Memories of Christmas from P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

·6 min read

Reginald (Dutch) Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every few weekends CBC P.E.I. brings you one of Dutch's columns.

The Christmas wishes of many children have probably not changed for centuries — they love dolls, toys, ice skates and candy.

Ann Callaghan from Lake Verde, P.E.I., was born in 1898. She was the only girl in the family, and when she did receive dolls for Christmas, she says they were made by hand by her grandmother.

Submitted by Dutch Thompson
Submitted by Dutch Thompson

"They couldn't afford toys in my day," she said. "I had one doll. My grandmother used to make dolls for me. She'd take some fancy cloth and roll it all up and tie it around and it'd be a cloth doll ... [with a] bonnet on it."

She doesn't recall her brothers having toys either, except for a game of checkers, and they all had skates.

Santa Claus would usually bring them each something new to wear and some new shoes or overshoes, perhaps a new cap, and some barley candies shaped like animals. The only time they ever saw oranges was at Christmas, she said, and each child got one in their stocking.

Visiting with friends and neighbours and eating big meals and puddings was the big deal at Christmas in her day, she said, which was a nice break from eating eggs at just about every meal.

"We always had a goose for Christmas," she said.

A doll with eyes that opened

Jean MacDonald was the daughter of the renowned Dr. Roddie MacDonald of St. Peters, who made house calls for decades and served generations of Island families.

Jean became known as "Jean Doctor," nicknamed after her father and no doubt to differentiate her from the many other MacDonalds on P.E.I.

Dutch Thompson
Dutch Thompson

One Christmas, her aunt Lena in Charlottetown got her a fine leather doll with a china face with eyes that opened and closed.

"That wonderful thing! Nobody had a doll with eyes that opened and shut, but I did!" she said with a hearty laugh.

She kept the doll for many years, she said, even though the china face got broken.

I remember when I was small they gave me a doll, the ugliest-looking thing you ever saw in your life! — Jennie Dingwell

"As long as I can remember, we always had a Christmas tree," she said. "And you know at that time, not everybody had Christmas trees, but we always had a Christmas tree, it was always decorated. I'm not saying it was decorated like it is today, but we always had the little Christmas candles in the little holders for them, and we had tinsel ... we'd make little bells and things for decorations.

"I remember when I was very young, we didn't have a Christmas tree, but we had always hung our stockings up," she said. "We used to hang them in the dining room, along the wall. There was eight or nine of us!"

She remembers getting an apple, sometimes an orange which were more rare, as well as candy and nuts.

"We always gave each other presents, that was separate, that was on the tree."

MacDonald died in 2010, just two days shy of her 105th birthday, the last surviving child of Dr. Roddie's.

'All these things I just adored'

Edith Pryce was a city girl, raised on Elm Avenue in Charlottetown, and remembers when the sidewalks were made of wood.

Her grandfather Caleb Jessie Whitlock and his wife Hannah Strain spoiled little Edith, whom Whitlock nicknamed "Snooks." Her mother died of pneumonia at 24, so little three-year-old Edith went to live with her grandparents. Her sister Lois was placed with an elderly couple, and stayed with them until she married.

Dutch Thompson
Dutch Thompson

He was a master craftsman who designed and built beautiful furniture — tables, chairs, bedroom sets and china cabinets. And of course, a dollhouse for Edith.

Her father was well-known city businessman Edgar Whitlock, who also pampered his little girl, so it was no wonder Christmas was Edith's favourite time of year.

When Christmas came, mom and gram made meat pies for midnight mass and we had half of Souris down home with us. — Jennie Dingwell

"Wonderful, oh yes, oh my! And of course my father was good to me, he'd buy all the gifts and all the presents, I was really spoiled." She also recalled an orange and an apple, candy and maybe a little toy like a whistle in her stocking.

Most Christmases, she would receive a doll. She had dolls of different sizes, with many representing people from around the world.

"All these things I just adored!" she said of the dolls. When she married, her husband frowned and told her she couldn't bring them to the new household. Heartbroken, she gave them to her sister.

Edith had a toy electric stove with an oven, something not too many other little girls would have had, especially in the 1920s — she said she made little cakes in it. She also had a working toy sewing machine on which she made her dolls' clothes.

'The house used to be full'

Of course, not every girl wants a doll.

Mary Jones Phillips lived to more than 100 years old. She remembers getting a huge doll one Christmas, when she was a little girl growing up in Harrington in 1903 or '04. However she said she never played with it — she was more interested in the toys her older brothers had received!

Another girl who didn't appreciate getting a doll from Santa was Genevieve (Jennie) Dugas of Souris, who later became a Dingwell.

Dutch Thompson
Dutch Thompson

She let everyone know exactly how she felt when she received a doll one Christmas.

"I remember when I was small they gave me a doll, the ugliest-looking thing you ever saw in your life!" she said. "I drowned it, I put it in the rainwater barrel out at the door. They never knew where it went."

She said they got something to wear, perhaps some new boots, and a new school satchel full of things. She recalls Christmas being a wonderful time, entertaining all their neighbours in their house.

"When Christmas came, mom and gram made meat pies for midnight mass and we had half of Souris down home with us. Everybody came! The house used to be full," she said.

Dingwell said she was a "tomboy" when she was a girl, and preferred to play what were considered to be boys' games. She loved swimming and skating, and remained an avid goose and duck hunter. She said she was the first woman recorded to have caught a tuna, and she knew where all the good trout-fishing spots were down east.

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