Christmas at York Factory — a time of feasting, drinking and dancing

by Bruce Cherney

Despite their distance from home, the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company tried their best during the holiday season to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve in the manner of the Old Country. It was the one occasion during the year when they distanced themselves from the hardships of the New World.

The men working for the “Company of Adventurers of England Tradeing into Hudsons Bay” had Christmas Day and New Year’s Day and the week between as respites from the daily drudgery of labouring for the London-based fur trading company.

And, working for the Hudson’s Bay Company was a life of contracted hard labour, with little regard given to employees by employers than getting the most out of men given a wage barely above subsistence who strove to survive the rigors of an unmerciful climate.

The men employed by the HBC were hardy souls from the Orkneys, Scotland, Norway and Ireland, as well as Canadians, all used to bleak, cold winters, but the conditions they encountered were often unbearable and the work overly grueling.

“Winter was an endless round of cutting and hauling wood, both for fuel and for construction or repairs, hunting, fishing, fetching meat and furs from native encampments,” wrote Edith I. Burley in her book, Servants of the Honourable Company. “Tradesmen repaired guns and traps, sharpened tools, made clothing and barrels, and built boats, canoes, and houses.”

Men who went inland on behalf of the Company sometimes suffered terribly. On some journeys, they faced starvation and death from the elements. Even the promise of higher wages could not sway many who saw a trip inland as a date with the Grim Reaper.

Life inside the factories (posts) was no more pleasant. James Isham, who was in charge at Churchill in 1741, wrote in his journal that men used axes to hack away ice that was six to eight inches thick from inside walls. Open fires and stoves did little to take the chill out of air in the residences of the men along the Hudson Bay coast.

The weather had an equal effect on potables and men — they froze once outdoors. Isham reported that “beer wine, brandy spirits &c. sett out in the ope’n air for three or four hour’s, will freeze to solid ice.”

The men were sometimes prone to disobedience or strikes when they felt they weren’t being treated fairly. And, labour shortages often made it difficult, if not impossible, to discipline men. The officers of the Company came to the conclusion that unruly men were often better than none at all.

The most common complaints against HBC workers were drunkenness and negligence, though it should be noted that in the first instance, men were merely indulging in a widely acceptable pastime from the Old World which served as a reward for hard work and its absence as punishment for negligence. Most saw the occasional drink as a pleasant diversion from a life of toil.

One officer called brandy “the Life and Soul of Work,” and praised it for keeping the dissatisfied men satisfied and for preventing mutiny. The consumption of alcohol became an important part of celebrations such as Christmas and New Year’s. On New Year’s Eve, the men were given “Their Engagement Pint” to celebrate their renewal of contracts.

It was at this time of year, though, that the men were particularly prone to miss their families back home or contemplate their fate that had brought them to an inhospitable land. As such, they often indulged in too much solace for their woes, and the days following the Christmas and New Year’s week off would have to be supplemented with additional days because too many were unfit for duties.

Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825-94), a fur trader born in Edinburgh, Scotland, joined the Hudson’s Bay Company at the age of 16 and spent six years as a clerk with the Company. In his first book, Every-Day Life in the Wilds of North America, During Six Years’ Residence in the Territories of the Hon. Hudson Bay Company, published in 1843, is found an account of a memorable Christmas spent at York Factory. His book is autobiographical, assembled from letters and his journal.

“As the Christmas holidays approached,” wrote  Ballantyne, “we prepared for the amusements of that joyous season.”

The day before the celebrations, a visitor, simply referred to as Mr. K., arrived at the post and was heartily greeted as a “new face to look at, having seen no one but ourselves since the ship left for England, nearly four months before ...

“Christmas morning dawned, and I opened my eyes to behold the sun flashing brightly on the window, in its endeavours to make a forcible entry into my room through the thick hoarfrost which covered the panes.”

Ballantyne wrote that he was forced to stir from his warm bed by a pommeling from a pillow wielded by a companion and the shout of “Hooroo! hurroo! hurroo! a merry Christmas to you, you rascal.”

His first order of business on Christmas Day was to have his breakfast and then go out to shoot partridge (Arctic ptarmigan?) and then return at five 

o’clock for dinner and a ball to be held later in the Bachelor’s Hall. Every man in the fort had been invited as well as every native, “men, women, and children, inhabiting the country for thirty miles around. As the latter, however, did not amount to above twenty, we did not fear that more would come than our hall was calculated to accommodate.’’

Ballantyne wrote that the Christmas dinner “was a good one, in a substantial point of view. We ate it in the winter mess-room, and really (for Hudson Bay) this was quite a snug and highly decorated apartment. True, there was no carpet on the floor, and the chairs were home-made; but, then, the table was mahogany, and the walls were hung round with several large engravings in bird’s-eye maple frames.”

Ballantyne referred to the furnishings in the mess-room as absolutely grand for men accustomed to the bare necessities of life in a northern outpost.

For the festive occasion, the room was lit by an argand lamp, “and the table covered with a snow-white cloth, whereon reposed a platter, containing a beautiful, fat, plump wild-goose, which had a sort of come-eat-me-up-quick-else-I’ll-melt expression about it that was painfully delicious. Opposite to this, smoked a huge roast of beef, to procure which, one of our most useless draught oxen had been sacrificed. This, with a dozen white partridges, and a large piece of salt pork, composed our dinner. But the greatest rarities on the board were two large decanters of 

port white, and two smaller ones of madeira. These were flanked by tumblers and glasses; and truly, upon the whole, our dinner made a good show...

“Loud was the mirth and fun that reigned on this eventful day within the walls of the highly decorated room at York factory.”

Clerks, being young men, were prone to little jokes, such as passing vinegar when salt was requested, according to Ballantyne. Their minor jests were enhanced by the imbibing of wine in succession, “an act of free-will on their part almost unprecedented ...

“In the midst of our fun, Mr. H. proposed a toast. Each filled a bumper, and silence reigned around, while he raised his glass, and said, ‘Let us drink to absent friends’. We each whispered ‘absent friends’, and set our glasses down in silence, while our minds flew back to the scenes of former days, and we mingled again in spirit with our dear, dear friends at home. How different the mirth of the loved ones there, circling round the winter hearth, from that of the men seated around the Christmas table in the Nor’-West wilderness! I question very much if this toast was ever drunk with a more thorough appreciation of its melancholy import, than upon the present memorable occasion.”

Ballantyne related that the sadness felt around the table was fleeting, and the skipper (Company post leader), proposed a toast to “the ladies,” which lifted their spirits.

“Although hundreds of miles distant from an unmarried specimen of the species, upon the mere mention of their name there was instantly a 

perceptible alteration for the better in the looks of the whole party.”

At this point, the men apparently imagined their loved ones were beside them at the dinner table.

“Just as we reached the above 

climax, the sound of a fiddle struck upon our ears, and reminded us that our guests who had been invited to the ball were ready.”

The men entered the Bachelor’s Hall which was lit by tallow candles, stuck in tin scones round the wall. “ On benches and chairs sat the Orkneymen and Canadian half-breeds of the establishment, in their Sunday jackets and capotes.” 

Ballantyne said the native women, a dozen in number, had sat themselves down on the floor. They were clad in printed calico gowns with balloon-shaped sleeves. Handkerchiefs covered their heads, “and ornamented moccasins decorated their feet; besides which, each one wore a blanket in the form of a shawl, which they put off before standing up to dance.” 

Along the wall behind the women were a half dozen children “bolt upright in their tight-laced cradles.”

The music for the evening was provided by a young aboriginal who had made his own fiddle and a young lad playing a kettle drum.

“Scotch reels were the only dances known by the majority of the guests, so we confined ourselves entirely to them.”

While Ballantyne said the native women were not the best of dancers, he did admit they highly enjoyed themselves “and scarcely allowed the poor fiddler a moment’s rest during the whole evening.” 

At 11 o’clock, two tables were put together and a huge plate of cold venison and a monstrous kettle of tea were placed upon it. “This, with sugar, bread, and a lump of salt butter, completed the entertainment, to which the Indians sat down. They enjoyed it very much, at least so I judged from the rapid manner in which the viands 

disappeared ...

“After all were satisfied, the guests departed in a state of great happiness, particularly the ladies, who tied up the remnants of the supper in their handkerchiefs, and carried them away.”

The Christmas party at York factory was over for another year. The last trace of its existence, wrote Ballantyne, was the “consequence of the breathing of so many people in so small a room, for such a length of time.” 

He related that the “walls had become quite damp, and ere the guests departed, moisture was trickling down in many places. During the night, this moisture was frozen, and on rising the following morning, I found, to my astonishment, that Bachelor’s Hall was apparently converted into a palace of crystal. The walls and ceiling were thickly coated with beautiful minute crystalline flowers, not sticking flat upon them, but projecting outwards in various directions, thus giving the whole apartment a cheerful appearance, quite indescribable. The moment our stove was heated, however, the crystals became fluid, and ere long evaporated, leaving the walls exposed in all their original dinginess.”