the aim was generally good. Sixpence or a shilling was the price usually paid for a shot, and some of the crack ones generally brought home two or three birds as a result of their skill. These sports came down to modern times, they were quite in vogue forty or more years ago, and may still be practised in some country districts.

The older people, before church time, visited each other and talked over the business of the year, and the prospect of the West India trade, and told old time stories of their adventures in the war, and of perils and hair breadth escapes from pirates and privateers on their West India voyages. In those days, the French privateer and picaroons of all nations, were accustomed to lie in wait in the out of the way harbors and lagoons of the island of Cuba; and pounce from thence on our unfortunate merchantmen as they proceeded on their voyages to and from the islands.

It is scarcely necessary to relate that these discourses were punctuated, as it were, by frequent adjournments to the sideboard, where decanters of wine and other cordials, flanked by jorums of good old Jamacia, were set out for the refreshment of all who desired. In that day the sideboard was never empty, and an invitation to partake was not considered necessary. It was presumed that each one knew what his requirement was; there were no pressing to drink, but it was there for each one to help himself.

There must have been something really preservative in Jamaica rum; all drank freely of it, and it has been remarked, that seldom or never in a representative body of men, have so many reached extreme old age, as was the case with the majority of the men who came here in 1783. This may be verified by any one looking over files of papers published sixty years ago, and noting the extraordinary number of deaths of old men ranging from 75 to 95, in which it is stated in the obituary notice that he came here a Loyalist in 1783.

It was not the crude rum of commerce, doctored and adulterated, such as is the vile stuff too commonly sold at the present time. The preparing and mollifying of Jamaica such as was used by the old merchants of St. John was almost an art, and great care and attention was given to the process. In the first place they imported from the island the pure unadulterated juice of the cane. That for their own consumption was kept a year or two in cask; then, when duly seasoned, it was hoisted to the top story of the store or warehouse, and stood at the edge of the hatch. On the floor below of the three or four story building was a large butt. A spigot was driven into the cask above, and a very slight stream of liquor, almost drop by drop, was allowed to fall into the butt below. As it became full it was carefully ladled out and bottled, and then put away sometimes for a year longer. This process was supposed to eliminate all the fiery spirit of the rum and in four or five years it became so mild and palatable that it could be drunk without the addition of any water.

As an instance of filial affection, and also of the high regard in which a seasoned cask of rum was held, it is related that during one of the disastrous fires which periodically devastated St. John many years ago, one of the members of a firm came to his store on the wharf when all the buildings around were fiercely burning. His younger brother was busily engaged with a gang of men rolling out the goods, to save as much as possible from the flames. The elder earnestly inquired of his brother, “Have you got out your father’s puncheon of rum?” The younger man made some impatient answer, and went on with the work of salvage, but the senior insisted on all work being stopped, and taking the men into the store, he brought out the puncheon of rum, and had it conveyed to a place of safety, and then allowed the work of saving ordinary merchandise to go on.

The hour appointed for church service found the old people with their wives and families assembled at Trinity church. The Rector, the Rev. Mather Byles, was rector of Christ church, Boston, at the time of the Revolution; he was a devout Churchman, and most exemplary Christian, but somewhat eccentric. It is said that he was opposed to having stoves or any manner of heating in the church, and that he kept himself warm by wearing a fur coat under his surplice, and gloves with the tips of the fingers cut off on his hands, to facilitate the turning of the leaves of his book. His unfortunate congregation did not fare so well, especially the womankind, and it was part of the duty of the small boy of the household to carry a pan of live charcoal to the family pew sometime before service commenced, to keep warm the feet of the female members of the family. One of the old settlers has told me that, when a boy, he often carried the warming pan to the church for this purpose. The pews were built very high, not much more than the head and shoulders of a man appearing above the top of the enclosure, and running around the four sides were brass rods on which were hung red or green baize curtains. These curtains were drawn back during service, but on the commencement of the sermon they were closed, and no person was visible in the church, but the minister in his high pulpit, and it was quite startling, on the conclusion of the sermon, to hear the curtains sharply drawn back, and see the people emerging from their seclusion to join in the closing services. Church being over, they wended their way homeward, the elders gravely discoursing about the sermon, or maybe criticizing the discordant notes of some over zealous member, who more enthusiastic than skilful, raised his voice in the psalms and hymns appointed for the occasion, for in those days all the congregation (who could sing) were expected to join in the choral part of the service.

The great event of the day was still before them the Christmas dinner preparation for which had long been going on in the household. Hospitality was one of the great virtues of the time, and at the table of the head of the family were gathered all the descendants, including those who had married and gone out of the household, and their children of befitting age, and also two or three old friends and comrades who had remained single and had not homes or families of their own to make merry with all were assembled on that one day in the year in affectionate re-union at the old homestead.

At the head of the table sat the white haired grandfather, still hale and hearty, though many years had gone over his head since he first drew his sword in what he considered his duty to his king and country; behind his chair stood his old servant Richard, who had faithfully served his old master for many years.

The usual hour for dinner was 4 o’clock. All being assembled at the table, thanks were given for many mercies and for the bountiful repast before them, and the Christmas feast began. The viands were all the product of the country. Turkey, beef, poultry, game, venison, all the best of their kind; good humor, mirth and jollity were the order of the day. After the solids were removed, came on dessert, pies, puddings, custards, nuts, apples and other good things, with port, sherry and Madeira. It was the day of toasts and drinking wine with each other, the latter being a very particular ceremony. One would request of his neighbor “the pleasure of a glass of wine with you,” which being responded to, each would fill his glass, then, bowing to each other as gravely as Chinese mandarins, they drank the wine and silently replaced the glasses on the table. This ceremony went around the table from neighbor to neighbor and was often repeated, and always with due gravity and decorum, any flippancy on the part of the younger members being severely frowned at as a thing not to be tolerated. Meanwhile, the younger folk had gathered in an adjoining room with the matrons, and made merry with games, and minuets and country dances.

The elders generally sat long over their wine. Over indulgence was not encouraged, and an intemperate person was as much avoided as at the present time, but if an old fellow got a little more than he could carry it was not thought to be much out of the way. So as the evening went on some one of them would quietly drop off into a doze in his chair, the warmth of the room, good cheer and generous wine having produced a feeling of comfort and repletion. Presently the host would make a suggestion that, all having had sufficient, enough of the evening was left for a game of whist, or if any of them felt inclined, for a round dance with the young folk in the adjoining room. Accordingly they would adjourn to where the young people were enjoying themselves; perhaps some septuagenarian, recalling the agility of his younger days, would lead one of the elder ladies to the dance. They made a picturesque couple, he in his blue tail coat, high collar behind nearly reaching to the crown of his head, bright metal buttons those behind in the middle of his back with knee breeches, silk stockings and pumps, and she in her old fashioned short waisted black silk gown, with lace collar and cuffs, and mittens, (without fingers) of knitted silk on her hands.

The old gentleman brightens up at the music, remembrances of his old time skill at the dance at balls and assemblies in old New York come to his mind, and he astonishes his old comrades by his pirouettes, and the sprightness with which he “cuts a pigeon wing,” as he glides through the figures of the lively dance, and finally it comes to an end, and somewhat breathless and wheezy, but with old time courtly grace, he makes his bow and conducts his partner to a seat. His old friends congratulate him on his grace and agility, which they say might equal that of a much younger man, at which the old fellow is pleased, and straightens up his back, and tries not to feel the twinge of lumbago which the extra exertion has brought on.

Midnight comes and the party begins to break up. Those who have to go home wrap themselves up in shawls and furs, the sleighs come to the door, and with much handshaking, blessings and good wishes, the holiday comes to an end.

Those of the household who remain behind, gather around the fire, and indulge in reminiscences of by gone times. The old folk recall the days of their youth by the fireside at the old homestead on the Hudson. When they look around and see the sturdy young men and handsome girls who have grown up around them, they give thanks in their hearts for all the blessings vouchsafed them, and for the happy termination of what, for many years, was a life of anxiety and struggles and disappointments, and for the pleasant home they have made in the wilderness far removed from the land of their birth.


Written by johnwood1946

December 23, 2016 at 3:09 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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