YOUR HISTORY: Gifts were handmade and few in early days of Coquitlam
It is beginning to seem a lot like Christmas at Mackin House Museum, which is dressed up for the season in a look back at life in the early 1900s.
Greenery abounds, with traditional evergreen boughs that were readily available throughout the Coquitlam area. Fir, cedar, holly and ivy were used to decorate homes and churches, with the odd sprig of mistletoe just for fun.
The Christmas tree itself was decorated with homemade ornaments — iced cookies, crocheted snowflakes and popcorn chains. Because the family that lived at Mackin House was financially more comfortable than others in the Maillardville area, it no doubt had glass ornaments as well, imported from Europe and carefully wrapped and put away at the end of each Christmas season.
Christmas trees were lit with tiny candles in holders attached to tree limbs — a fire hazard if ever there was one. The candles were lit for only a brief time — Christmas Eve would be one such time — and there would be buckets of sand and water nearby. You can imagine the excitement of children waiting outside the parlour while the candles were lit and then getting their first glimpse of the magical tree in a darkened room.
There were gifts, of course, but homemade, and of a practical nature. Warm knitted socks, scarves and mittens would have kept moms, grandmas and aunts busy for months before Christmas. Little girls might get brightly coloured hair ribbons and a homemade rag doll while boys might be lucky enough to find a carved wooden train under the tree.
Children made gifts for the adults in their lives too, with girls embroidering handkerchiefs, pen wipes and book marks.
Excited children also looked forward to the arrival of the Eaton’s or Simpson’s mail order catalogue, or the Wish Book as it was known. The pages were full of gifts only to be dreamed about: dolls with porcelain faces and lovely frocks, metal toy trains on tracks, bicycles and “store-bought” clothing at a time when nearly everything was sewn at home.
Many of the toys that appeared in these catalogues are represented in the Mackin House Museum’s toy collection. We have displayed more of our vintage metal cars, dolls from 1900 to the 1940s, metal airplanes and some circus toys.
Visiting the toy museum with the little ones in your life is a wonderful way to tie the past to the present and can become a treasured family Christmas tradition. If Grandma and Grandpa — or, even better, Great Grandma and Grandpa — can come along, all the better. The toys will bring back fond memories and open a discussion with today’s glitz and gadget generation on what Christmas was like in a simpler time, when a new pair of mittens and a tin toy were all a lucky child could hope to find under the tree. And you know what? That child was just as delighted and grateful as today’s children with their battery-operated gizmos that beep and whirl and light up.
Finally, a Merry Christmas to all from the volunteers and staff at Mackin House. We hope you will make us a part of your holiday season and we look forward to seeing you in December. Our hours and programs can be found at www.coquitlamheritage.ca or by calling us at 605-516-6151.
Your History is a column in which, once a month, representatives of the Tri-Cities’ three heritage groups writes about local history. Jill Cook is executive director of Coquitlam Heritage Society.