Enjoy a Victorian Christmas in Charming Stratford

My wife begins her Christmas shopping in the summer, and starts decorating for the holidays before the calendar flips from November to December.  Now, I’m by no means a Grinch, but I usually round into the spirit of the season by Christmas Eve – much to my spouse’s chagrin.  This year, perhaps she has found a tonic for my humbug approach, a visit to Stratford, one of Canada’s prettiest small cities.

Downtown Stratford has that nostalgic feel of the traditional Victorian Christmas.  Its charming heritage streets are aglow with Christmas lights, cedar boughs, garland, bows and wreaths tied up with ribbons.  Lights twinkle off the festive store windows, and the snow dusted walkways.  The picturesque village offers holiday shopping, theatre, horse-drawn carriage rides, carollers and some exquisite dining experiences.


The Victorian Christmas Trail shops are all dressed up for the season; your trail package includes 6 tickets to be redeemed as you wish at your choice of 13 shops.  Among the gift items are giant traditional hand-made peppermint candy canes, locally made brittle, chocolate created using pedal power, tasty holiday preserves, butter toffee and flavoured olive oils.

Stratford Christmas

“It is an opportunity to explore new shops and see many unique gifts in a friendly atmosphere,” says Cathy Rehberg of the Stratford Tourism Alliance.  “The magic of our Victorian Christmas includes a wide range of experiences to mark this festive season.”


One of those experiences has become a cultural tradition, “A Wind in The Willows Christmas.”  The theatrical production takes place from Dec. 17 to 30 at the Stratford Masonic Concert Hall (15 Church St.).  The performance’s premier last year was an instant hit, and the original cast will reprise their roles as Mole, Ratty, Badger and Field Mouse. Special guest star Graham Greene will join the cast as Toad.

Stratford Christmas 2


At the heart of the seasonal celebrations is, of course, food, with holiday pairings of tea and chocolate, craft beer dinners and internationally inspired menus created by the Stratford Chefs School’s aspiring chefs. The weekly farmers markets and local food purveyors are bursting with offerings for that holiday feast and tasty gift-giving.

If You Go

Directions: Stratford is about one and a half hours west of Toronto.

Stay:  There are enough historic bed and breakfasts and comfortable hotels to meet most any budget.  I would recommend both The Ballantyne B & B (www.172ballantyne.ca) steps from the theatre or the historic Mercer Hall Boutique Inn (www.mercerhall.ca) downtown.

Tours: Victoria Christmas Trail tickets are valid for three days from the date of purchase and cost $25 (plus tax), with a value of about $40 in goods.  The archive tours, costume warehouse, theatre backstage, food trails and heritage walks are also available throughout the season.

Visit www.visitstratford.ca for more details.

Images Courtesy of Visit Stratford

Christmas in Muskoka

I sometimes wonder how certain traditions come to be. I am, in fact, wondering now, as I hang precariously off the roof of my Muskoka home.

My upper torso is suspended in space beyond the eaves, as I work at untangling a web of wire and lights. The toes of my winter boots are dug into the icy, shingled slope. My fingers, numb from the cold, fumble with the bulbs. Far below me, I see the white ground and am fully aware that the mild weather has left very little snow to break my inevitable fall.

Below, I also see my wife staring upward, and I am touched that she is there to catch me. Then, I realize she is pointing and shouting instructions as if my exercise is a simple matter, akin to the rearranging of the living room furniture. “You have two yellows together,” she seems to be shouting, but her words blow off in the biting wind. My three daughters stand at my wife’s side, echoing her commands and offering their own helpful suggestions.

The ladies are not the only helpers I have had on this day. As I stretched out the strings of lights on the front porch, my young husky pup decided it was he who was to be decorated. Wrapping himself in a cloak of many colours, he scurried about the yard, slightly out of reach, proud of his newly invented game.

Now, I have made it sound like I don’t enjoy this pre‑holiday ritual. The truth is, none of the trials and tribulations of the exercise can take away from the end result — when the lights are up and you stand at the ready with audience gathered. You stick the plug into the socket. Your place lights up and the kids ooh and ah, then bring to your attention the many lights that blink, flash, pop and fade to black. It’s back up to the roof.

Though one could argue that the intrinsic beauty of cottage country can be masked when the sun goes down, as it does quite early through December, the lights of Christmas tend to rectify this. Driving home in the evening, along the back roads and lakeside drives, one marvels at the colourful strings of lights that trace out the rooflines of homes and cottages, frame windows and decks, wrap hedgerows and trees, and illuminate outdoor skating rinks. As a starry night in this region seems all the more brilliant because of the lack of big city lights, so too do the Christmas lights seem all the more acute. The lighting adds beauty and brilliance to cottage country. Twinkling stars and carefully laid out nativity scenes remind of us of Christmas’s greatest story.

Traditions — they are a big part of the magic of the season, and bring back a powerful nostalgia for the family Christmas celebrations of our youth. I know we sometimes get cynical about the commercialism. At times, we get overwhelmed by the shopping. We panic because the whole family is coming and we want things to be perfect.

An escape to cottage country for Christmas is a great way to reconnect with holiday traditions and memories. Life at the cottage encourages fun in the snowy outdoors: sleigh rides and snowmobiles, skiing and tobogganing, and then sitting around a bonfire with a mug of hot chocolate. We clear skating rinks on the ponds and bays, and enjoy an energetic shinny match. A snowman is built and stands guard. The distant sound of church bells and carolling is heard.

Inside, the cottage is warm and cosy, a fire burns in the hearth and stockings are hung from the mantel. There is the scent of pine from a Christmas tree and fresh garland. A drink and some goodies are set out for Santa, and I assure the younger children that he will make it down the chimney just fine, in spite of the flame. There is the anticipation of Christmas morning, followed by the smell of the turkey, and a feast. There are mince pies, homemade fruitcake and Christmas pudding. Best of all, there are family and friends.

Christmas in Muskoka — it’s Christmas card perfect.