Historical Holiday Hints: O Christmas Tree

Originally published on Torontoist on December 21, 2011.

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“Excuse Me” by M. Myer, the News, December 23, 1911.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, your branches green entice us!

The centrepiece of many homes at this time of year is a decorated tree. Whether it’s fir, pine, or plastic, a well-chosen tree establishes a cozy atmosphere. While there are occupational hazards such as falling needles or ornaments that pets treat as toys, a healthy, smart-looking tree will be a point of pride during holiday celebrations.

We don’t view Christmas trees as fruit-bearing plants, but an anonymous poem published in the Star in 1905 extolled the sweet goodness they produce:

The strawberries may shrivel and the apple crop may rot;
The peas may have the weevil, the potatoes go to pot;
But it is a consolation, as most anyone can see.
That no pest can kill the fruit crop of the dear old Christmas tree.

Sure it thrives in every climate and it grows in every soil.
And no simoon hot can blast it, nor no arctic zephyrs spoil;
It is always richly laden, and we view its fruit with glee;
There are never barren seasons with the dear old Christmas tree.

Ask the boys and girls about it; show them peach and plum and pear;
Ask ’em which of all they fancy, which they most prefer to share.
See their smile, alike expectant, hear them every one agree,
That there is no fruit equal what grows on the Christmas tree.

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“Excuse Me” by M. Myer, the News, December 23, 1911.

In the early 20th century, locally grown trees prompted those smiles. Most sold in Toronto were raised within a 140-kilometre radius of the city. According to St. Lawrence Market vendor James Bamford, these trees were grown on land that was too poor to produce wood suitable for lumber. “The farmers,” Bamford noted in a 1924 interview with the Star, “are glad to get rid of them in many cases.”

By the late 1970s, twice as many Toronto homes had artificial trees as had the real thing, due to the lack of maintenance they required. A market remained for the live trees, either on a street corner lot or out in a rural bush, but selling them required creativity. If a grower’s stock turned yellow, they could spray the trees with Greenzit, which was promoted as “a non-toxic, economical, natural colorant spray that won’t wash off.” Visitors to farms run by Murray Dryden in Caledon and York Region could cut their own tree and then, with a charitable donation, hire a Newfoundland or St. Bernard dog to haul it back to their vehicle. There was no indication if the St. Bernards also carried a small barrel of brandy to revive weary tree cutters.

Growers recommended that those heading out to the country to cut their trees should bring the proper equipment. The first piece of advice, offered to the Star in 1978: wear warm clothes and sturdy boots equipped to handle rough, snow-covered terrain (“the bush is no place for city shoes”). Buyers were also advised to bring their own saws for cutting and twine for tying, in case the grower had none to spare.

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Left: the punchline to “Excuse Me” by M. Myer, the News, December 23, 1911. Right: advertisement, the Toronto Star, December 23, 1910.

True rugged types don’t go to tree farms. They roam the land in search of the perfect tree. Care must be taken, though, to avoid chopping down a tree on protected land. You will earn both a fine and public embarrassment via the press. Don’t be like Robert Blythe, whose quest for a pine in Vaughan was rewarded with a $63 penalty and a blurb on the front page of the Globe and Mail in December 1957.

This season, chop your tree wisely.

Additional material from the December 17, 1957, edition of the Globe and Mail, and the December 9, 1905, December 6, 1924, November 26, 1977, December 11, 1977, and December 7, 1978, editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, December 6, 1924.

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Toronto Star, December 7, 1978.

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Don Mills Mirror, December 8, 1971.

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Historical Holiday Hints: ‘Tis the Season for Gifts

Originally published on Torontoist on December 15, 2011.

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The News, December 13, 1911.

“There are two kinds of people looking for Christmas gifts,” the Telegram noted 80 years ago. “Those who know what they want and those who don’t, and they both seem to be in difficulty.” With less than two weeks to go before presents are unwrapped, both types of gift hunters may be showing signs of panic as they look for the perfect present. Have no fear: we have some gift-giving suggestions from the past, along with the hazards of shopping for the toy everyone else wants.

A century ago, the News offered many creative homemade gift ideas built around picture postcards. Forgot to buy a specialty calendar? Make your own by using appropriately themed sets based on the recipient’s interests, from pets to “almond-eyed” girls. Need to decorate a manly den? String up brightly coloured hunting scenes set against red or black paper. Lacking in candle shades? Half-a-dozen cards nimbly cut will do the trick.

Who appreciates postcard-based gifts the most? Your invalid friends, apparently:

Nothing will delight them more than a judiciously chosen pack of postcards, all stamped and tied up with bright ribbons. Select a few cards with birthday and New Year greetings on, several with messages of friendship, and the rest bearing scenes of the home-town. These will be a boon to anyone confined to the house and dislikes to bother others about small matters.

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Children with Christmas presents during a photoshoot for Liberty magazine, 1950s or 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1944.

What might not have been a small matter to a stuck-at-home ill child by the mid-1960s, or at least not a small matter to their parents, was to keep up with other kids who received the season’s hottest toys from Santa Claus. According to Telegram writer Stella McKay, this was unnecessary, as kids were “often satisfied with homemade playthings. They may prefer them since they are different from their friends’ toys.” Citing a government pamphlet, Play for Preschoolers, McKay suggested handcrafted gifts that would be the envy of the neighbourhood. Suggestions included tin can rattles and stuffed-sock dolls for boys and girls. The pamphlet provided full instructions for building accompanying gifts like a doll cradle that would appeal to today’s DIYers and recyclers:

A large fruit basket, with the handle removed, makes a cosy bed for a baby doll. Remove the hooks from two wide wooden coat hangers. Use screws to fasten a hanger at each end of the basket, for rockers. Mattress and pillow covers can be made from pieces of an old sheet. Fill them with any soft material. Make sheets and pillow cases from the same worn sheet.

The effort put into a homemade gift saves parents from dealing with other human beings during the rush to find the perfect toy, especially when it comes to the season’s trendiest items. The quest for the item everyone wants has caused normally sane adults to engage in wrestling matches on the retail floor. “Get ready to rumble” would have been an appropriate battle cry when Cabbage Patch Kid mania hit Toronto in 1983. Seasonal goodwill toward fellow humans vanished whenever retailers received a precious shipment of the adoptable dolls. At one store in Mississauga, fights occurred when customers grabbed dolls the way diners pile crab legs on their plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. “Santa Claus himself would have dived behind the cashier’s desk for cover,” noted a Globe and Mail editorial.

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Toronto Star, December 7, 1983.

To avoid such scenes, Eaton’s pulled the dolls from its ads, while Pascal Stores placed notices in newspapers to announce that they wouldn’t have any more in stock until Leap Day 1984.

Joy Taylor of Scarborough introduced herself as a “short, athletic grandma of 60” when she wrote to the Star about her quest for the bald-headed male Cabbage Patch Kid her granddaughter wanted. After unsuccessfully checking several stores, she heard about a shipment arriving at the Cedarbrae Mall branch of Simpsons at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

The door opens and in I run. Where are they? Over there in the corner. Good. Suddenly I’m jammed into the corner as monstrous women crush me, climb over me. I’m too old for this. What am I doing here? I panic and I scream “Let me out! You’re smothering me!” The manager clears a path for me and presses a box into my hands. I can breathe once again but I look in disgust—a redhead in jeans. A woman trades me for a blonde-haired one and I throw all caution to the winds as I say “Any trades for a blonde for a bald boy.” A woman grabs my arm and there it is, more precious than diamonds or gold. Now I know how Columbus felt discovering America.

Taylor avoided injuries while caught in the mayhem. She ended her letter by hoping that toy companies would think of people like her when promoting hot toys and that she could convince her granddaughter that other, well-stocked toys would be equally nice to receive on Christmas morning. “To those of you still looking,” Taylor advised, “I say put on your armor and keep trying.”

Try as some parents did, they couldn’t purchase a genuine Cabbage Patch Kid. When extreme options—such as flying the Europe to secure a doll or paying up to $300 for one via the classifieds—were out of the question, they could pick up a pattern at the nearest department or fabric store make their own facsimile. Even these went quickly: Simpsons reported that Sew-a-Doll kits disappeared as fast as their Cabbage Patch Kids stock. At least there weren’t any reports of shoppers pepper spraying each other over doll-making instruction sheets.

Additional material from the November 19, 1983, and December 16, 1983, editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 13, 1911, edition of the News; the November 10, 1983, November 30, 1983, and December 16, 1983, editions of the Toronto Star; and the December 20, 1932, and December 19, 1966, editions of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The full article on making gifts from postcards from the December 13, 1911 edition of the News.

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Also from that paper, a short story on gift making. But wait…what is that item in the bottom right corner?

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The horror, the horror…

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The Telegram, December 21, 1931.

A few hints on how to wrap gifts like tobacco pouches, guest towels, and candied ginger. And don’t forget to use asbestos mats to make your dining table safer!

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Toronto Star, December 14, 1968. 

Be weary of Santas bearing chainsaws as gifts.

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Globe and Mail, November 19, 1983.

Finally, an editorial about the height of the Cabbage Patch Kids craze, and the extreme behaviour exhibited by those desperate to get one.

Historical Holiday Hints: Carving a Turkey

Originally published on Torontoist on December 5, 2011. This was a first of a series of posts I wrote for the 2011 holiday season.

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The Telegram, December 19, 1931.

With the holiday season upon us, local media is full of advice on how to celebrate. From picking the best Christmas tree to a litany of gift guides, there is no shortage of tips. We like to draw our inspiration for holiday cheer from the history, even though it requires traditionalists to wade through pages of conflicting advice. While some advice is redundant, other tips still provide useful guidance for a 21st century revellers.

Take the following hints on how to carve a turkey that will impress any sized gathering.

When picking a turkey, 19th century consumers weren’t concerned with whether a bird was freezer-burned or over-plumped, pumped-up with hormones. They were dealing with live or very recently deceased gobblers. “In choosing your Christmas turkey,” the Mail noted in 1889, “see that the legs are black and smooth and the feet flexible. If old the eyes will be sunken and the feet dry.” By the 1960s, consumers were urged by the Star to look for fresh turkeys with skin that resembled “an old man’s hands—dry and slightly speckled. A watery look is a warning not to buy.”

On Christmas Day, once the turkey has cooked, will your fellow diners savour an exquisitely sliced piece of succulent meat or receive a pile of crumbling bits on their plate? The Globe relied on the test kitchen of Good Housekeeping to provide its readers with carving tips in 1887, a time when lifestyle pages were just starting to appear in local papers:

Skillful carvers do not agree as to the position of a bird on the platter. Some prefer to have the neck at the right hand, but I think the majority prefer to have it on the left. Some can cut more easily toward the right than toward the left hand, just as some women needle a thread more easily than they can thread a needle. The carving will be done with more grace if the one who carves works easily and naturally, instead of attempting to follow an arbitrary rule.

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The Telegram, December 19, 1931.

The uncredited advice dispenser chose the majority’s preference when positioning the neck. Next, the drumsticks were removed via a careful cut through the shoulder. Removing the side bone was left to the discretion of the carver, though it was recommended that it be left in if one were to dine on a tough old bird. At the time, the side bone was considered by many to be “the choicest portion, and is often left untouched because the carver is too negligent to offer it, or the guest does not like to express a preference for it for fear of exposing the host’s inability to carve it easily.” Breast meat was to be carved on a slant in thin slices with the skin left on. Rather than scoop out the stuffing, it was to be carved out through a series of delicate cuts, because nothing in the 19th century was ever to be simple. If the turkey was being served to a small family who wanted leftovers, the bird was to be carved only from the side closest to the carver; the remainder was to be garnished with parsley during meal number two.

The Telegram was far more creative when it offered a carving guide in 1931. Writer L.M. McKechnie recounted a vivid nightmare about poorly carving a giant turkey as a party of 15 watched in horror. When he woke up, he decided to consult experts, beginning with the Depression version of the internet, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He then talked to a librarian, who offered a book called Ten Lessons on Meat which offered the following advice in its carving chapter: “The art of carving is apparently little understood by the average person, man or woman.” He next read the following advice on holding a carving knife:

The steel should be held in the left hand, the point raised and inclined slightly toward the carver’s body. The knife should be held in the right hand, the point raised and inclined slightly toward the left hand at an angle of about 35 degrees from the steel. The knife is drawn along the side of the steel from the point of the steel toward the hand and from the handle end to the point of the knife, the strokes being reversed from side to side of the steel.

Confused? So was McKechnie (“I am still trying to figure that one out.”).

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The Telegram, December 19, 1931.

When the book recommended that the carver should know the anatomy of what they were cutting up, McKechnie mulled what a good surgeon would do and headed to Toronto General Hospital to have his turkey x-rayed. He then consulted Claude Baujard, master chef at the Royal York Hotel, who shook his head sadly at the loss of the fine art of carving. Baujard lamented a dinner he had recently attended where the host carved two chickens so badly that he could still hear the birds squeal. Baujard brought out a chicken and showed McKechnie his graceful technique. The secret to impressing diners was keeping everything neat when serving: “One spoon of stuffing on the plate, then lay the dark meat across the stuffing and the white meat over that.” Baujard also disclosed a technique bound to amaze any table:

If you wish to impress with the ease of your carving, it is possible to do all the carving in the kitchen except that you leave each cut just uncompleted. Then you press the slices back into place, reform your bird, hide the incisions with a little parsley. When the bird is brought to the table all you have to do is complete each cut simply and quickly and your guests will be amazed at your skill.

Feeling confident following his discussion with Baujard, McKechnie discovered that “all my zest for Christmas has returned.” He left the Royal York and, with head held high, “prepared to dismember the biggest turkey Ontario ever produced.” We hope his guests had a lovely feast.

Additional material from the December 10, 1887, edition of the Globe, the December 21, 1889, edition of the Mail, and the December 19, 1931, edition of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, December 22, 1931.

A few days after the Telegram offered its carving tips for 1931, the Star ran the following story about an egotistical prize-winning turkey from Manitoulin Island who, sadly, was unable to defend two championship titles in a row at the Royal Winter Fair.

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Toronto Star, December 22, 1931.

Mrs. Graham’s enlightening statement? “That gobbler was one of the most conceited turkeys I ever saw.”

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How many pounds are in that Bunyanesque turkey? The Telegram, December 21, 1932.

Once upon a time, Toronto newspapers kept readers updated on the latest prices of holiday meal staples at St. Lawrence Market. The Telegram‘s report from December 20, 1932 listed prices in line with the grocery chains: around 20 to 25 cents a pound for “large, fat, healthy-looking” turkeys, 18 to 20 cents a pound for milk-fed chickens, and 17 or 18 cents a pound for geese.

Also previewed at one market stall: a black bear. “The owner told us that it would be cut up and sold after Christmas,” the paper reported. “Anybody like bear meat?”