Many of the ornaments we still use to decorate our houses at Christmas time date back to the beginning of Christianity. Christmas candles or tapers are one of the most eloquent examples. From the very beginning of Christianity, a large candle was lit on Christmas Eve symbolizing Christ, Light of the World. It was left to burn the whole night to mark the Nativity. This ancient custom still persists in several European countries, particularly in France, England, Ireland and Denmark. In Canada, even if we may have forgotten its meaning, many families still have a habit of lighting candles decorated with pine or fir branches during the "réveillon" or Christmas dinner.

The beautiful wreaths of fir boughs that we hang from our doors and windows come from a German tradition. On the first Sunday in Advent in Austria and in the south of Germany, each family braids a large wreath of fir branches and adds a red ribbon and pinecones.

Our habit of decorating houses for Christmas actually dates back to the second half of the XIXth century. Around 1860, Montreal merchants sold holly leaves and mistletoe balls to their wealthy customers as house decorations. Garl Read More
Many of the ornaments we still use to decorate our houses at Christmas time date back to the beginning of Christianity. Christmas candles or tapers are one of the most eloquent examples. From the very beginning of Christianity, a large candle was lit on Christmas Eve symbolizing Christ, Light of the World. It was left to burn the whole night to mark the Nativity. This ancient custom still persists in several European countries, particularly in France, England, Ireland and Denmark. In Canada, even if we may have forgotten its meaning, many families still have a habit of lighting candles decorated with pine or fir branches during the "réveillon" or Christmas dinner.

The beautiful wreaths of fir boughs that we hang from our doors and windows come from a German tradition. On the first Sunday in Advent in Austria and in the south of Germany, each family braids a large wreath of fir branches and adds a red ribbon and pinecones.

Our habit of decorating houses for Christmas actually dates back to the second half of the XIXth century. Around 1860, Montreal merchants sold holly leaves and mistletoe balls to their wealthy customers as house decorations. Garlands woven with flowers were also made to hang on mirror frames, over doors and mantelpieces. Baskets of dried, wax or paper flowers decorated tables. Later, these would be replaced by poinsettias, introduced to North American by the American botanist Joel Robert Poinsett who discovered this plant in Mexico in 1825 when he was the American ambassador to that country.

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

Every Christmas Eve deserves to be enlivened not only with Christmas carols but also popular songs as part of a whole range of religious hymns. A number of them were collected by Ernest Gagnon who was one of the first in Quebec to be interested in this field. His collection of songs was published in 1897 and again in 1906 as Cantiques populaires du Canada français (Popular Songs of French Canada).

Apart from religious songs, ancient noels like D’où viens-tu, bergère? were also sung. Ernest Myrand published a volume of these under the title, Noëls anciens de la Nouvelle-France (Ancient Noels of New France). From old French noels through American Christmas carols of which White Christmas as popularized by Bing Crosby is the most famous example, we come to more recent popular songs like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Petit papa Noël and Jingle Bells among others. And even though not traditional Christmas songs, other folk songs, drinking songs or rounds also made up the repertoire of parties during the holiday period.

Every Christmas Eve deserves to be enlivened not only with Christmas carols but also popular songs as part of a whole range of religious hymns. A number of them were collected by Ernest Gagnon who was one of the first in Quebec to be interested in this field. His collection of songs was published in 1897 and again in 1906 as Cantiques populaires du Canada français (Popular Songs of French Canada).

Apart from religious songs, ancient noels like D’où viens-tu, bergère? were also sung. Ernest Myrand published a volume of these under the title, Noëls anciens de la Nouvelle-France (Ancient Noels of New France). From old French noels through American Christmas carols of which White Christmas as popularized by Bing Crosby is the most famous example, we come to more recent popular songs like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Petit papa Noël and Jingle Bells among others. And even though not traditional Christmas songs, other folk songs, drinking songs or rounds also made up the repertoire of parties during the holiday period.

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

Christmas Song

Manuscript of an illustrated Christmas Song with the vocal and piano score. Note on the top of the leaflet: "Chanson de Noël" (Christmas Song); words by Armand Sylvestre and music by André Wormser

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

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


Traditional French culture in the Middle Ages drew heavily on the apocryphal books of the gospel for many Christmas stories. This oral tradition took centuries to become a true literary genre. These stories, tales and legends are fashioned from a number of motifs such as the night of miracles in which animals have the gift of speech, stories of treasures, and of the dead who return to haunt the living. Depending on the region, French Christmas stories take their inspiration from geography, fauna or flora. Thus the very pretty Legend of the sage plant features the Holy Family and three Provencal plants.

At the end of the XVIIIth and the beginning of the XIXth centuries, the Christmas story was recognized as a literary genre because of the English writer Charles Dickens and his famous story: A Christmas Carol.
Stories of French origin, where punishment is meted out to miscreants who refuse to help others on Christmas night, others where charitable souls are rewarded for their generosity to the less fortunate, turned up in French Canadian logging camps. Members of the Holy Family and fantastic heroes like Tom Caribou also appear, along with legends of werewolves, wi Read More
Traditional French culture in the Middle Ages drew heavily on the apocryphal books of the gospel for many Christmas stories. This oral tradition took centuries to become a true literary genre. These stories, tales and legends are fashioned from a number of motifs such as the night of miracles in which animals have the gift of speech, stories of treasures, and of the dead who return to haunt the living. Depending on the region, French Christmas stories take their inspiration from geography, fauna or flora. Thus the very pretty Legend of the sage plant features the Holy Family and three Provencal plants.

At the end of the XVIIIth and the beginning of the XIXth centuries, the Christmas story was recognized as a literary genre because of the English writer Charles Dickens and his famous story: A Christmas Carol.
Stories of French origin, where punishment is meted out to miscreants who refuse to help others on Christmas night, others where charitable souls are rewarded for their generosity to the less fortunate, turned up in French Canadian logging camps. Members of the Holy Family and fantastic heroes like Tom Caribou also appear, along with legends of werewolves, wills-of-the-wisp and ghost ships.

The Quebec version of the ghost ship is a birch bark canoe that sails through the sky carrying lumberjacks anxious to get home for Christmas Eve. To do this, they make a pact with the devil. One of the company, forgetting his promise, causes the canoe to fall by calling on the name of God.

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

The Chimney Sweep's Christmas

Christmas story on six postcards after a poem by Marcel Houjan. In a cruel version of a modern Christmas story, a grimy young chimney sweep puts his clogs by the fireplace and sleeps, dreaming that the hearth will be filled with toys. When he awakes, however, the clogs are empty.

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

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


The Ghost Ship

This pen and ink drawing by Henri Julien entitled the "birchbark canoe that flies", illustrates one of the most widespread Christmas legends in Quebec oral tradition.

Photograph : Musée du Québec
Collection : Musée du Québec, Quebec City, Canada

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


While the savage and bloodthirsty butchers of King Herod scoured the countryside around Bethlehem, cutting the throats of little children, Mary fled through the mountains of Judea, clutching her new-born tightly against her trembling heart. Seeing a village, Joseph ran ahead to ask for hospitality or even just a little water to bathe the little one. Alas, the nature of the people of this sad country was such that no one was prepared to offer anything, not water, shelter, not even a kind word. Now while the poor mother was alone, seated by the side of the road nursing the child, her husband took the donkey to drink from a communal well. What did she hear but shouts getting closer as the ground shook under the hooves of approaching horses.
Herod’s soldiers!
Where to hide? Not the slightest cave nor the smallest palm tree was to be seen.
The only thing close to Mary was a bush where a rose was beginning to bloom.
"Rose, beautiful rose, begged the poor mother, open out all your petals and hide this infant whom they want to kill and his half-dead mother."
The rose, wrinkling the pointed button which served as its nose, replied:
" Read More
While the savage and bloodthirsty butchers of King Herod scoured the countryside around Bethlehem, cutting the throats of little children, Mary fled through the mountains of Judea, clutching her new-born tightly against her trembling heart. Seeing a village, Joseph ran ahead to ask for hospitality or even just a little water to bathe the little one. Alas, the nature of the people of this sad country was such that no one was prepared to offer anything, not water, shelter, not even a kind word. Now while the poor mother was alone, seated by the side of the road nursing the child, her husband took the donkey to drink from a communal well. What did she hear but shouts getting closer as the ground shook under the hooves of approaching horses.
Herod’s soldiers!
Where to hide? Not the slightest cave nor the smallest palm tree was to be seen.
The only thing close to Mary was a bush where a rose was beginning to bloom.
"Rose, beautiful rose, begged the poor mother, open out all your petals and hide this infant whom they want to kill and his half-dead mother."
The rose, wrinkling the pointed button which served as its nose, replied:
"Get on your way quickly, young woman, because the butchers could brush by me and blemish me. Go see the clove close by. Tell her to shelter you. She has enough flowers to conceal you."
"Clove, pretty clove, begged the fugitive, spread out so that your mass will hide this child condemned to death and his exhausted mother."
The clove shook the little heads of her flowers and refused without even explaining why:
"On your way, you poor wretch. I don’t even have time to listen to you. I am too busy putting out blooms all over. Go see the sage plant close by. She has nothing better to do than dispense charity."
"Ah! Sage, good sage, begged the unhappy woman, spread your leaves to hide this innocent whose life is in such danger and his mother who is half-dead with hunger, fatigue and fear."
The sage plant then blossomed so abundantly that it covered all the earth and its velvety leaves created a canopy under which the God-child and His mother sheltered.

On the road, the butchers passed by without seeing a thing. At the sound of their steps, Mary shivered in terror but the baby, caressed by the leaves, smiled. Then, as suddenly as they had come, the soldiers were gone.When they had gone, Mary and Jesus came out from their green and flower-bedecked refuge.
" Sage, holy sage, many thanks. I bless you for your good deed which everyone will henceforth remember."

When Joseph found them, he had a hard time keeping up with the donkey, which had been restored by a huge plateful of barley that a decent man had given him. Mary remounted the animal, hugging her saved child to her. And Michael, the Archangel of God, descended from the realms of Heaven to keep them company and show them the shortest way they could journey in easy stages to Egypt.

Since that time the rose has had thorns, the clove ill smelling flowers, while the sage plant possesses many curative powers:

As the Provencal saying goes:
Whosoever uses not sage
Remembers not the Virgin.

Joseph Roumanille (retold by M. Toussaint-Samat) "Légendes et récits du temps de Noël" (Christmas-time Legends and Stories).

© 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, including Francophone and Anglophone, and over time;
  • Recognize that material history and popular culture are illustrations of historical change;
  • Reconstruct stories and legends associated with Christmas.

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