In 1834, Edward Bristow became Elmira's first settler when he purchased 53 acres of land for 50 cents per acre. First called Bristow's Corners, then West Woolwich in 1853, the settlement adopted the name Elmira. Edward Bristow established the settlement's first store, tavern, shoe shop, as well as, a potashery. It is also interesting to note that the first post-office was located in his premises, only to be moved in later years to Christmann's Hotel.
The earliest inhabitants were of English and Irish origin, including families named Halfpenny, Seaton, Bristow, Isenhour, Kenning, Thompson, Thomas and Girling. In the 1850's, German settlers moved into the community. Among these families were Oswald, Esche, Steffen and Tresinger. These settlers followed the original settlement patterns of Waterloo County by other German immigrants, namely the Pennsylvanian Dutch, or more accurately, the Mennonites.
In 1861, The Elmira House was erected for the numerous artisans and merchants came to Elmira to earn a living. This activity helped Elmria become known as an enterprising community. In December 1886, Elmira entered a new chapter of its history with the incorporation of the settlement as a village by charter. At this date, the population of the newly incorporated village stood at 760 people.
Throughout the 1870's and 1880's, Elmira acquired various cultural trappings, including a brass band (1873) and a library (1885), which boasted an initial membership of 20 people. Industry has always held a vital place within Elmira. Apart from a sash and door factory, Elmira possessed a flour mill. This particular business was in fact, the community's earliest industry, built by a joint stock company. In 1869 this business was purchased by John and Jacob Ratz.
On January 1, 1923, Elmira, with a population of 2500, became an incorporated town and today Elmira is a thriving community of approximately 8,000 people with a variety of restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and specialty shops such as quilt, bridal and gift stores and home to the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival. The Bandstand, located in Gore Park, Elmira, is a reminder of the centre entertainment in a small town in the early 1900's. It was built in 1912 by A.M. Bowman, from a design prepared by members of the Elmira Musical Society. The bandstand was historically designated in 1985 and it was restored as a project to celebrate Elmira's centennial.
Growing up in a German-Canadian household meant that all of my family’s Christmas celebrations took place on Christmas Eve. To start, for our festive dinner my mother would cook a traditional meal consisting of beef rouladen and gravy, potato dumplings, sweet and sour red cabbage, a garden salad, and baked squash. Dessert would be a homemade glazed peach tart and a selection of fruit pies, all topped with freshly whipped cream. The dinner table, usually bustling with noisy conversation, would suddenly become very quiet at this time as everyone savoured this delectable meal.
Along with a great belt-loosening dinner, celebrations on the Holy Night or “Heiligabend” included everyone getting to open their presents early. In elementary school I was the envy of my friends who had to wait until Christmas morning to open theirs. Even though my peers tried to persuade their parents to become “German” for the night, they couldn’t get them to budge from their own valued traditions.
When my siblings and I were quite young, my parents took careful pains to instill the magic of Christmas by stressing that Santa Claus or the “Weihnachtsmann” was real. This meant they had to create a back story to explain how presents would mysteriously appear under the tree on the night before Christmas. To that end, after the Christmas Eve’s dinner, my father would ask us kids to put on our coats and boots to go on a walk outside with him. As we trudged through the snow, the goal would be to look up to the skies and hunt for Rudolph and all the other reindeer, and thus spot Santa’s sleigh. We were never disappointed, because usually we zeroed in on a blinking red light (from a passing airplane), and naturally assumed we had seen the jolly old man in flight. We would then rush home to tell our mother what we had seen. By the time we returned and took off our coats and boots and headed to the living room we saw that Santa Claus had already been there. My mother would then announce that we had just missed him. Over the years we never did catch Saint Nick placing our gifts under the tree. Somehow, no matter how fast we would run back, the crafty old elf would beat us every time.
Despite the fact that there was a bounty of wonderful things under the tree, we couldn’t just dive into them. In my family, there were unwritten rules. The unwrapping of gifts would officially start at 8:00 p.m. after the supper dishes were washed, dried and put away. Presents could only be opened, one at a time, each half hour after. Usually though, as it got later in the night, that rule was tossed out the window and any remaining packages were placed in front of the happy recipients. Once the pile of presents diminished, we continued our celebrations with munching on snacks like chocolates, nuts, potato chips and pretzels, treats which were usually rationed the rest of the year.
My older sister had the coveted role of distributing the presents. Each year she would grab an old Santa hat, her power symbol, and place it on her head. Then she would decide which order the packages would be handed out and to whom. It was her way of getting back at anyone (usually me) who she felt had been “naughty” to her during the year. More often than naught, I received my presents last. I took the high road though and repeated in my mind, “Good things come to those who wait.” And usually, when I finally unwrapped that first gift, all was right in the world.
Despite all its ups and downs, the moments spent with family at Christmas are times to be cherished. It is from the longstanding traditions or customs, which we practice together, that our memories and the stories, which resonate from them, live on.
From my family to yours, I wish you all a “Merry Christmas, or Frohliche Weihnachen!”