Alex Semenoff grew up in a Doukhobor village by Ward Lake in the ‘40s and ‘50s. One of his most vivid memories is of his grandparents arriving on a horse-drawn sleigh to spend Christmas with family.
What made it especially memorable for Alex was that his grandparents brought him the novel gift of a harmonica. At the time, most of the toys Alex and his three siblings played with were homemade – cars and trucks made of blocks of wood and anything else their imagination could create.
Alex learned to play the treasured mouth organ and his mother, Annie, sang along in Russian.
Christmas in Grand Forks was decidedly different in the days before technology and commercialism came to dominate the season. For Alex’s family, gift giving wasn’t big on the agenda. It was the family get-togethers that were important.
They looked forward to the special Christmas meal. His sisters made cookies and cakes that weren’t normally on the menu. They were treated to so-called exotic fruits like oranges and bananas that they didn’t get the rest of the year. They shared a traditional meal of borscht, large baked Doukhobor perogies, and vareniki with homemade butter and sour cream.
Stockings were hung to receive a few simple presents like marbles and a few candies – things they didn’t see at other times of the year.
The Grand Forks Doukhobors lived communal style in large brick homes – extended families of multiple generations shared the same building. Alex remembers his uncle Mike opening up his portion of the house to the kids to play cards and checkers.
With no electricity, they listened to ghost stories on a battery-operated radio. Uncle Bill added his own brand of scary stories and shared chronicles of how they used to live in Russia.
The kids from the nine villages of the Outlook area considered themselves one big extended family. The children from Alex’s village, dubbed Winnipeg, and surrounding villages such as London and Makortoff, would spend time on Ward Lake playing hockey and other ice games they invented.
They wore whatever skates they could find – often they were one or two sizes too big or too small. Branches served as hockey sticks and rocks were used as pucks. Children swished down the hills on toboggans made of cardboard.
Each village had multiple barns – plenty of places for kids to play hide-and-seek. Villages also had a meeting hall in the centre. People met weekly for prayers, cultural events, skits, plays, and history talks by the elders.
There was close interaction between the villages, even the ones on the other side of the mountain. In between the chores of feeding chickens and hauling water, climbing mountains was a top entertainment activity for kids.
Those early Christmases were a time for families to meet, to say their prayers together, and exchange food gifts. Santa Claus wasn’t discussed much. It was more of a spiritual thing for the pioneering Doukhobors. For them it was a time to celebrate community, practice love and forgiveness, and share the teachings of Jesus.