December at Point Ellice House

Dr. Kelly Black, Executive Director

Photo by Tim Fitzthum

Historically, December was a time of celebration at Point Ellice House. For the O’Reilly family, it was December of 1867 when they moved into the house on Pleasant Street. December also brought the anniversary of Peter and Caroline O’Reilly’s marriage (December 15th, 1863), and the birth of their daughter, Kathleen (December 31st, 1867). Sadly, Caroline O’Reilly passed away on December 23rd, 1899.

The O’Reillys often spent Christmas day calling on neighbours and family around the city. Many Christmas dinners were held at Fairfield, Joseph and Julia Trutch’s residence (located today at 601 Trutch Street). The family also attended communion at St. John’s Church (then located at Douglas and Fisgard Streets). Peter’s diary entry from December 25th, 1878 records:

Splendid day – bright and clear. We all went to St. Johns. Revd Jenns officiated. Holy communion…John [Trutch] came at 5 p.m. to know what hour we dined, lent him the pony carriage to drive Zoe [John’s wife] and Fanny over to dinner – they, Arthur McCreaight and Jin-Win formed our party.

The family did not always spend Christmas together. Peter travelled across British Columbia for work, keeping him away from the family for long periods. In December 1869, Peter was away on the mainland while Caroline remained at the house with toddlers Frank and Kathleen, and newborn Mary. Caroline wrote to Peter on December 14th of that year, one day before their anniversary:

I wonder if you are thinking of this time six years ago. Do you remember coming to Fairfield for a few moments the morning before when you were on your way to Mr. Burnaby’s & I am sure you will think of it tomorrow. I feel anxious and worried about you this time you are away darling, perhaps because I am weak. Do take care of yourself for my sake…Now good bye my own dear love how much more so than ever six years ago.

Throughout the 1870s to the 1890s, the O’Reilly children were also away – at school in England, travelling in Europe, or working. In 1888, Peter found himself alone in the house while Kathleen, Jack, and Caroline were in England; Frank was working in South America.

Like most homes during the holidays, Point Ellice House could be a bustling site of activity – cooking, baking, card writing, holly harvesting, and hosting neighbours kept the family busy. At other times, the entire family was away and house labourers and maids maintained the grounds, fed the animals, and kept the house in order.

Many of the modern Christmas traditions in Canada trace their origins to the Victorian-era – Christmas crackers, cards, and trees to name just a few – and there is no better collection of Victoriana than at Point Ellice House. Of course, the O’Reilly family lived at Point Ellice House for many decades beyond the Victorian-era. A photo in our dining room shows the guests and decor, including a tall and spindly tree, from Christmas, 1943.

2019 will mark the 157th Christmas at Point Ellice House. We are featuring special holiday displays, decorated rooms, lights, and a family-friendly craft table where you can make your own decorations. We invite visitors to experience the holidays as three generations of the O’Reilly family might have.

Point Ellice House Museum & Gardens is open Saturdays and Sundays, 12 to 4, until December 22nd


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