Ontario Mennonites and Christmas in the 19th century

Describing Christmas celebrations by Ontario Mennonites in the 19th century could make for a very short blog. They did very little to mark the Christmas season.

Sarah and Jacob Y. Shantz

Sarah and Jacob Y. Shantz, ca. 1865. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

The Cornelius and Helena Jansen family lived for almost a year with the Jacob Y. Shantz family in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario from August 1873 to June 1874. During this time, Margarete, a Jansen daughter, kept a diary.

Christmas tree in 1870s.

Two girls reading in front of a Christmas tree, adorned with dolls and popcorn, at the L.C. Walbridge Ranch in Russell County, Kansas between 1870s and 1890s. Kansas Historical Society

The Shantz family was quite wealthy, and more assimilated to Canadian culture than many of their fellow Mennonites. Even so, Margarete observed in late December 1873 that Christmas had been very low key.  “Because the Schanz [sic] family does not think it right to have a Christmas tree, we had none, although one could have been chosen from the very best trees.”  This suggests the Jansen family, who were urban and sophisticated Mennonites from Prussia, and later Russia, had  formerly enjoyed Christmas trees. Ontario Mennonites, however, were inclined to think Christmas trees were of pagan origin, and not a suitable practice.

Some plates of candy treats and a few green branches at the Jansens (who were living in the Shantz’s doddy house), were the only concessions to the season on Christmas 1873.

Earlier, perhaps on Christmas eve, they may have attended a school program in which some of the younger Shantz children participated.

Christian Eby meetinghouse

Christian_Eby_meetinghouse (now First Mennonite Church), built in 1834. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

On Christmas morning the Shantz family would have participated in worship services at the nearby Christian Eby meetinghouse, where they heard two sermons. Old Order Mennonites and other conservative Mennonite groups still hold worship services on Christmas morning.

After church, the Shantz family would have hosted company for the rest of Christmas day and possibly into Boxing Day. Or they could have been guests in another home. Jacob Shantz was part of a large extended family, so the possibilities for company would have been extensive.

There was no tradition of gift giving, beyond the special seasonal candies. Christmas cards were still not in general use (they were only beginning in Great Britain) at that time.

In most ways, Mennonites were likely very similar to their neighbors in the 1870s. Easter was  a much more important date in the church calendar than Christmas for all Christian denominations, not just Mennonites. The Christmas celebrations of 2015 are a modern phenomenon.

When assimilated Mennonites began to display Christmas trees varies by region and group. Growing up in Ohio I recall Christmas trees in our home in the early 1950s. However, my wife, who grew up in a Pennsylvania Franconia Conference Mennonite family, did not have a tree in her home even in the 1960s.

What are your memories of Christmas trees?