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.

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The Missionary Who Carried Kittens In His Pockets

There are many places that bear Reverend Robert Rundle’s name in Western Canada. There’s Mount Rundle in Banff National Park, Robert Rundle Elementary School in the city of St. Albert, Rundle Park in the city of Edmonton, and many more. Rundle was a well-known Weslyan Protestant missionary who ministered to the Cree, Blackfoot, and others in what is now Alberta. He travelled thousands of kilometres by horse and by boat, and while he didn’t always get along with his interpreters or contemporaries, he did have an impact on the West. At one time, however, Rundle was nearly killed because he kept kittens in his coat pockets.

The kittens are not a metaphor.

PC007657
Postcard of Mount Rundle in Banff, circa 1920 – one of the many places named after Robert Rundle in Canada. PC007657. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

According to his own writings, on his journey West by York Boat in 1846, he picked up a cat at Fort Edmonton. As it later turned out, this cat was pregnant.

“Mind horrified this evening in consequence of my little cat having had kittens! May the Lord pardon me if I did wrong in taking her,” Rundle wrote.

Chief Factor John Rowand, who was also on this journey, was unimpressed and refused to take responsibility for the cat so Rundle carried her on horseback after they left the canoes. Another one of Rundle’s travelling companions, the artist Paul Kane, described what happened next:

“[Rundle] had with him a favourite cat which he had brought with him in the canoes from Edmonton, being afraid to leave her behind him, as there was some danger of her being eaten during his absence. This cat was the object of a good deal of amusement among the party, of great curiosity amongst the Indians, and of a good deal of anxiety and trouble to its kind master.

Mr. Rowand, myself, and Mr. Rundell [sic], having determined to proceed to Edmonton on horseback . . . we procured horses and a guide and, on the morning of the 12th September, we arose early for our start. The Indians had collected in numbers round the fort to see us off, and shake hands with us, a practice which they seem to have taken a particular fancy for. No sooner had we mounted our rather skittish animals than the Indians crowded around, and Mr. Rundell, who was rather a favourite amongst them, came in for a large share of their attentions, which seemed to be rather annoying to his horse. His cat he had tied to the pummel of his saddle by a string, about four feet long, round her neck, and had her safely, as he thought, concealed in the breast of his capote. She, however, did not relish the plunging of the horse, and made a spring out, utterly astonishing the Indians, who could not conceive where she had come from. The string brought her up against the horse’s legs, which she immediately attacked. The horse now became furious, kicking violently, and at last threw Mr. Rundell over his head, but fortunately without much injury. All present were convulsed with laughter, to which the Indians added screeching and yelling as an accompaniment, rendering the whole scene indescribably ludicrous. Puss’s life was saved by the string breaking; but we left her behind for the men to bring in the boats, evidently to the regret of her master, notwithstanding the hearty laugh which we had had at his expense.”

– Paul Kane, Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America (1859).

John Rowand described later that even after Rundle had been thrown from his horse, he was most concerned about his cat: “When my friend was thrown God knows how far, he never thought of his danger, only calling out, I hope my poor cat is not killed.”

It’s these little details about historical figures that I love to hear about. It gives them a humanity and motivations that I can understand and empathize with. Charged with a sacred mission and travelling half a world away to a region where few spoke his language and few cared about his religion, Rundle was determined enough of a cat lover to bring along a stray cuddly feline – almost to his undoing.

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