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History of the Holidays in Ottawa’s Original Downtown: Part 1 of 3

December 2, 2023

It’s the dawn of another holiday season here in Ottawa’s Original Downtown, one of many that the area has seen in its near 200-year history. Rideau Street has witnessed more than its fair share of change over the past two centuries as well, from the days when merchants sprinkled water on the road to keep dust out of storefronts to the eventual opening of the CF Rideau Centre, one of Canada’s biggest and busiest shopping malls.

So how has all that change affected how the people of Downtown Rideau observe the holiday season over the years? A look back through the history of Rideau provides a fascinating glimpse into how the people of previous days and ages would make the most of the holiday season. Some things have stayed the same, and some things were very, very different than they are now.

As such, we’ve put together a three-part series of blogs that covers some of the Christmas traditions of yesteryear that were observed in and around the Rideau area! Step back in time and check out some historical accounts of how the people of Ottawa’s Original Downtown have managed to make the most of the holidays in years past!

A photo of Freiman’s department store, c. 1950. Notice the rooftop Christmas tree in the distance! (Image: Library & Archives Canada, (source)

1826: Settlers Arrive to Help Construct the Rideau Canal

One of the earliest records of the holiday season in Ottawa’s Original Downtown dates back to before there was even a downtown at all!

John MacTaggart was a Scottish surveyor who arrived in Ottawa (then called Bytown) in 1826. MacTaggart had been tasked with doing some surveying for an engineering project that, at the time, was thought to be almost impossible: constructing a canal that would connect the Ottawa and Saint Lawrence rivers and assist Upper Canada in their defense against any invading American forces.

In an excerpt from his book “Three Years in Canada,” MacTaggart gives a detailed account of the seemingly insurmountable task that he and his fellow workers began to undertake in November of 1826. He talks of his workers felling an incalculable number of trees night in and night out, trudging through snow that was a foot deep and struggling to navigate, let alone survey, the thick and unforgiving Canadian wilderness:

“…meeting with various gullies, and huge swamps, to get through which (they being full of water) became almost impossible, we waded, and were often obliged to crawl on our hands and knees under the brushwood, and this in water” – MacTaggart, J. (1829). Christmas In The Bush. In Three Years In Canada (vol. 1, pp. 48-53).

In this artist’s rendition of Rideau c. 1826, settlers arrive to establish the community that would become Bytown, and eventually, Ottawa. (Image: McCord Stewart Museum, source)

It was during this time, as the month of December began to draw to a close, that MacTaggart and his men eventually found the time to settle in for a Christmas feast. Seeing as though they still found themselves in the midst of miles upon miles of uncharted forest, they took it upon themselves to make do with what little provisions they had:

…In Dow’s great swamp, one of the most dismal places in the wilderness, did five Irishmen, two Englishmen, two Americans, one French Canadian, and one Scotchman, hold their merry Christmas of 1826”

“There, on the bushy hemlock would we lie down; roast-pork before the fire on wooden prongs, each man roasting for himself; while plenty of tea was thrown into a large kettle of boiling water, the tin mug was turned out, the only tea-cup, which being filled, went round until all had drunk; then it was filled again, and so on; while each with his bush-knife cut toasted pork on a shive of bread, ever using the thumb-piece to protect the thumb from being burned: a tot or two round of weak grog finished the feast, when some would fall asleep…” – MacTaggart, J. (1829). Christmas In The Bush. In Three Years In Canada (vol. 1, pp. 48-53).

Thomas Burrowes’ artistic rendition of the Rideau Falls, c. 1826. (Image: Archives of Ontario, source)

Years after MacTaggart completed his work, Lieutenant-Colonel John By’s vision would eventually come to fruition when he and his family sailed from one end of the now-completed Rideau Canal to the other in May of 1832. The opportunities for trade and commerce brought about by the Canal spearheaded the evolution of Bytown into the bustling, thriving town that we know it as today, and Ottawa’s Original Downtown would begin to take shape around the Rideau Locks. And as the city evolved into modern-day Ottawa, so too did the manner in which Christmas was observed by Ottawa’s inhabitants.

“How so?” you might ask. The only way to find out is to check out the next blog in our series covering historical holiday traditions in Downtown Rideau! Until then, check out this blog about some of the historical buildings in the area and visit our Events page to keep track of all the holiday-themed markets, performances and more that are taking place in Ottawa’s Original Downtown!