Tseshaht Christmas songs in Chinook Jargon
Treasure trove of Christmas tradition at Alberni museum
Published: December 22, 2011 9:00 PM
Updated: December 22, 2011 9:28 PM
Christmas trees are up. Blinking electric lights swirl, silver tinsel dangles from their branches and bulbs and ornaments adorn them.
The trees are relatively the same as they’ve always been, although artificial ones are available now, and decorations are a big business.
But there was a time when Christmas was much more simple and a lot more meaningful.
The small collection of ornaments donated to the Alberni Valley Museum, as well as reminisces by two late historical figures, give a glimpse of what Christmas was like in the Valley’s early history.
With the chime of CBC Radio playing in the background, museum curator Kirsten Smith removes some of the small collection from its display cabinet, gingerly cupping each piece in her cottony white gloves.
There are multi-coloured bulbs, one of which is shaped like a pear. At first glance, they don’t appear any different from ornaments found today, but they are.
According to the museum’s catalogue Valley residentJune Anderson donated some of the ornaments. They were made in Poland, and the purchase date is listed as being in 1929.
The pear-shaped ornament was donated to the museum by Valley resident Mary Wood. The piece’s date of origin isn’t listed in the catalogue, but it appears to have come from the turn of the century.
Most hanging ornaments from that period of time were hand blown, and were made in a particular factory in Lauscha, Germany. Today, few are glass blown.
Trees were lit up with lights at one time but not with the electric ones so common today.
The museum has a collection of small candles and candle holders, which were used to light trees.
The candles were inserted into the holders, which were then clipped to Christmas tree branches. Later, spindle candles, also known as cable candles, were used. The candles’ shape slowed the pooling of dripping hot wax in the holder.
Red, white and green candles were originally popular, and pink and blue later became fashionable.
The method was invented in 1879, tbut fell out of vogue in the 1920s.
In the museum’s archives, noted Valley historian Trevor Goodall and early settler George Bird, recounted their experiences with Christmas in the Valley.
In his book Alberni Valley’s Early Days Goodall recalls how Christmas was more of a communal event than the immediate family celebrations of today.
Goodall describes community and neighbourhood gatherings held at Christmastime, and how communal dinners were also held on Christmas eve at a hall.
He recounts how Christmas dinners were potluck affairs where families would gather at a hall and bring venison, ham and pies.
Dances would be held afterward where live music – usually by a fiddler – was played. Goodall made particular mention of bachelors, who were especially invited to join the festivities.
Jobs were scarce and money was tight, so there was a 25 cent limit for children’s presents, Goodall said.
Coconuts were considered a pragmatic delicacy because they were rare and one could feed several children. “That was our Christmas,” Goodall said.
An observation recorded by early Valley settler George Bird in 1892 may be the most poignant of the archives collection.
In the book Celebrating the Seasons on the Edge of the Pacific, Bird recounted a Christmas he and wife spent with the Tseshaht people.
The Birds and nine other settlers were invited by the Tseshaht to their longhouse on the Tseshaht reserve for a Christmas meal, Bird wrote.
Inside the house, the Tseshaht raised and decorated a Christmas tree. Men with the last names Fred, Gallic and Jaques entertained the settlers with Christmas songs they composed in the Chinook jargon.
And presents were given to the settlers afterward, including masks, baskets and model canoes.
The display surprised Bird because the people appeared unaware of the season’s basis in Christianity.
“Would it not have been more natural to think that we, with all our advantages of education and worldly possessions, ought to have been the hosts?” Bird wrote.