For many, the holiday season can bring mixed emotions to the surface. For some, they might be feelings of excitement and joy, for others, they might be feelings of sadness or longing, or they might be some mix of them all. As we go through another ‘Covid Christmas’, these feelings may be heightened as some are able to visit family in nearly two years, while others are kept apart yet again. The echos of voices we find scattered through the archives remind us that this season has long been one of taking stock of the present and of reflection on the meaning of home.
In the 1860s, Lyman May and Amanda Melvina May, children of Sylvester May, set out from Baldwin’s Mills to the industrial town of Lynn, Massachusetts, in search of a better future. Both Lyman and Melvina would live out the rest of their lives in Massachusetts and corresponded regularly with friends and family back in Baldwin’s Mills, some of which are now preserved in the archives. Peppered throughout the correspondence, particularly in the early years following their move, Lyman and Melvina express feelings of contentment with their surroundings while also yearning for family and friends as one year turned into another. In 1867, Lyman writes home about their celebration of American Thanksgiving:
“this day brought many recollections of the past and we talked much of friends and relatives far away; and wished that some of them were with us that we might greet each other, and enjoy a social chat; but all of no avail, it could not be.”
While the holiday season brought a longing for old acquaintances, the Mays’ correspondence often showed the most longing to be “home” during maple sugaring season. In March 1864, Lyman wrote home to his brother Darius to say that he “ought to come up to old Canada, where the snow is five or six feet deep & plough in it a while, break roads in the sugar bush place, draw manure a while, & chop wood at the door a while with you.” Excluding sugaring season, however, Lyman seemed quite content to leave Canadian winters behind in favour of the more mild winters of Massachusetts!
Forty years later, we find Minnie Bowen spending Christmas on Pilley’s Island in Newfoundland. Born and raised in Sherbrooke, Minnie spent fifteen months on Pilley’s Island while her husband, Cecil, worked as the General Manager of the mines. The couple was on the Island for Christmas in 1891, during which time Minnie reflects on the traditions she is missing back home as she writes
“I wonder what you and Merrie are doing this Xmastide which – must all pass so far from home! I suppose Carrie is deep in the Xmas Club – but I hope she is writing to me too for I will get letters sometime – I have been thinking of you all so much – and wishing to see you.”
Despite these sentiments, Minnie makes the most of Christmas on Pilley’s Island for the families of the miners as she set up a Christmas tree and organized a party for the children (all 200 of them!), gifting them with sweets and other small items.
A half century later, the world found itself amidst yet another World War, with thousands of soldiers experiencing the daily horrors of the warfront. During this time of danger, fear, and stress with few reprieves, small comforts from home were made all the more meaningful. For one bombardier from Cowansville, Geroge S. Heatherington, care packages from the Soldiers Comfort Club meant enough that he kept the tags from each one he received. One Christmas comfort package received by Heatherington included a cake, shoe strings, peanuts, life savers, paper and envelopes, chocolate drink powder, pudding, 50 cigarettes, chocolate bars, and cheese. Another package similar items as well as tea, razor blades and shaving cream, and gum. Like many other benevolent organizations during the Wars, the Cowansville Soldiers Comfort Club was organized in 1940 to fund raise and collect goods to send to soldiers. By 1945, the Cowansville Club was mailing 150 packages each month to the men fighting overseas, including at least one prisoner of war. For soldiers and airmen like Heatherington, beyond their practicality, these care packages brought with them reminders of home and the community that was supporting them.