December 14, 2012

From Olive French (for more info on Olive French and her research into education in Oshawa, please visit: http://olivefrench.wordpress.com)

The School Christmas Concert – 1867

One of the big events during the school year was the annual Christmas concert. A person would be safe in saying that it was one of the first customs, established in the schools of the past. In the rural schools especially, it was truly a happy time for the children and was enhanced by the fact that the holidays were close at hand.

As much time as could be spared from lessons beforehand, was spent in carefully choosing and practicing the numbers for the entertainment. The children were delighted with the idea of having their parents and neighbours come to hear and see them perform. Their one idea seemed to have been to please the visitors.

A holiday band ready to play music in the Robinson House General Store exhibit

The teacher entered into it all whole-heartedly. If he or she were musical, the children were taught choruses and cute motion songs as well as the time-honoured carols. There was little part singing in public schools in those days and very few had a piano or organ, neither were there any musical supervisors.

To prepare a song the teacher first wrote the words on the blackboard, and then she sang a verse to the children. Very soon the more musical ones caught the tune and gradually all joined in. I wouldn’t say that they all sang in the same key. If the teacher had no musical ability, the children had to do the best they could with that part of the programme. Declamations (recitations) dialogues and drills were also prepared with much care. Very often a child sang or recited a piece, taught to him by the parents. Perhaps one of the pupils, “Johnny” could be persuaded to give a mouth organ[1] solo or two.

A day or so before the concert, the schoolroom was made clean and tidy. A good sized evergreen tree was brought in and set up by some of the parents. The spicy scent of the tree added to the holiday spirit. The tree was decorated with gaily coloured paper chains, popcorn strings and balls, bits of brightly coloured yarn and red apples. There were none of our electric lights for trees or gay ornaments in those days. Candles were used in private homes, but were considered too dangerous for use in schools. Evergreen boughs were fastened up over the doors and windows, and suitable drawings were put on the blackboards by the budding artists.

Robinson decorated for Christmas

The last day of school before the holidays was chosen for the big event. The children all arrived scrubbed up and dressed in their Sunday best. They were very conscious of it too, especially the girls. Little girls with naturally curly hair were the envy of the others at those times. Small brothers and sisters, not school age, were allowed to come as well, and they took part on the programme if they were willing. The concerts were all held in the afternoon, there was no other way of lighting the buildings at night.

The trustees of the school were all invited and came if they could possibly spare the time. Benches were placed around the room for extra seating, but very often some of the visitors had to squeeze themselves into seats, two or three sizes too small, after all a person could tolerate that for an hour or two. At least one howling baby was among the visitors.

As a rule, the programme started with a carol sung by all, visitors included. One of the boys appointed beforehand was the chairman and after a short address of welcome, he then proceeded with the numbers on the programme.

A recitation or two by tiny tots followed, and then each one of a row of small children carrying a letter spelling the word “Christmas” recited a verse suited to the season.

Thus the programme continued from the smallest ones to the senior fourth (Grade VIII). There was a judicious mixture of songs (sacred and secular) recitations about Santa, little girls with their dolls sang or recited. There were skits and comic recitations, some drills were attempted, for boys and dialogues for both girls and boys. A class of girls with hoops wound with coloured paper or cloth performed a hoop drill. Drills were also performed by a class of children carrying small flags. Lack of platform space was a handicap for these last two mentioned numbers. When music was needed the children hummed a tune or “Johnny” played his mouth organ. Some of the recitations were sad, some gay. A few of the children showed real ability in acting the parts they took in the dialogues.

Loud applause was heard after each number as well as roars of laughter after the comic ones especially if they had not been heard during the practice beforehand. The children all did their very best including “Johnny” with his mouth organ. When he played “Turkey in the Straw,” the listener could scarcely keep his own “Methodist foot” still.

At the close of the programme the prizes for the year were distributed by the teacher. These were always books. Parents were requested not to put presents on the tree for their children in case there were some who couldn’t afford it. The school trustees usually cooperated by giving each child a bag of candy and nuts and perhaps an orange. The children really appreciated the treat.

Christmas greetings were extended to all by the teacher and chairman of the trustee board if he were present and thanks to the parents for the interest they had shown. A carol was then sung and God Save the Queen. Victoria was monarch then.

The children left the school in high glee at the thought of the days ahead that could be spent coasting down the hills or skating on the pond behind the barn. The farm collie dog was always on hand “raring” to go with those young folks and join in the fun.

Following this, I will write some of the old time recitation and song in case they might at some time be useful. Tunes to the songs will be found in the picture album that goes… [                      ]


[1] Harmonica

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