Called 'First Light,' this now-famous event at Ontario's first European-built settlement is a special experience for the whole family.
If you drive for two hours north of Toronto, you'll come to the town of Midland, near Georgian Bay. There you will find the first European settlement ever built in what's now the province of Ontario. It's called Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and it was constructed in 1639 by Jesuit missionaries who had hoped to convert the indigenous Huron Wendat people to Catholicism.
After several years of living alongside the Huron in their villages, the Jesuits finally built Sainte-Marie, their own self-sufficient community, which was "an impressive achievement for a community 1,200 kilometres from Quebec." The Jesuits' colorful and often gory accounts of life among the Huron were written in "The Jesuit Relations," a collection of letters sent back to the priests' superiors in France that has since become mandatory reading for any university student studying Canadian history.
The success story did not last long, however, as the Huron were weakened by disease and repeated attacks by their enemies, the Iroquois. Eventually the Jesuits and their few converted Huron followers burned their own village and fled elsewhere, but not before eight priests were martyred, with two of the founding father tortured and burned at the stake at the site of Sainte-Marie.
Sainte-Marie among the Hurons was left for three centuries until archaeologists unearthed its remains and the settlement was rebuilt as a living history museum in the mid-20th century. Now it's a popular school trip destination.
While Sainte-Marie among the Hurons is a fascinating place to visit at any time of year, I think it is most stunning at Christmastime during its famous First Light event. For three weekends at the end of November and beginning of December, the entire village is decorated with 5,000 brass-and-glass lanterns and glass jars containing wide white candles. These warm lights illuminate the snowy pathways, the central squares, and the interiors of the rustic wood buildings. (There are an additional 2,000 candles across the highway at the Martyrs' Shrine, where the resident priest told me it takes 15 volunteers one and a half hours to light them each night. I do not know how long it takes to light the other 5,000!)
I visited with my family this past Friday night and it's like travelling back in time, to see such a significant historical place at night without the help of electricity. The children wandered through the longhouse, stroking the pelts and hides of the various animals that were integral to the Huron's subsistence. The beaver, in particular, was astonishingly silky-soft; no wonder it was in such high demand in Europe at the time.
During First Light, musicians are set up in the various buildings, playing a mix of holiday tunes and original compositions. There's a blacksmith working at a forge. Bakers hand out freshly made gingersnap cookies. In one building, there are rough plank tables set up where children can practice writing with a quill and ink -- by candlelight, of course. In one corner, we watched a chainsaw artist sculpt a 6-foot-high chunk of ice. Every half-hour, men in costume light the ancient cannon for a brief, ear-shattering boom.
There was fire everywhere we went -- not just the candles, but outdoor blazes in open pits, triangular metal cages, and cast-iron torches that towered above our heads and looked like something straight out of Lord of the Rings. Despite the convenience of electricity, there is something so primal and appealing about proximity to fire, especially on a cold, snowy night. It is mesmerizing.
I left Sainte-Marie with a sense of wonder at how natives and foreigners alike managed to survive the brutal Canadian winters, which were even longer and more frigid back then. (My dad told me about explorer/geographer David Thompson, who traveled through Ontario in the early 1800s and found the water already forming ice in early October -- two months earlier than it does now.)
A trip to a place like Sainte-Marie among the Hurons is an important reminder of how comfortable and easy life is nowadays, compared to the past; and yet, it also makes me long for simpler times, for quiet evenings spent together in a small room around a fireplace, exchanging stories and songs in an effort to pass the long, dark nights more easily.
First Light is finished for 2017, but be sure to put it in calendar for next year -- well worth the trip for anyone living in Ontario. You can dine on traditional Quebecois fare, such as split pea soup and tourtière, at the restaurant. Admission is $10/person. If you want to get in the mood nonetheless, listen to the hauntingly beautiful "Huron Carol", which was apparently written at Sainte-Marie, or get your hands on a copy of Joseph Boyden's excellent novel, The Orenda, which recounts the era from the perspective of Huron, Jesuit, and Iroquois.