On his second trip to the New World, explorer Jacques Cartier and his men spent the winter near Stadacona and celebrated Canada’s first recorded Christmas.
The first recorded Christmas celebration in Canada, said CBC.ca, was held by French explorer Jacques Cartier in the year 1535. The 44-year-old experienced explorer was on his second trip to the New World from Saint Malo, France. Dispatched on missions by Francois 1, the King of France, to find gold and valuable minerals, Cartier meticulously noted every detail of the land and its peoples. This trip, he was bringing an initial group of settlers ready to make their home in Canada. Cartier was also bringing home the sons of Chief Donnacona – at the end of his first expedition to Canada the previous summer , he had taken the two Iroquois men to France. They were taught the French language and customs in hope that they would be interpreters.
Cartier’s settlement buildings were not ready for the bitter winter
The three seafaring ships with 110 men arrived at the Iroquois village of Stadacona in August, 1535, when the weather was comfortable and warm, noted Elizabethan-era.org. (Stadacona is now Quebec City.) Situated on the St. Croix River at a distance from the village, the men built a settlement in preparation of winter. Unfortunately, the buildings were not well-insulated against the bitter winter cold and had no cellar space to store essential supplies. By the time the frigid November arrived, “all the drinkables were frozen hard, and melted snow had to be used for water,” according to Canadafirst.net, since all the rivers were frozen over. Even the ships were solidly iced in, immobile until spring.
Over time, the explorers felt that their interpreters had turned against them and were “sowing disaffection among the people of Stadacona.” The French became unsure of the Stadaconans, whose small population was still much greater than that of the settlement’s inhabitants. The Natives discouraged the explorers from travelling further up the St. Lawrence River, wanting to keep the French traders for themselves. Cartier went anyway, meeting the native residents of Hochelaga (now Montreal) and sailing the river until the ship could go no further due to rapids.
The first Christmas dinner in Canada was a meager event
Christmas was a meager event in the New World. The menu consisted of deteriorating vegetables, salted meat, and little else from the precious food stores. But the men were still hopeful for a good life, listening to the stories told by Chief Donnacona of great wealth and magnificent peoples beyond Stadacona. (The Chief was apparently a great imaginative storyteller and the French were not fully aware of this.)
After Christmas, as many as 85 French settlers fell ill with scurvy from lack of Vitamin C. Twenty-five died during the winter months, and the rest recovered after receiving an Iroquois potion made possibly from fronds of Cypress trees. Fifty of the Natives died over the same winter, thought likely from European diseases to which they had no immunity.
Jacques Cartier and his crew of ten men returned to France in the spring of 1536. On the way, Cartier kidnapped ten Iroquois and took them home, including Chief Donnacona and his two sons, noted the CBC.ca timeline . Only one of the ten, a young girl, survived. He made a third trip to Canada in 1541 to begin colonization of Canada.
Read more of the history of Jacques Cartier.
This article was first published on Suite101.com in 2007. Copyright Susanna McLeod