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?




The Pre-History of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario – Part I

Rick Cober Bauman

Rick Cober Bauman, MCC Ontario Executive Director, speaking at rally for Syrian refugees at Kitchener City Hall. MCC Ontario photo

The refugee crisis in Syria has highlighted the refugee work of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCC Ontario) in the Mennonite and other communities in Ontario. Donations, including $10,000 from the City of Kitchener, are flowing in, and planning for the arrival of Syrian refugees is underway.

Mennonite Central Committee Ontario formally began in 1963, though MCC as a relief agency has existed in the United States since 1920. It has been the inter-Mennonite relief and service agency that has allowed almost all theological stripes of Mennonites to cooperate in helping to relieve suffering in the world.

The roots of MCC, however, go back much further than 1920. One could say inter-Mennonite cooperation began over 200 years ago in Upper Canada when Mennonites and Brethren in Christ leaders together petitioned the government for recognition of their pacifism prior to the War of 1812.

The Mennonites and the Amish Mennonites cooperated in the 1820s when the Amish began to settle in what became Wilmot Township of Waterloo Region. Mennonite leaders went with Christian Nafziger when he first approached the Upper Canadian authorities about the availability of land for potential Amish settlers. When they arrived many Amish families first lived with Mennonite families in Waterloo Township, while husbands and sons built the first pioneer buildings on their land.

But here I want to talk more about the “organized” cooperative efforts, where committees were established to work at projects that could not be carried out by one group alone. These cooperative ventures also included the full theological spectrum of Mennonites at the time the organization was required.

I will mention two of these organized efforts this week, and four others in the following two weeks.

Russian Aid Committee

The Russian Aid Committee was established in the 1870s to assist Mennonites from Russia who were immigrating to “reserves” established in Manitoba for them by the Canadian government. These Mennonites represented groups who feared the possible loss of privileges in Russia, both in the right to avoid military service and to control the education of their children.

Sarah and Jacob Y. Shantz

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

Jacob Y. Shantz, shown here with his wife, Sarah, was the leader of this committee. He traveled numerous times to Manitoba to explore the situation, and later to Manitoba and further west to see how the settlements were faring. He was effectively the secretary-treasurer of the Russian Aid Committee that was established to find loans for immigrants who needed assistance, and to guarantee government loans that were extended to the immigrants.

Ironically, this committee functioned at the time when the Mennonite Conference of Ontario was experiencing a major division that resulted in the formation of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now called the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada).

Jacob Y. Shantz joined the new group in 1874 when the division occurred, but two months later he was working on a committee with Amish bishop John Gascho and conservative Mennonite businessman and newly ordained minister, Elias Schneider. Although they differed in their religious views, they were able to work together on a common cause. The committee managed loans of almost $100,000 from the government, along with another $33,000 in personal loans from Mennonites in Ontario to Mennonites in Manitoba.

World War I

Ella & S. F. Coffman

Ella & S. F. Coffman, ca. 1920. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Samuel F. Coffman and his wife, Ella, came to Canada from Elkhart, Indiana where they both grew up. (See an earlier article of Ella here.) “S. F.” Coffman never became a Canadian citizen, though he lived in Vineland over 50 years. So it is interesting that during World War I he became the primary spokesman for Ontario Mennonites in addressing the Canadian government on the matter of exemption from military service for Mennonites.

When conscription came in 1917, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, the Amish Mennonites and the Old Order Mennonites sent a delegation to Ottawa to seek clarification on the position of the peace churches. After an relatively unsatisfactory meeting, the inter-Mennonite delegation appointed Coffman to carry on further correspondence with the governmental authorities. This he did, also providing assistance to the Old Order Amish, the Brethren in Christ and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ along the way.

This communication included direct correspondence with Prime Minister Borden, Deputy Minister Edmund Newcombe, local Members of Parliament and Justice Lyman Duff, who heard final appeals on Mennonite conscription cases. From his experience in World War I, Coffman remained surprisingly optimistic that nonresistance could be protected in Canada, even in time of war. And the somewhat unified Ontario Mennonite voice would soon lead to even greater inter-Mennonite cooperation on matters of relief, which will be discussed next week.

To learn more about Mennonite Central Committee and it earlier roots, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Read Part II

Read Part III