A First Christmas

Homesteader Memories

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Original homestead, Ministik, Alta, ca 1908. Irene’s father, John Patrick Haley, is standing in the doorway. The homestead was about two years old in this photo. They built this home and barn, plus cleared land and sowed crops — all within two years.
Photo courtesy Marie Tanner and design pics

The record-breaking winter of 1906 found us snug in our log cabin on the homestead, 30 miles from Edmonton.

The snow was piled high around the buildings, and on the road it was quite a contrast to the substantial house and mild climate we had left in Joplin, Missouri, the previous April. Although I was just a child, I knew we were snowed in, miles from civilization, with both money and food scarce. Two weeks before Christmas, Father brought two willow posts into the house and announced that he had a surprise for us. So every evening thereafter my brother and I watched in fascination, as he cut them into sleigh runners, shaped them over steam and spent hours with a piece of broken glass polishing the wood to satin smoothness. He told us that the beautiful sleigh taking form before our eyes was to be our only Christmas present. On Christmas Eve the sleigh was finished, standing 12 inches high and nearly four feet long. It leaned against the wall and gleamed whitely in front of the green spruce boughs with which we had decorated our cabin. As darkness fell, my mother told me the age-old story of the birth of our Saviour. I wanted to see the Star of Bethlehem. We wrapped up and stepped outside to look for it. The skies were one living blaze of glory from the northern lights, dancing, shifting, changing from a tinge of rose to their own shade of blue-green; everywhere, a panorama of moving lights and colours. I gazed spellbound, for the Aurora Borealis — the northern lights — were new to me. We heard the sleigh bells jingling afar off long before a sleigh drove up. It was our neighbours, Meg and Ted, and I heard Meg telling Mother about having had a fall and that she wished to stay with us for a while.
We went inside, glad to be near the fire again, and soon Mother suggested bedtime. This being the night before Christmas I had thought I could stay up, at least until midnight. But I loved Meg, she was tired, so I obediently went away to bed.

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Portrait of author Irene Williams, 1940

When I awakened on Christmas morning and came slowly downstairs, our cabin seemed a veritable fairyland to me. The sun was shining through the thick frost on the window panes, lighting up the green spruce boughs. There was a good aroma of roasting venison, the family was gathered around, and Mother was standing beside the bed. Wonder of wonders! There beside Meg lay a real live baby, wrapped in a lacy woollen shawl which my Mother had made for me when I was born.

“Did the Baby Jesus come to us for Christmas Day, Mother?” I asked. “Did He come to us Mother, because I wished so much for a big new doll?”

Mother explained to me how lovely it was for Meg, that her new baby was one of the favoured few in this world who share the same birthday as our Saviour. How wonderful it was for all of us, and especially for me to have this new baby born into our house on Christmas morning. When I was installed in a big rocking chair with pillows to hold the baby as long as I wished, my happiness was complete.

The Christmas season has rolled by many times since then, and my parents have long since gone to rest. Yet even now, my mind goes back to my happiness with the sleigh, the brand new baby, and the utter contentment of that day: the sparkling wood fire with the family all together in the little cabin.

I have never since experienced anything that could compare with my first Christmas in Alberta.

Originally published in the Free Press Weekly Prairie Farmer in the 1950s, the author, Irene Haley Williams, (1894 – 1975) was the grandmother of Marie Tanner, of Tanner Young Publishing. Marie and her family continue to farm on her grandfather’s homestead.

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