A Visit from a Cree-speaking Santa Claus in 1862

Peter Erasmus, a Metis man who became famous in his lifetime as an interpreter, narrated an account of his life in 1920. In his book, Erasmus described the Christmas celebrations at Smoking Lake (now Smokey Lake) in 1862.

A black and white photograph of two men standing in a field with a dog. Peter Erasmus on the left has a bushy white beard and a distinctively misshapen nose.
Photograph of Peter Erasmus (left) in his old age. Image courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives, via the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

When Erasmus arrived at the settlement just before Christmas, he described how Mrs. McDougall (the mother of Erasmus’ friend and local missionary John McDougall) was quite distressed on behalf of the children because she thought it would be impossible to celebrate Christmas under current conditions. “This will be the first Christmas they’ll have without presents and all the things that make Christmas memorable for them,” she told Erasmus. He shared these worries with Mr. McDougall and they sprang into action. They collected money from various men in the community to purchase presents, and cut down a tree from down the creek. Then, Erasmus said:

We can get some white hair from that white mare of Woolsey’s if we can persuade her to keep her feet out of the skies while we cut her tail. Your Santa Claus wig and whiskers can be made by your mother and Mrs. Flett, so we are all set for the big day.

McDougall gave a token protest that he was given all the hard tasks while all Erasmus had to do was gather an audience. Erasmus said that it was his right to choose what he wanted to do because it was his idea.

Erasmus describes the event:

The time was set for the early evening of Christmas Day. Invitations were sent to the camps . . . . The presents, assembled under the tree, contained small parcels of tea, tobacco, cotton shirts for the men and dress goods for the mothers, trinkets for the children, and other articles which I have now forgotten. Mr. McDougall explained about the old man who always visited the people at this time of year. The white people believed he came purposely to see the children. His story was much the same as today except that he adapted the wording to the understanding of his Indian audience.

At the ringing of a bell, Santa Claus was ushered in from behind a curtain that sheltered the fireplace. The whole performance was realistic as the attention of our audience was centered around the ringing of the hidden bell, which the minister manipulated with his foot by a string. The McDougall children clapped their hands and couldn’t contain their enjoyment. The younger children among the Crees were somewhat frightened; but the older ones, following the lead of the white children, soon laughed and clapped their hands at the funny old man with his long flowing beard.

When Santa gave them an address of welcome in the Swampy Cree language, the elders gazed in astonishment. I had to speak to them in Cree and explain that the man could speak in all languages for he visited all countries over the Big Water. The presents were handed out and Santa took his departure. . .”

  • Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights, 169 – 170.

For some unknown reason, right before the bell rang, John McDougall disappeared and missed Santa’s visit.

Further Reading

That Time When Bison Kept Knocking Out Telecommunications in the West

A large group of female bison and calves stand in a grassy field.

Well into the nineteenth century, massive bison herds of 100,000 or more individuals roamed across North America. They were an important force upon the ecosystems around them: wallowing, grazing, and popping their way across the landscape. There are lakes dotted across the west with names like “Chip Lake” or “Buffalo Lake” – warnings on European maps not to water your horses there as bison had passed through and fouled it with dung. I read one account of a railway company that had two locomotives derailed by bison in one week. They were a force to be reckoned with individually (a bull bison can weigh as much as a small car) and in large numbers they were nigh unstoppable. 

One particular account from Garrett Wilson’s Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West (page 266) struck me as particularly crazy:

“Buffalo shed their heavy coats in the spring and they assist the process by rubbing against anything handy. With few trees on the prairie, erratics, large free-standing rocks left by the glaciers, became favourite rubbing sites and many were worn smooth by the attention of thousands of buffalo over the years. When telegraph poles were first placed across the plains, the buffalo were delighted, but the poles tended to give way when leaned into by 680-kg (1,500-lb) animals. The telegraph companies, not amused at losing miles of line, countered by installing bradawls, sharp pointed spikes intended to discourage buffalo rubbing. It was a mistake, as reported in a Kansas newspaper:

For the first time they came to scratch sure of a sensation in their thick hides that thrilled them from horn to tail. They would go fifteen miles to find a bradawl. They fought huge battles around the poles containing them, and the victor would proudly climb the mountainous heap of rump and hump of the fallen and scratch himself into bliss until the bradawl broke, or the pole came down. There has been no demand for bradawls from the Kansas region since the first invoice.”

This stubborn bull bison is just shedding his winter fur and needs a good scratching post. Photographed at Elk Island National Park in May 2017.

Faux-Naturel: Constructed Natural Landscapes in Paris

The last time I was in Paris, I had about three hours to kill one morning before I caught a train to Normandy. I asked a friend of mine, an American ex-pat living in Paris, what he’d recommend I do for that time. I only  had until 11am or so – not enough to embroil myself in a museum, really. His suggestion? The Buttes Chaumont Park. 

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Map of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, late 19th century. Image courtesy of the Gallica archive. 

I’d never heard of it. I was honestly a bit skeptical, but as a Canadian who works outdoors for a living out in nature the crowds of Paris had been getting to me a bit, so I thought I’d give this park a try. It was an excellent decision, because after about a fifteen minute ride on the metro and a ten minutes’ walk, I encountered this dramatic landscape in the middle of Paris:

I spent a delightful few hours discovering view after dramatic view. There were crags and canyons, bridges four or five stories tall, statues of nature spirits, brightly coloured holly, waterfalls, and a beautiful view of the famous Sacré Coeur in Montmartre in the distance. However, for all its “natural” grandeur, this park is an entirely man-made landscape.

There was a helpful small but unstaffed museum that told me the history of this place. (This history- and nature-loving nerd always appreciates interpretive panels!)

It was once an old gypsum quarry outside of town. In fact, the park gets its name because the gypsum underneath apparently made the earth unsuitable for farming: “chaumont” = “mont chauve”, or bald hill, devoid of plants. At the height of the gypsum mining, the quarry’s galleries were 45 metres high. For many years, the place was used as a dumping ground for garbage and dead horses.

 

By the 1860s, the city of Paris was changing. Hausmann was famously widening boulevards, but Emperor Napoleon III was also ordering the creation of new inner city parks.  The Buttes Chaumont Park was created at this time from the remains of the old quarry. They retained 6 of the dramatic cliffs as the base of the park, then constructed a faux-Roman temple at the top of one of them and a tall bridge to take visitors there. The park was opened on April 1st, 1867, at the time of the Paris Universal Exhibition.

 

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Panoramic view of the Parc Buttes-Chaumont, taken in 1867. Image from the Portail des Bibliothèques Municipales Specialisées.

Trolling through archival photographs at Gallica, a lot of the photos emphasize the heights of the dramatic landscape. What does that more than photographing a famous parachutist jumping off its tallest bridge in 1925?

This park with its dramatic, history-filled landscapes is celebrating its 150th anniversary in April, 2017. Now is the perfect time to visit!

Further Resources