Muskoka Traditions and Seasonal Activities
In any country or community there are Christmas and seasonal holiday traditions and activities that make December special. In Muskoka, we are blessed with a climate and topography that contribute, to many of these indoor and outdoor traditions and activities.
Thanks to those of you who responded to our promotional request for pictures. Here we present a few shots of seasonal exhibits and offer you this piece to enjoy. In particular thank you to the folks from Eurovinyl Windows & Door featuring BlackBirch Cottage on Drag Lake, Haliburton. (Above) Image by: Christopher Meiorin .
Well before the dawn of Christianity, trees that annually remained green, had a special meaning for people in winter. As folks today decorate their cottages and homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, former customs were to hang evergreen boughs over doors and windows. In some cultures, it was believed that evergreens would keep away ghosts, evil spirits, witches and illness. Sounds like the making of a good bedtime story for the children!
The origins of lighting Christmas trees is well documented from Germany in the late 16 century. Hung from ceilings, illuminated with candles, traditional apples and assorted goodies were attached to their trunks.
As time passed into the 18th century, Muskoka residents developed traditions which came from Europe, through Britain, and into our fair land. In many cases trees were tiny and would be located on a table in the living room. Paper ornaments trimmed the small trees, while nuts and fruit, gifts and sweets were placed at the bottom under the branches. Candles were of course, quite dangerous, so Muskoka families lit them only at Christmas Eve when the tree was revealed to the children for the first time. In wealthier homes, incredibly, each family member had their own little table-sized tree.
Historically, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Victoria was very popular, and what was done at court quickly became fashionable, not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious North America. The Christmas tree had arrived!
Back in Muskoka, by the turn of the 19th century, the tradition had evolved to a single, large tree in the cabin or home. Christmas trees displayed publicly, and illuminated with electric lights, only became popular in the early 20th century.
Traditions: Food and Beverages
At this time of year, what does not occur outdoors will certainly center around the creations from the kitchen and the bar.
In earlier times, as soon as the weather turned cold, beef, pigs and poultry were ‘prepared’ to supply the family with a stock of inventory for the festive season and long winter ahead. Different cuts were primed for storage. Often food was buried in snow or placed in a cold room or ‘root cellar’. Turkey where possible, was stored in ‘air tight’ containers. Like today, traditional recipes were passed on from generation to generation, but without computer files and email transport! Not unlike today, adults would prepare for weeks, readying for a holiday feast, even if the meal for those less fortunate, was understated.
Favorite beverages were mulled wine, mulled cider and even mulled beer (‘mulling’ added sugar and various spice to a beverage for taste).The beverage was then heated to sooth during the chilly months. Eggnog made it way to Canada in the 18th Century and continues for many to be a seasonal favorite, often with some coffee liquor added.
Today we are very fortunate to have the incredible selection of food to choose from. Turkey and other fowl, ham, beef, salmon, all in many forms and prepared cuts, often grace tables at this festive time. Seafood, such as shrimp, lobster and fresh oysters are in high demand in December, leading to the solstice and New Year.
Popular cocktails include Old Fashions, Martinis and Manhattans, as well as Champagne and a variety of sparkling want-to-be’s. Now with a special selection of local craft brewers, we also have a few seasonal beers to enjoy. While vodka and orange juice remains popular, it was in 1921, that an American bartender in Paris invented the Bloody Mary.
Gingerbread, and the elaborate cookie walled houses originated in 16th century Germany while shortbread was a medieval offering that transformed in Scotland. Bread roll, was originally twice baked, and dusted with sugar and spices. Later the yeast was replaced by butter. Back in the day, other popular items included mincemeat tarts, fruitcake, plum pudding and distinctive seasonal trifles. Cookie recipes by the thousands can be found on line, but rarely do they compete with Great Gramma’s special brownies.
No wonder, the fitness clubs, and ‘wonder diets’ come into vogue so soon in January!
In Muskoka, we are a hearty breed. Long ago much time was taken up with activities based on survival. Sports and games were a luxury. Felling trees and chopping wood, ensure a warm cabin for the family was a priority. Hunting, trapping and fishing for many, provided work and sustenance. Sleigh rides, by horse or even by a team of hearty dogs provided serious transportation and delight for young ones. Snowshoes were considered a ‘must-have’ rather than an alternative to getting the heart rate up for exercise.
Today, like in the past, skating on the lake or river is as rare as ever due to inconsistent weather, but hockey rinks abound and new outdoor skating attractions such as Arrowhead Park in Algonquin have become wildly popular.
Simplicity reins in Muskoka as a campfire providing warmth, beauty and the opportunity to roast marshmallows is often enough to enjoy the fresh air and a boundless starry night. While Cross country skiing originated in Scandinavia, the sport first appeared in Canada around 1890. Tobogganing, and downhill skiing round out what is often most overlooked today, and that is just a lovely walk, hand in hand, in the great outdoors.
Curling, a staple of the north, was brought to Canada by the Scottish and first appeared in Canada in 1807. Muskoka has many popular curling clubs that bring communities together for bonspiels and weekly mixed events.
The skills of ice fishing in Muskoka were passed along from various First Nations Peoples. After chipping a hole in the ice, a variety of spears, hooks, nets and decoys were used to catch fish. Today in Ice fishing has become part of Muskoka’s tourism engine with many modern conveniences for comfort.
Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, we cannot do the season justice without mentioning the importance of music, song and dance. Jacques Cartier wrote about Canada’s Aboriginal People’s dancing culture as early as 1534. And in Muskoka doing a jig to a violin, harp or fiddle brought families together and smiles all around. Carol singing and a variety of church services bring communities together in December, reminding us of our past.
And finally, no written piece on seasonal traditions would be complete without jolly old Saint Nick! Little in the world today reminds us of our youth, and our traditions more than Santa Claus. As we decorate our homes and trees to welcome our families for the holidays, one traditional visit we can expect to grace our home is from the ol’man himself with a big bushy beard, a red suit and a team of reindeer!
We sincerely hope that this Muskoka perspective finds you and your family thankful for the traditions and activities we have the opportunity to enjoy. May your holidays be merry and your travel be safe. Where ever possible be kind and generous to others.