Everyone knows about the last-minute Christmas shopping rush. Dating back to the Middle Ages in France, Christmas was a time of markets and fairs where useful items for the holidays could be obtained, often specialties of the region. "Consumer madness" is not only a feature of modern society but was well known at the end of the last century when a shift could be observed in the custom of giving presents. The trend toward Christmas presents and away from New Year’s gifts gradually began to take hold. Shopkeepers were clearly the first to benefit from this "consumer madness". Around December 10, owners of department stores and grocers would begin their newspaper advertising campaigns. Since presents and food were bought customarily between December 21 and 24, merchants stepped up their hard-sell strategy in the newspapers on those days to attract even more customers.
Everyone knows about the last-minute Christmas shopping rush. Dating back to the Middle Ages in France, Christmas was a time of markets and fairs where useful items for the holidays could be obtained, often specialties of the region. "Consumer madness" is not only a feature of modern society but was well known at the end of the last century when a shift could be observed in the custom of giving presents. The trend toward Christmas presents and away from New Year’s gifts gradually began to take hold. Shopkeepers were clearly the first to benefit from this "consumer madness". Around December 10, owners of department stores and grocers would begin their newspaper advertising campaigns. Since presents and food were bought customarily between December 21 and 24, merchants stepped up their hard-sell strategy in the newspapers on those days to attract even more customers.

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

At Christmas time, the merchants on the Rue du Campanile decorate the fronts of their shops

At Christmas time, the merchants on the Rue du Campanile decorate the fronts of their shops with strings of lights and a great many illuminated Christmas trees, creating a Christmas wonderland certain to attract customers.

Photograph: Raymond Wayland, Sainte-Foy, Canada

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


In the Middle Ages, fairs were held during holidays. Strasbourg held the earliest Christmas fair, which developed in the XVIth century with the emergence of the figure of the Christkindel. The Christkindel market is still held today in the Place Broglie with stalls selling traditional candies, decorations for crèches and Christmas trees, crafts and regional specialties. Another famous market is the one for santons in Provence. The first santon fair was held in 1803 along the Cours Saint Louis with only three santon makers setting out their figurines on simple tables covered with white cloths. Today annual santon markets that sell only articles for the crèche, and occasionally flowers, are held in Aix and in Marseilles.
In the Middle Ages, fairs were held during holidays. Strasbourg held the earliest Christmas fair, which developed in the XVIth century with the emergence of the figure of the Christkindel. The Christkindel market is still held today in the Place Broglie with stalls selling traditional candies, decorations for crèches and Christmas trees, crafts and regional specialties. Another famous market is the one for santons in Provence. The first santon fair was held in 1803 along the Cours Saint Louis with only three santon makers setting out their figurines on simple tables covered with white cloths. Today annual santon markets that sell only articles for the crèche, and occasionally flowers, are held in Aix and in Marseilles.

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

Christmas market

After 1570 the St Nicholas market was replaced by the Christkindelsmärik which has become very cosmopolitan in towns like Kaysersberg, Bouxwiller and many others.

Photograph: D.Kohler
20th Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


At Christmas time, large department stores would mount displays of the most beautiful toys and sumptuous gifts in their windows and inside the store to give to those nearest and dearest. These beautiful shop windows were a definite attraction for passers-by and always aroused vivid emotions and daydreams.

Some proprietors, more daring than their competitors, went so far as to organize costly and very elaborate events to curry the favour of consumers. Spectacular Santa Claus parades through the streets of Montreal and later those of Quebec City proved to be one of the most compelling examples. Another equally effective strategy was to suggest to customers that they do their catalogue shopping when it suited them.
At Christmas time, large department stores would mount displays of the most beautiful toys and sumptuous gifts in their windows and inside the store to give to those nearest and dearest. These beautiful shop windows were a definite attraction for passers-by and always aroused vivid emotions and daydreams.

Some proprietors, more daring than their competitors, went so far as to organize costly and very elaborate events to curry the favour of consumers. Spectacular Santa Claus parades through the streets of Montreal and later those of Quebec City proved to be one of the most compelling examples. Another equally effective strategy was to suggest to customers that they do their catalogue shopping when it suited them.

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

The Campanile shopping centre located on the outskirts of Quebec City

The Campanile shopping centre located on the outskirts of Quebec City sets up a huge decorated and illuminated Christmas tree each year under its glass roof.

Photograph: Raymond Wayland, Sainte-Foy, Canada

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


Santa Claus and his elves had already been setting up a workshop in some large department stores for some years when he had his first parade through the streets of Montreal in 1925. Staged at a cost of $100,000 by Eaton’s department store, this first parade was a huge festival for children and grown-ups alike. The celebration was actually organized into two different events.

A month before the event itself, Eaton started to announce on the radio through "Santagrams" that Santa Claus was coming. Daily bulletins followed his progress from the North Pole to Montreal. This tradition was maintained right up to the mid-1950s.

The second part of the celebration was the arrival of Santa Claus and his parade through the working class areas of Montreal. The final stop before Eaton’s department store in Centretown was the highlight of the celebration. On a platform especially decorated for the occasion, the company’s directors, including President John David Eaton, greeted the distinguished visitor with great pomp and ceremony. Climbing down his long ladder, Santa Claus entered the store to set up shop in "Toy Town" and meet his s Read More
Santa Claus and his elves had already been setting up a workshop in some large department stores for some years when he had his first parade through the streets of Montreal in 1925. Staged at a cost of $100,000 by Eaton’s department store, this first parade was a huge festival for children and grown-ups alike. The celebration was actually organized into two different events.

A month before the event itself, Eaton started to announce on the radio through "Santagrams" that Santa Claus was coming. Daily bulletins followed his progress from the North Pole to Montreal. This tradition was maintained right up to the mid-1950s.

The second part of the celebration was the arrival of Santa Claus and his parade through the working class areas of Montreal. The final stop before Eaton’s department store in Centretown was the highlight of the celebration. On a platform especially decorated for the occasion, the company’s directors, including President John David Eaton, greeted the distinguished visitor with great pomp and ceremony. Climbing down his long ladder, Santa Claus entered the store to set up shop in "Toy Town" and meet his small fans every day until the "final opening day".

During the 1950s, the Dupuis Frères store organized its own parade for Francophones in the east end of Montreal. Using Eaton’s tried and true formula, Dupuis also introduced its own "radiograms" and its "Toy City" beginning in 1927. At both Eaton’s and Dupuis, children could have their photograph taken with Santa Claus, take a train ride to the "Land of Dreams" or meet the Christmas Star Fairy.

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

Towards the end of the XIXth century, the Eaton’s and Simpson’s department stores in Toronto and, slightly later, that of Dupuis Frères in Montreal, published magnificent catalogues which were distributed practically everywhere in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. Some stores went so far as to publish a special Christmas catalogue.

This new way of shopping, by mail-order, turned consumers’ habits upside down. From now on they could buy their gifts in advance without having to wait for the frantic rush in the last days before Christmas. This new sales promotion tool also reached a completely different clientele in rural areas. Dupuis Frères (the only Montreal department store managed by French Canadians) used this sales method to make massive inroads in retail sales, betting quite rightly on the loyalty of Quebec Francophones.
Towards the end of the XIXth century, the Eaton’s and Simpson’s department stores in Toronto and, slightly later, that of Dupuis Frères in Montreal, published magnificent catalogues which were distributed practically everywhere in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. Some stores went so far as to publish a special Christmas catalogue.

This new way of shopping, by mail-order, turned consumers’ habits upside down. From now on they could buy their gifts in advance without having to wait for the frantic rush in the last days before Christmas. This new sales promotion tool also reached a completely different clientele in rural areas. Dupuis Frères (the only Montreal department store managed by French Canadians) used this sales method to make massive inroads in retail sales, betting quite rightly on the loyalty of Quebec Francophones.

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

Christmas Catalogue

Cover page of the Toronto (Ontario) Simpsons-Sears Limited Christmas Catalogue.

Photograph: Musée de la civilisation, Pierre Soulard, 1995
Collection : Musée de la civilisation, Québec, Canada
c. 1955
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


In Canada, in the days leading up to Christmas, food was bought both for "réveillon" and for Christmas dinner. Grocers inserted lavish advertisements in newspapers to publicize their products and to attract as many customers as possible.

In the 1860s, some merchants decorated the inside of their shops with holly garlands and dried flowers to create a holiday atmosphere. Some who were shrewder than others went so far as to offer a free gift to all their customers: holly leaves or mistletoe balls. As the orders flooded in, grocers hastened to increase the number of delivery vans to satisfy their customers’ needs. A large variety of food was offered for sale at this period, including much fresh fruit: oranges, lemons, limes, grapes, figs and plums. There were also cheeses imported from Europe and the United States, fruit pies, and for wealthier customers, Russian caviar or game from England.

All kinds of already prepared or tinned food were also available, like tomato (a novelty) or turtle soup, or different pâtés made from liver, duck, snipe and shrimp. Nor was there any lack of variety in the drinks on offer. Wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sa Read More
In Canada, in the days leading up to Christmas, food was bought both for "réveillon" and for Christmas dinner. Grocers inserted lavish advertisements in newspapers to publicize their products and to attract as many customers as possible.

In the 1860s, some merchants decorated the inside of their shops with holly garlands and dried flowers to create a holiday atmosphere. Some who were shrewder than others went so far as to offer a free gift to all their customers: holly leaves or mistletoe balls. As the orders flooded in, grocers hastened to increase the number of delivery vans to satisfy their customers’ needs. A large variety of food was offered for sale at this period, including much fresh fruit: oranges, lemons, limes, grapes, figs and plums. There were also cheeses imported from Europe and the United States, fruit pies, and for wealthier customers, Russian caviar or game from England.

All kinds of already prepared or tinned food were also available, like tomato (a novelty) or turtle soup, or different pâtés made from liver, duck, snipe and shrimp. Nor was there any lack of variety in the drinks on offer. Wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sauternes, Champagne, Rhine wines, Port and Madeira were in good supply as well as fine liqueurs imported from France and of course porter and ale from the United Kingdom.

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

Chocolat Christmas crèche

Some families make crèches in chocolate at Christmas time as well as Santa Clauses, Christmas trees, angels, animals and other figures associated with this great feast of the Nativity.

Photograph: Benoît Paquet, Sainte-Foy, Canada, 1994

© 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, 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.

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