In Canada, the custom of giving Christmas presents is relatively recent. From the beginning of New France to the end of the XIXth century, gifts were exchanged at New Year’s and not at Christmas. Newspaper advertising gradually led people to give some of their presents at Christmas and to keep others for New Year’s. As with gifts, Christmas stockings soon replaced shoes placed by the chimney.

In the last quarter of the XIXth century, Christmas began to be the time to give children presents, at least in middle-class families. Department stores sold a great variety of children’s toys and suggested a wide selection of gifts for adults to give one another. With the growing popularity of Santa Claus, and a little later in the 1930’s of "Père Noël" (Father Christmas), presents came to be exchanged only at Christmas.

In Canada, the custom of giving Christmas presents is relatively recent. From the beginning of New France to the end of the XIXth century, gifts were exchanged at New Year’s and not at Christmas. Newspaper advertising gradually led people to give some of their presents at Christmas and to keep others for New Year’s. As with gifts, Christmas stockings soon replaced shoes placed by the chimney.

In the last quarter of the XIXth century, Christmas began to be the time to give children presents, at least in middle-class families. Department stores sold a great variety of children’s toys and suggested a wide selection of gifts for adults to give one another. With the growing popularity of Santa Claus, and a little later in the 1930’s of "Père Noël" (Father Christmas), presents came to be exchanged only at Christmas.


© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Holiday presents

Two symmetrical Christmas trees, stars, candles and cakes are arranged on a table covered with toys. The French word "étrennes" is used to refer to presents given at Christmas or on New Year's Day. J.J. Sundt Line engraving

Photo: Musée national des arts et traditions populaires, Paris, France
Musée national des arts et traditions populaires, Paris, France
XIXth Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Christmas tree

Children all together around a Christmas tree in a middle-class home in the late XIXth century. Coloured lithograph.

Photo : Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


As long ago as 1860, German-made toys were widely advertised by department stores, a dominance that lasted up until Japanese production overtook the market in the XXth century. At that time, toys for boys and for girls were clearly differentiated. For boys, there were miniature fire trucks and police cars, small delivery vans and cars, trains and trams, lead soldiers, sets of wooden blocks, mechanical toys of all kinds, carpenter’s tool boxes and soldiers and firemen’s uniforms.

As for girls, they mainly received toys linked to their future roles as mothers and housewives. They were given dolls, miniature stoves complete with pots and pans, sets of dishes, irons, washing machines and other doll-size furniture, like upright pianos.

Up until the end of the Second World War, these beautiful toys remained the preserve of the upper middle classes. Working class children could expect much more modest gifts. In their Christmas stockings, children would find oranges, candies, gingerbread men or dolls (called "nolais" in Acadia) and Christmas biscuits. The lucky ones might find a small home-made toy and, more rarely, a beautiful store-bought to Read More
As long ago as 1860, German-made toys were widely advertised by department stores, a dominance that lasted up until Japanese production overtook the market in the XXth century. At that time, toys for boys and for girls were clearly differentiated. For boys, there were miniature fire trucks and police cars, small delivery vans and cars, trains and trams, lead soldiers, sets of wooden blocks, mechanical toys of all kinds, carpenter’s tool boxes and soldiers and firemen’s uniforms.

As for girls, they mainly received toys linked to their future roles as mothers and housewives. They were given dolls, miniature stoves complete with pots and pans, sets of dishes, irons, washing machines and other doll-size furniture, like upright pianos.

Up until the end of the Second World War, these beautiful toys remained the preserve of the upper middle classes. Working class children could expect much more modest gifts. In their Christmas stockings, children would find oranges, candies, gingerbread men or dolls (called "nolais" in Acadia) and Christmas biscuits. The lucky ones might find a small home-made toy and, more rarely, a beautiful store-bought toy purchased by their parents at great expense.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Gifts for little girls

Doll's tea set in wood in the Windsor style, and a porcelain doll made by Armand Marseille. Doll's tea set : XXth century Doll : circa 1910

Photograph: Musée de la civilisation, Pierre Soulard, 1995
Musée de la civilisation, Québec, Canada

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Gifts for little boys

Handcrafted metal dump truck, farm yard in tin comprising a stable, barn and silo, and a wooden horse on wheels. Truck and horse: 1900-1940 Farm : 1956-1962

Photograph: Musée de la civilisation, Pierre Soulard, 1995
Musée de la civilisation, Québec, Canada

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Boy under the table searching for gifts.

The straw under the table marks this home as Bethlehem, the place where the Christ child, where divine presence is born. In a playful ritual the child in the family scurries about under the table searching for the gifts, which have been hidden in the straw. The gifts, on this occasion, include a treat for the family dog.

Photograph : David J. Goa, 1995
Folklife Collections, Provincial Museum of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


In North America, the traditional Christmas stocking actually dates back to the end of the XIXth century. The first to mention Christmas stockings being hung from a chimney were the illustrator, Thomas Nast, through his pictures and the writer, George Webster, in a story about a visit from Santa Claus.

In Quebec and Acadia, children traditionally put their shoes close to the fireplace so that the Infant Jesus, and later "Père Noël" (Father Christmas), could put gifts there on Christmas Eve. This custom, which probably came to us from European countries where it was a common practice in the XIXth century, does not seem to have survived this period.

In some Quebec families, children hung their stockings at the end of their bed rather than hanging them close to the fireplace or putting out their shoes. This custom ended during the 1930s when Christmas trees started to be set up in houses with gifts placed underneath.

Japanese oranges have a special meaning to the people who live in the Canadian Prairies. A gift from the East, their arrival at the coldest time of the year has brightened many homes and Christmas feasts for 110 years. To many, Read More

In North America, the traditional Christmas stocking actually dates back to the end of the XIXth century. The first to mention Christmas stockings being hung from a chimney were the illustrator, Thomas Nast, through his pictures and the writer, George Webster, in a story about a visit from Santa Claus.

In Quebec and Acadia, children traditionally put their shoes close to the fireplace so that the Infant Jesus, and later "Père Noël" (Father Christmas), could put gifts there on Christmas Eve. This custom, which probably came to us from European countries where it was a common practice in the XIXth century, does not seem to have survived this period.

In some Quebec families, children hung their stockings at the end of their bed rather than hanging them close to the fireplace or putting out their shoes. This custom ended during the 1930s when Christmas trees started to be set up in houses with gifts placed underneath.

Japanese oranges have a special meaning to the people who live in the Canadian Prairies. A gift from the East, their arrival at the coldest time of the year has brightened many homes and Christmas feasts for 110 years. To many, the festive season begins when Santa Claus welcomes the first major shipment of Japanese mandarin oranges at the Port of Vancouver, accompanied by young Japanese girls dressed in tradition kimonos. On Christmas morning the flavourful fruit find their way into many children’s Christmas stockings.


© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Mandarin oranges

Photograph of Salvation Army workers packing crates with mandarin oranges to be distributed among the poor at Christmas.

Photo : The Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
The Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Clogs on the hearth

Tradition whereby children put their clogs on the hearth to receive gifts. Clogs were later replaced by shoes and then by knitted stockings.

Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France
Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France
Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Identify how people, events, and ideas of the past shape the present;
  • Describe some Christmas traditions in Canada and their development, with examples;
  • Compare Christmas traditions between cultures, and over time;
  • Recognize that material history and popular culture are illustrations of historical change.

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