Once Upon a Time: Memories of the rural Christmas concert

With harness bells merrily a-jingle, and white, hoary breath floating on the frosty air, the heavy team pulled the sleigh-load of neighbours across the snow-bound sideroad towards the most anticipated event of the year—the Christmas concert in the old schoolhouse.

Reminiscing about an old time-honoured custom of rural Ontario is D. Wrightson, the first principal of Bruce Central Public School. He was a student at S.S. No. 9, Bruce Township and wrote his story in the 1989 “Yearbook” of the Bruce County Historical Society.

For weeks the teacher and pupils had been arduously working to transform a schoolroom into a veritable theatre, with a stage, curtains and seats.

The local trustees put up a platform and benches for parents and friends. Bedsheets or drapes were hung around the stage to serve as curtains.

And everywhere were decorations … strings of popcorn, pictures cut from catalogues, white paper snowflakes and crepe paper streamers, garlands of cedar boughs, artful drawings in coloured chalk on the blackboards, and of course a Christmas tree lit with candles.

The Christmas concert was the teacher’s chance to show off her students’ progress. Her reputation in the parents’ eyes could rise or fall on the success of the performance, so she organized a full program. There would be singing, recitations, monologues and dialogues. All the students, from Grade 1 to Grade 8, had a role to play.

The students would prepare for weeks beforehand, memorizing the words to a song, rehearsing their parts in a skit and practicing their square dancing.

December snow storms were always a threat but somehow the sleighs and cutters always found their way to the school door. With illumination provided by coal oil lanterns brought by parents, the younger pupils recited their speech of welcome and the performance began.

Monologues, skits and plays were usually humorous, sometimes with names of local residents worked into the script. Inexperienced teachers often worried what would happen if Tom or Jane fell sick that night — there were no understudies. But with experience the teacher realized that nearly everyone knew everyone else’s part and could substitute on short notice.

During the years of declining enrolment, adult talent fleshed out the program. Mrs. Hector McKinnon of Con. 4, Bruce Township was well known for her monologues discussing the news with her imaginary backyard neighbour. T.C. White of Con. 10 likewise entertaining with his tap-dancing dolls.

It was not unknown for an adult play to be performed. Some recall the Ladies Sewing Circle, played by an all-male cast who knitted and sewed and exchanged gossip about people in the community.

In the early days the instrumental accompaniment might be a violin or autoharp, possibly a piano or a hand-wound Victrola phonograph.

The program traditionally ended with the Christmas Story in play or tableau form, featuring Mary and Joseph at the manger, shepherds in feed-sack costume, and wise men in bathrobes and tinfoil crowns.

And just as the curtain closed for the last time came a hearty HO-HO-HO at the door and Santa Claus entered to distribute gifts. The school board helped Santa with onion-mesh stocking bags of oranges, nuts and candy.

In the 1987 “Yearbook” Elizabeth Polfuss recalled Christmas concerts at her school, S.S. No. 2, Carrick Township. “Concerts were always a very important part of the school year and enjoyed by the whole community. Beside the teacher’s desk stood a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Candles were fastened on the ends of the branches and very carefully lit. Only once did the tree catch on fire, and was quickly put out by the chairman of the concert (always Thomas Jasper).”

The school Christmas concert of old was another of the unifying forces of the rural community which now lives but in nostalgia.


by Robin Hilborn for the Bruce Historical Society