Christmas in Toronto, 1869

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Harper’s Weekly, December 25, 1869.

Saturday being Christmas Day business was suspended in the city; that is to say, all places of business, except such as oyster depots, candy shops and saloons were closed. The streetcars ran as usual, and certainly did a paying business, as they were crowded with passengers nearly every trip. The weather was delightful, reminding one more of a day in spring than in winter; and, as a natural consequence, the streets were crowded with pedestrians, chiefly of the male sex, however. Divine service was held in several of the numerous places of religious worship in the city, and sermons appropriate to the occasion preached. – The Leader, December 27, 1869.

Torontonians gathering ingredients for their Christmas dinner 150 years ago had plenty of options from local butchers. “The St. Lawrence Market,” the Globe reported, “is peculiarly well adorned with meat of the most tempting character, while all over the city the butchers show that though they are not in the market they are quite prepared to meet the wants of the citizens, as respects Christmas cheer.”

The Leader was particularly taken with James Britton’s stall. “Mr. Jas. Britton, everybody in Toronto knows, and every Toronto epicure and gourmand blesses, or ought to, for he has certainly on this occasion pandered to their luxurious tastes most extensively and deserves for his splendid display of meats, to stand foremost on the list.”

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The Globe, December 23, 1869.

Among the advertisers that season was the Wesleyan Methodist Church, who invited the public to view the Christmas tree in the basement of their Richmond Street home. Visitors stopping in on December 23 could browse a “sale of useful and fancy articles” which raised funds for the congregation’s future home in McGill Square (the lot on the northwest side of Queen and Church). “Attendance was very fair during the afternoon,” the Telegraph reported, “swelling to a positive crowd in the evening.” The proceeds helped build the new church, which evolved into today’s Metropolitan United Church.

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The Leader, December 24, 1869.

Browsing the ads for the city’s dry goods merchants, one new name had entered the holiday shopping sweepstakes. Earlier that month, Timothy Eaton opened his first Toronto store at 178 Yonge Street, which offered the radical merchandising method of selling goods for cash only (the store’s “goods satisfactory or money refunded” motto debuted the following year). The store was snug: measuring 24 feet across and 60 feet deep, it only employed four people. Popular items early on included buttons, gloves, and underwear.

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Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, circa 1867-1868. Photo by Octavius Thompson. Toronto Public Library, Z 3-7.

Among the Christmas Day festivities across the city was a dinner held at the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide for over 220 children living in charitable institutions such as the Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Boys’ Home, and the Girls’ Home (along with, as the Globe dubbed them, “20 inmates of the News Boys’ Home). Organized annually by businessman John Hallam, it featured a hymn sing where the kids’ performances were praised community dignitaries. “The Christmas tree was then disburdened and each child having received from its branches a toy or picture book,” the Globe reported, “and also been handed a paper bag containing cakes, raisins, apples, and sweetmeats, the children started for their respective homes, four happy little bands, rendered so by the liberality of those who will be amply paid for their kindness to these poor little orphans when they shall have addressed to them the words ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’”

(Journalists in 1869 were a wordy bunch)

Years later, as a city councillor, Hallam’s support of free public libraries played a role in the transformation of the Mechanics’ Institute’s collection into the Toronto Public Library. Hallam Street is named in his honour.

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Christmas menu for guests of the Queen’s Hotel. The Telegraph, December 27, 1869.

Some of the city’s wealthier, politically-connected citizens gathered for a Christmas dinner at the Queen’s Hotel (the present site of the Royal York). Toasts were made to Queen Victoria, various branches of the military, and Americans. The Telegraph printed the extensive menu.

The Globe reported on Christmas Day at the Don Jail:

Even without the heavy walls of the prison the genial spirit of Christmas penetrated, and brought a thrill of pleasure and a softening influence to many a hardened heard among the 154 incarcerated there. No relaxation of the prison discipline was admitted, except to allow friends to visit the inmates and bring with them some of the Christmas cheer which prevailed without. In more than one cell, tears came to eyes unused to weep, at the thought of former Christmas Days—when innocence made it a happy anniversary. Many a heart that knew not the crucified Saviour had reason to feel thankful for the natal day of Him who pardoned the thief on the cross.

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Francis Henry Medcalf. Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the holidays saw the start of nominations for city council candidates in the upcoming municipal election. Putting his name back into the fray was former mayor Francis Henry Medcalf, who had resigned from council on November 1 to protest a proposal to extend the term of office from one to three years. He decided to switch wards, moving from St. Lawrence’s (which covered the area south of Queen Street east of Yonge) to St. John’s (later known simply as “The Ward”). At a Christmas Eve nomination meeting, Medcalf claimed that when he was asked to run, he did so because, the Leader reported, “he owed the people of that ward a deep debt of gratitude for the hearty way in which they had always supported them, and he hoped he would be able to pay that debt before he paid the debt of nature.” Medcalf would represent the ward for two years, then returned to the mayor’s chair for a final two-year run in 1874.

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Canadian Illustrated News, December 25, 1869.

We’ll end with the parting thoughts from the Globe’s Christmas day editorial:

Let us hope, in any case, that the event may be happy, and that we, like the rest of the world, may find that, after of dread of turbulence and conflict, we are, as we should be, in peace and good will with all men.

Sources: the December 23, 1869, December 25, 1869, and December 27, 1869 editions of the Globe; the December 25, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Leader; and the December 24, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Telegraph.

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