How did the men and women of the Hudson’s Bay Company celebrate the holiday season while living isolated lives in frozen and remote outposts during the fur trade era?
The article “The Christmas Holyday” by Margaret Arnett MacLeod appeared in the December 1952 edition of The Beaver magazine. It helps to answer that question through journal entries that give readers a look at how Christmas was spent over the centuries at many of the HBC’s “lonely posts in the wilderness.”
The oldest account dates back 350 years and is found in the journals of Thomas Gorst, an employee of the HBC and the author of detailed accounts of life at Charles Fort near James Bay (in what is now Waskaganish, Quebec) during the latter half of the seventeenth century.
Gorst describes in great detail a Christmas feast in the “snowy woods” at Charles Fort in 1670 that was attended by a group of prominent men, including HBC Governor Charles Bayly and fur traders Médard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson. The entry describes a day filled with food, drink, and feelings of nostalgia.
“25 being Christmas day wee made merry remembering our Friends in England, having for Liquor Brandy and strong beer and for Food plenty of Partridges and Venison besides what ye shipps provisions afforded,” he wrote.
While this journal entry portrays what sounds like a happy celebration, HBC records also describe Christmas Days filled with hunger and despair. A journal entry from the year 1800 describes a bleak Christmas in Osnaburgh House, in what is now northwestern Ontario.
“A porr Christmas day at Osnaburgh. Very little victuals to eat and nothing to drink but water,” the entry reads.
While these writings from Christmases past describe some merry days and others that were more arduous, they also show that HBC men and women over the centuries typically made as much of an effort as was possible to have a merry Christmas.
“In many years it was the only day of peace and goodwill in the time of fur trade troubles,” MacLeod wrote.
“But even in the worst years there was always this bright spot to be anticipated and afterwards remembered with pleasure by men and women whose Christmas traditions were those of older lands.”