25 November 2014



It is officially one month until Christmas and to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season I decided to investigate how Torontonians would be celebrating this time of the year, in the 19th century. Fortunately for me the City of Toronto’s Historical Sites all have special programming ongoing to January 4. I stopped by Mackenzie House, residence of former Toronto Mayor and infamous rebel William Lyon Mackenzie, for some Scottish Christmas Flair.

Mackenzie House Gift Shop: Gifts for the Rebel in Everyone 

Due to the cultural diversity of Toronto in the 1800s, there was no single traditional style of holiday celebration. The Scottish Presbyterian Church, discouraged the boisterous celebration is the holidays, associating it with the Roman Catholic Church. The staff at Mackenzie House believes that the Mackenzie family probably celebrated Christmas quietly, perhaps enjoying a family meal and exchanging a few small gifts. Therefore the decorations, objects, and food on display at Mackenzie House for the holiday season are meant to be representative of a more traditional Victorian celebration, although not one the Mackenzie’s would have necessarily participated in.

Victorian homes were decorated for Christmas, especially when guests were expected. The rarely used parlour and dining room were dressed up to receive guests and Mackenzie House has captured this feeling.

The custom of decorating with cedar ropes dates back to pre-Christian
celebrations of the Winter Solstice. 

The practice of gift giving assumed greater importance during this time and Christmas became increasingly commercial. Homemade gifts such as lace handkerchiefs, socks and gloves were popular, as were store bought toys on display in the parlour at Mackenzie House. 

Gifts on display include a miniature china cabinet, a tea set,
a china doll, a pair of skates, a toy cannon and books. 
The meal was (and still is) arguably the most exciting part of Christmas day and Mackenzie House delivers on this front too. In the dining room, or back parlour, Christmas treats are laid out for guests to admire including Scottish shortbread, meat pies, fruit cake, Christmas pudding, plum pudding, and candied orange peel. While these treats are for display only, in the basement kitchen guests will be offered cookies and cider from the wood stove. 

Food on the table includes Christmas Pudding, Fruit Cake, Assorted Fruit Tarts,
Scottish Shortbread, and Turkish Delight

Oranges were rare in 19th century Toronto and candied orange peel
would have been a special Christmas treat.

Finally, Mackenzie House also makes use of their fully operational printing press and guests are encouraged to print their own souvenir Christmas Card to take with them. The custom of sending Christmas Cards gained popularity in England throughout the 1840s and continues to be popular today.

It’s always fun to take a step back in time, and what better time to visit than at a festive time of the year. Visit any of Toronto’s Historic Sights to experience the houses of Christmas Past (and hopefully not the ghosts).  


  1. Thanks for the peek into a Victorian past, Katie -- I agree, it's fun to see holiday traditions in times past. (I'd like to propose that today's shops take a page out of the Victorians' book and set up their holiday decorations much closer to Christmas, rather than immediately after Halloween!)

    You mentioned the City of Toronto Historic Sites for more holiday programming, and I think it's worth pointing out the Spadina Museum in particular. They decorate their interwar-era historic house appropriately for the holidays as well, and they host a 1930s-style radio show (live and in person!) Sundays in December. Visitors can attend the performance as well as tour the house in all its Christmas livery. It's definitely worth checking out!

  2. The Humber River Shakespeare Company is also putting on "A Christmas Carol" at multiple times this Holiday Season at Montgomery's Inn.