Pioneer Christmas in southern Alberta
By Elizabeth Bailey Price
Rev. George McDougall, who brought his family to the Canadian West before Confederation, depended entirely on fish and buffalo for subsistence during the winter months. He established “fisheries” in accessible places on the banks of lakes and rivers, where he caught and froze enough fish for a ration allowance of three per person per day. This alternating with eight pounds of fresh buffalo meat or two pounds of pemmican.
In the days of the late 1880’s and 90’s, frozen white fish was bought, delivered and stored like cords of wood in the woodshed. Mrs. James Macleod, wife of the late Col. Macleod, tells of the first Christmas dinner of the division of the North West Mounted Police at Ft. Macleod In 1874. The men had only arrived in late September and had been extremely busy building winter quarters, these not being completed when Christmas was upon them. A holiday was declared. The Christmas dinner was the first real meal under cover as yet no floor had been built.
The homemade table was set in the centre of a buffalo wallow on plain Mother Earth. Col. Macleod on a trip to Ft. Helena had brought back some supplies. The dinner was cooked by Edward Larkin, who says. “We had turkey, boiled buffalo meat, spuds, biscuits, and a plum pudding, with plenty of strong tea to wash it down.” Mrs. Macleod recalls that her husband paid $8.00 a dozen for the eggs that went into the making of that plum pudding.
General Sam Steele tells of a Christmas dinner at Ft. Macleod in 1876. He says: “Christmas dinner was in the evening—no daylight dinner for us. All from the Commissioner to the latest recruits realized that Christmas comes once a year and we must have a good time.
“Our civilian friends, to the number of twenty, sat down with us and our bill of fare consisted of turkeys, wild geese, antelope, other venison, buffalo tongues, boss rib, plum pudding, California raisins and nuts, and milk punch. A permit had been obtained, and the proceedings were enlivened with songs, speeches and toasts, the Queen, the Governor General, the Army and Navy. The president of the United States was toasted in honor of our guests, who with few exceptions were Americans.”
Mrs. Nellie McClung whose parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Mooney, were pioneers on a farm thirty miles from Brandon, Manitoba, in the days of the early eighties, remembers her mother’s famous vinegar pies—a recipe which met the lack of fruit and eggs and was a very tasty dessert. These were made of bread crumbs, diluted vinegar, brown sugar and raisins or currants, with nutmeg or cinnamon used as flavorings. An apple jelly tart, too, was a a special Christmas treat. This was made from the cores and peelings of ripe red apples—the main part of the apples being used for sauce.
And over all these early Yuletide feasts, on the lonely western prairies, reigned the spirit of hospitality. No formal invitations were extended, for all were welcome at the “festive board.” No table cloths shed their snowy whiteness, nor did imported China interfere with the simple magnificence of such banquets. The bright tin plates and dishes reflected strong, jolly faces, and burnished gold can give no truer nest to any feast.
Excerpt from “Christmas Dinners of the Old West” by Elizabeth Bailey Price Lethbridge Herald, December 30, 1930