A Historic Stewart Farm volunteer helps decorate the farmhouse for the holiday season. (City of Surrey photo)

Counting the pros and cons of Christmas in the early 1900s

Reality of ‘living the dream’ more challenging than you might think

This story was featured in the Winter 2019 Indulge magazine, delivered with your Peace Arch News on Friday, Nov. 15.

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It’s hard to not reminisce about a time when life was simple.

As I’m writing this, I’m looking out of the office window, I’m visualizing fields of hay swaying in the breeze coming off South Surrey’s Nicomekl River. A gust of wind creates an ocean of golden waves, framed by a vibrant green trim, with snow-capped mountains in the background.

There’s no traffic, no commotion. The air is fresh and the scene is silent, except for the chirping of birds.

The thought – as I sit in a cold, shared cubical while bumping chairs with the sports editor – lifts a weight off my shoulders.

The pioneers of the Semiahmoo Peninsula didn’t know how good they had it. They were free of the constraints that bog down, yet define, modern life.

It’s refreshing to romanticize life in the early 1900s, however, as I learned from speaking with Surrey’s curator of exhibits and programs, the lifestyle was not an altogether desirable one.

City of Surrey’s Jerrilin Spence has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to life on Historic Stewart Farm (13723 Crescent Rd.). John Stewart bought the farmhouse in the late 1880s and lived there with his family through the early 1900s.

Mostly men and boys, they were hardworking hay farmers, living an authentic life that today’s Instagram ‘influencers’ would define as ‘living the dream.’

But I’ve come to believe that no one in their right mind actually wants to live a truly authentic lifestyle, and I’ll explain why with a pros and cons list.

Starting with physical labour – they started young. Even getting to school was a journey back then.

Pro: Everyone was in fantastic physical shape.

Con: Children had to walk two-miles each way – through bitter cold and snow – from the farmhouse to the school. The school was called Mud Bay School, so it’s not hard to imagine that commute.

The trek was just the beginning, once the students returned home, it was dark by 4:30 p.m. and there was no electricity.

“You’re mucking out the horse stall and feeding the animals, with lanterns full of fire in a wooded barn with straw…” Spence said. “We wouldn’t have a lot of five-year-olds do that nowadays. But back then, of course, that would be one of their jobs… Do their homework, have supper and go to bed.”

That thought alone should scare hipsters back into their dimly lit basement suites and the comfort of their avocado toast.

Speaking of avocado, if millennials think the fruit is expensive now, I’ve got news for them.

Pro: Christmas time was an opportunity to try exotic fruit and take a break from the mundane helpings of preserved … whatever.

Con: An orange was considered exotic.

“Special occasion meals would be things that you didn’t have access to on a regular basis,” Spence said. “Oranges we’re like a real prize treat kind of thing because they come from down south.”

On the topic of food, a late-summer and fall task would have been to preserve meats, fruits and vegetables for the winter.

Pro: Summer was plentiful with fresh, organic vegetables, eggs, and ripe fruit. Today’s consumers pay a premium for such luxury.

Con: During winter, the menu consisted of the 1900s equivalent of Spam and pickled eggs.

There were, however, fewer bills to pay – simply because services, such as water, sewer and hydro were not yet available.

Pro: You’ll save money on your water bill.

Con: In order to bathe, water was heated on a wood-burning stove and poured into a tub. Each family member would take turns bathing in the same water. Anyone who grew up as the youngest child knows exactly how that pecking order would pan out.

The money saved on the water bill could be used for Christmas presents – except they didn’t bother purchasing gifts, they made them. While most Christmas presents were handmade, children from wealthier families in the 1900s had the luxury of looking through a Sears catalogue and making a ‘wish list.’

Pro: Christmas gifts had more meaning because they were made by hand. Examples provided by Spence include wooden toys and handmade clothing.

Con: Those gifts are lame and now we can buy things like expensive espresso machines (see the gift guide on page 20). Back in pioneer times, you’d have to foam your latte over an open campfire.

Spence said there’s an oral history from the Stewart grandchildren that they did have Christmas trees, a tradition reportedly popularized by Queen Victoria. The family would harvest a tree in South Surrey, which was easy enough to do considering the area was a forest.

“And then they would decorate it with things like fruit or handmade ornaments, paper cones that they could fill with nuts or candy. They would string popcorn and cranberries.”

Pro: Edible Christmas tree ornaments.

Con: There’s none.

Although living life as it was 120 years ago is not high on my bucket list, I do find tremendous value in bringing children, or even adults for that matter, to Historic Stewart Farm to get a small taste of pioneer life.

It may give people an appreciation for not only how difficult life was back then, but just how easy we have it now.

To share that experience, the city has a number of winter events planned this season in addition to its regular farm operating hours.

On Dec. 7, the farm is hosting a drop-in event titled Victorian Christmas Evening. It’s to feature music, treats and crafts. Participants will get the opportunity to make a lantern to take along on a caroling walk in the park and snap a photo with Father Christmas.

An ‘Evening Carol Sing’ is to be held Dec. 14 from 6-7 p.m. and then again at 7:30-8:30 p.m. at the farm. It serves as an opportunity to bring the family for a rare after-hours visit with singing in Stewart Hall. Registration for that event can be made online or at 604-501-5100 or on the city’s website.

The farm, which is to be decorated for Christmas, is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 to 4 p.m. and heritage demonstrations are held Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

More information on the farm, including the upcoming seasonal events, can be found at www.surrey.ca

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