A Red River Christmas

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In the early nineteenth century, a settlement at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers was an important outpost in the fur trade of the Hudson’s Bay Company whose royal charter gave it rule over a vast swath of North America. The territory became part of Canada after 1867 and the settlement became the city of Winnipeg whence this blog emits. In 1884 the Canadian Illustrated News looked back in a condescending way on the little town colonized by Lord Selkirk’s settlers. The prose is suitably Victorian and ornate. The illustration below is from 1821 and the church on the far bank is the source of “the bells of St. Boniface” referred to.


But fifty years ago, on the banks of the great Red River of the North, only “forty hours”-in these modern times-from Chicago, the throbbing heart-city of America, ” the vesper ringing of the bells of St. Boniface” announced the advent of Christmas Eve to a people whom centuries might have separated from us, so different were they from any American community of to-day.

The links of the winding river’s “long red chain,” lately changed from gold to polished steel by that potent, old alchemist of the north – Jack Frost – lay, glittering in the rays of the setting sun. The “belts of dusky pine-land,” through which it sweeps northwards, no longer echoed the songs of returning voyageurs, the last wanderer having found his way back from his summer journeyings weeks before. The “gusty leagues of plain,” far around the clustered dwellings of the Selkirk settlement, lay white and still.

One uninterrupted level, as if stooping. the Creator with his hand had smoothed them over. The dazzling surface of snow seemed almost to reflect the gorgeous tints of the northern prairie sunset. No human figure relieved the monotonous expanse; for all within reach–the hunter, the trapper, the coureurs des bois, even the native children of the plains had sought the social warmth of the village at the Christmas season.

Cheerfully flashed the lights from the stockaded enclosures of “the fort,” as twilight quickly deepened into darkness. Answering gleams came from the casements of the stately log-and-plaster “mansions” of retired Hudson’s Bay Company magnates in the vicinity. Brightly twinkled the cabins of settlers along the river. Distantly glimmered the tapers of the French “mission” across the stream. Fainter still glowed the windows of the Swiss colony, half a mile lower down. At times ruddy glare burst upon the night as the curtain of a tent or the veiling buffalo-robe “tee-pee” was swept aside for a moment, revealing wildly-clad figures grouped around the blazing logs within.

That was strangely assorted social life which those various lights shone on. With the walls of “the fort,” perhaps they lit up a dinner party, progressing with the ceremonious decorum of London dining-room, amid incongruities of dress and surroundings that must have been infinitely diverting to young arrivals from the Old Country, with a properly developed sense of the ludicrous. The humorous potentialities of a dress-coat can only be fully appreciated by those who have seen it amid wild or semi-savage surroundings. Its effect, under such circumstances, can indefinitely heightened by attention the remainder of the toilet of him who displays it. Moccasins, substitute for “patent-leathers,” greatly enhance its picturesqueness. Indian leggings set it off still more. A coarse flannel shirt makes it a striking fore-ground. Sun-burnt hands, bronzed face and none too carefully trimmed hair and beard cap the climax. Thus was the dress-coat often exhibited on state occasions in the old Hudson’s Bay days. Thus perhaps it appeared at our Christmas Eve dinner.

But the social gatherings of the gentlemen of the Company’s service in those times were never wanting in dignity, while always abounding in good cheer, notwithstanding incidental peculiarities of toilet; so true is it that dress does not make the man. Fine, courtly personages they often were, those olden-time Hudson’s Bay officers, with their upright bearing and punctilious notions. Not infrequently well-born; well-nurtured, generally; if not always versed in current literature at least well read in the book of nature; trained to habits of thoughtfulness and close observation by their long seclusion from social frivolities, they almost invariably displayed in their intercourse with each other the characteristics of true and intelligent gentlemen. Overbearing to others they no doubt sometimes were, for they had long been accustomed to command. From this trait they have too often been harshly judged. We may be sure, however, that nothing but courtesy and good fellowship obtained among the members of our party, assembled around the upper-table of the great dining-hall at “the fort.”

There would be present the local officers and head clerks, visitors perhaps from the fur posts of the Saskatchewan and Athaboska [sic], come down to revel in metropolitan life on the banks of the Red River for a time, and the more favored of the retired “factors” settled in the neighboring colony. While enjoying feast of reason and a flow of soul, we may assure ourselves that the guests of the evening were not inattentive to the substantials set before them, for those were the days of princely bills-of-fare in the Selkirk settlements. The forest, the prairie, the river, vied with the farm and the garden in the abundance of their supplies. The days of pinching scarcity among the pioneers of the colony were happily over. Settlers had enough and to spare of the fruits of the field, while the storehouse of primitive nature in the vicinity was still overflowing. That must have been a royal repast then to which our party sat down; and well were they served, no doubt, by the army of Indian and half-caste waiters which “the fort” could command. How recollections of “bonny Scotland” and the long ago must have crowded in on those veterans of the Company’s service, when after dinner the cloth was drawn and the wine went round!

Preparatory revelry, of not highly commendable sort, among certain element of the settlement, was of course, not wanting, in which rum, the beverage of the place and period, was by far too prominent a factor.

One by one, as the night advanced, the lights of the village disappeared and the lonely farm-houses were darkened. Overhead the stars continued their cold vigil in an ink-blue, northern sky. The auroral curtain, its luminous, many-colored folds rustled or seemingly rustled by an unseen hand, gradually hushed into deeper repose the restlessly expectant beings over whom it floated. Slowly the last sound died out. The intense chill of a sub-Arctic night quieted even the motions of the air. And ” the great, lone land” lay apparently as still, and cold, and dead as it had lain many a long Christmas Eve ” before the daring genius of Columbus pierced the night of ages,” opening up the remotest regions of the vast American continent to Christianity and light.

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