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.

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.

Ghosts of Christmases Past

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on December 25, 2010.

This holiday edition was, as the introduction noted, “a sampling of a century’s worth of Christmas advertisements, illustrations, pictures, and stories. Light up a Yule log (real or video), sit back and enjoy.”

For this edition, I’m not using the original gallery format, deleting some archival photos, and adding in some material that didn’t make the final cut. I am also merging in ads originally featured in a post for the 2014 holiday season.

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Cover of the special Christmas edition of the Globe, 1885. Library and Archives Canada.

In its Christmas Eve 1885 edition, the Globe reprinted the “Story of the Mistletoe” from Youth’s Companion. While much of the piece drones on about mistletoe’s role in Norse mythology and its use by Druids, it includes these nuggets about its contemporary sources and uses, in as non-romantic terms as possible.

It used to be brought over by friendly foreign steamers, but is now found in Virginia and in most of the Southern States, and is largely used for holiday decoration…The American mistletoe is not the genuine English article, although it strongly resembles it. The botanists have given it a new name, phoradendron, which signifies “a thief of a tree.” It is, however, a true parasite. The mistletoe is now so seldom found growing on the oak that when it is found there it is a great curiousity. It frequents apple trees chiefly, and is propagated by birds wiping their bills on the boughs and thus leaving some of the viscid pulp and seed, and if the bark happens to be cracked there it takes root.

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Cover of the special Christmas edition of the Globe, 1889. Library and Archives Canada.

Little does the turkey suspect that the young lady who visited each day with yummy treats was secretly fattening him up for her family’s holiday feast. Speaking of turkeys…

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The Globe, December 20, 1890. 

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The News, December 22, 1894.

If you couldn’t slaughter a turkey, you could always check out a “slaughter sale” of fine reading material.

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The News, December 22, 1885.

The News also provided “practical hints for the benefit of West End residents and others” as it named off a variety of Queen West merchants. Among the highlights: a free set of tableware with every purchase of a pound of tea at Laut Brothers (420 Queen West); a stock of nuts “not surpassed in the city” at Mara & Co. (280 Queen West); bargains among the jewellery and other goods damaged in a recent fire at J.I.S. Anderson (294 Queen West); and “beautiful villa sites overlooking High Park and Humber Bay” free of city taxes that went for one dollar per square foot at the real estate office of R. McDonnell at Queen and Gladstone.

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Cover of the special Christmas edition of the Mail and Empire, 1897. Library and Archives Canada.

Underneath the colour cover of this supplement was a collection of seasonal art, stories, and other diversions for the entire family.

20141224xmascardsThe Mail, June 27, 1881.

Even back in the Victorian Age, saving a buck on Christmas supplies like cards was as important as aesthetic considerations.

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The Empire, December 22, 1894.

An excerpt from the Empire’s Christmas Day 1894 editorial: “To the mind of the child this is the glorious season of the year when there is no cloud in the sky to dim the sunlight of pleasure in which infantile natures rejoice; but to the mature it is a period, apart from its spiritual associations, the delights of which are tempered by gravity and the joys of which are tinged with sadness, for as men grow memories gather. Looking back upon the Christmases of the past, who is there among us who does not feel that change and decay have wrought their mysteries as the years rolled on, taking here a friend and there a companion and leaving gaps in the ranks more significant and impressive at this time than at any other, so that even at the feast, and where rejoicing reigns, the heart stops for a moment that sorrow may supply its chastening touch.”

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Front page, the News, December 24, 1910. 

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Illustration by Lou Skuce, Toronto World, December 25, 1910.

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Toronto World, December 22, 1912.

From an editorial on holiday charity: “People are giving freely now, who keep their hearts and pockets closd ’till next Christmas. Why? There is need always as at Christmas time. It is simply that we are moved now by an unusual sentiment–an impulse to kindliness.”

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The News, December 23, 1914.

The Copland Brewing Company’s Toronto roots stretched back to 1830, when William Copland opened a brewery along Yonge Street shortly after arriving in Upper Canada. By 1914, most of its products were brewed at its plant on King Street between Ontario and Berkeley Streets. Bought by Labatt in 1946, the site was later occupied by the Toronto Sun.

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Toronto World, December 19, 1915.

An editorial note from the second holiday season of the First World War:

Above all, the call of Christmas is ‘Peace on Earth.’ In the present grievous crisis of the world there is significance in this call beyond that of any crisis mankind ever before was called to read. That war has darkened Christmas for so much of the world may well seem, at the moment, the crushing condemnation of all such conflicts.”

 

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Toronto World, December 19, 1915.

As the war staggered on over in Europe, World cartoonist Lou Skuce reminded readers of where the battlelines were usually located on Christmas Eve.

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Toronto World, December 25, 1916.

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Toronto World, December 25, 1918.

A pair of First World War-themed ads from Eaton’s.

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Mail and Empire, December 25, 1920.

With the shadow of the First World War fading, Eaton’s ad held the promise that life was returning to normal for its customers, and that Christmas was a time to rejoice in youthful spirit.

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The Telegram, December 19, 1923.

Given that the establishment of Sick Kids was a pet project of Telegram founder John Ross Robertson, the paper took every opportunity during the holiday season to solicit donations for the hospital. Heart-tugging stories to invoke contributions were printed in the Tely around Christmas, bearing headlines like “CHILD SWALLOWS LYE THROAT BADLY BURNED” (December 19, 1923).

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The Telegram, December 23, 1933.

A sample of a Sick Kids ad from a decade later.

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Toronto Star, December 24, 1924.

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Mail and Empire, December 25, 1930.

Simpsons centred its 1930 holiday ad around verse from poet Bliss Carman, who died the previous year.

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Mail and Empire, December 20, 1933.

Despite the effects of the Great Depression, the Mail and Empire urged its readers to light up the city at Christmas time. We doubt any displays inspired by this contest were accompanied by a menagerie of front yard inflatables.

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Mail and Empire, December 22, 1933. 

Years before teaching the world to sing, or employing polar bears as pitchmen, Coca-Cola offered an economical solution for holiday entertaining during the Great Depression.

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The Telegram, December 23, 1933.

 

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Weston Times and Guide, December 14, 1934.

The 1930s equivalent of the slightly naughty gift ads found decades later in alt-weeklies like eye and Now?

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Toronto Star, December 23, 1939.

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Weston Times and Guide, December 13, 1945.

Relieved that the Second World War no longer interfered in his annual delivery run, Santa relaxed a little in 1945. He found time to stop in Weston for a luscious roast bird. Note the slightly scary look in his eye, as if he’s daring the artist to take the plate away from him.

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The Telegram, December 23, 1950.

The poet of Toronto’s sports pages, Telegram columnist Ted Reeve, penned an ode to holiday shopping based on one of the big musical hits of that season, “The Thing“:

 

As we were walking north on Church, no Xmas shopping done,
We went into McTamney’s to maybe buy a gun.
The clerk behind the counter there let out a mighty roar:
“Get out of here with that shopping list and don’t come back no more.”

We hadn’t done our Christmas cards when reaching work today,
We asked the office girls if they would get them on the way.
They turned on us with a vicious yell as fierce as any blow:
“Get out of here with that shopping list and you know where to go.”

We’ll get to Kresge’s Christmas Eve and in a final dash
We’ll try to get the presents bought unless they want some cash.
The chances are the manager, while tearing up our cheque,
Will heave us out with our boom-boom-boom and land us on our neck

There’s only three more days to go, we haven’t bought the tree,
It is a most perplexing week, we think you’ll all agree.
And if we don’t get anything done we’ll just let Xmas pass
And take that terrible boom-boom-boom and hide it in the grass.

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Don Mills Mirror, December 8, 1960.

Either the caption writer was ordered to devise a happy sentence without seeing this picture, or somebody decided to play a cruel joke at the expense of the exhausted Santa at the Don Mills Centre. His arrival by helicopter in late November prompted ten thousand people to greet him at the shopping centre, doubling the number that greeted him the year before. Santa’s trip was delayed ten minutes due to fog and low-flying planes landing at Malton airport. Once the chopper landed, Santa hitched a ride on a fire engine, which took him to his seat at the centre of the complex. With over four-and-a-half thousand kids mounting his lap that day, no wonder Santa looks like he can’t wait to escape back to the comfort of the North Pole.

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Weston Times and Guide, December 22, 1960.

Wonder how many diners around that time hummed Marty Robbins’s 1959 smash hit about the west Texas town while eating their delicious young turkey dinner.

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Maclean’s, December 9, 1961.

From 1912 to 2006, Kodak’s Canadian division called Mount Dennis home. Its large campus near Eglinton Avenue West and Black Creek Drive is being redeveloped and will service the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Whenever that line begins service, perhaps someone who received a Kodak camera under the tree will be inspired by the site’s history to haul it out and shoot the opening ceremony.

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Weston Times-Advertiser, December 22, 1964.

Politicians love sending seasonal greetings, and Alan Eagleson was no exception. Before he achieved fame in the hockey world for forming the National Hockey League Players’ Association and infamy for his criminal actions regarding pensions and disability claims, Eagleson sat as a Progressive Conservative MPP for Lakeshore from 1963 to 1967.

 

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Willowdale Enterprise, December 8, 1965.

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Willowdale Enterprise, December 22, 1965.

Santa and the reindeer might have needed a map when a widened Highway 401 between Highway 400 and Hogg’s Hollow fully opened to to traffic on December 16, 1965. The expansion of the freeway from four to twelve lanes included the introduction of the express/collector lane system.

 

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Toronto Life, December 1966.

Toronto Life celebrated its first Christmas by asking Gordon Sinclair to describe how he really felt about the holiday? His verdict? Despite not being a fan of organized religion, Sinclair felt it was “the best and friendliest of all family celebrations when we are with kinfolk; the ones of our blood who accept us for what we are. Not what we should be, or could be, but what we are.” He also described Christmas was the worst day of the year to be alone, a situation he experienced while reporting from Shanghai in 1938. That day he wandered through clubs and pubs “looking for someone to feel sorry with” but found only a black eye (a present given by an American when Sinclair declined to have a drink with him) and a crying fit (after returning to his hotel to find “wish you were here” cablegrams from Canada). There was only one thing he would have changed about Christmas: “that stupid abbreviation, Xmas.”

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The Enterprise, December 20, 1967.

An excerpt from the Enterprise‘s December 13, 1967 holiday editorial, which criticized the trend toward war toys like G.I. Joe, which kids might have asked Miss Suzie for as they received a candy cane.

War toys are not going to make a killer out of a child, but they do instil an acceptance which lasts into adult life. In other words, war toys are a marvellous propaganda instrument…The only way to counteract war toy propaganda is for the consuer public to boycott any kind of violent toy–and encourage manufacturers to produce just as interesting toys who emphasis is not military.

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Globe and Mail, December 25, 1970.

A stylish seasonal ad from a fashionable Kingsway-area women’s clothier. Two weeks earlier, Lipton’s published a gift certificate order form in the Globe and Mail, positioning it as “great trim for any tree.”

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Toronto Life, December 1974.

While CHUM-FM offered a slender Santa for the holidays, its AM sibling distributed its usual CHUM Chart. Topping the Toronto hit list on December 21, 1974 was Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting.”

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Toronto Sun, December 16, 1975.

Unfortunately for eager carolers, the Sun-sponsored musical celebration of the season was cancelled due to the first blizzard of the season. High winds coupled with around 20 centimetres of snow resulted in a record number of help calls to the Ontario Motor League (now CAA), severe TTC service delays and the cancellation of a Toronto Marlboros hockey game. The storm did not deter holiday shoppers, as Simpsons reported a minor decrease in the usual last Saturday before Christmas crowd at their Queen Street flagship.

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The City, December 3, 1978.

Simpsons felt a little punny during the 1978 holiday season. It was a time of change for the retailer–Hudson’s Bay Company had launched a bid to acquire the department store chain in November, while shoppers at its Queen Street flagship would have seen the south end of the Eaton Centre near completion.

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Toronto Life, December 1985.

Because this article needs a touch of 1980s Christmas style.