What better way to offset the cold and dark than finding or sharing heat and light? That is just what we did when we visited Sainte Marie among the Hurons ’ First Lights festivities early last December.
Every late November, beginning of December, during three consecutive weekends, more than 5000 lights are placed around the reconstructed mission village. There are crafts, a small farmers/crafters market, native drumming and music performances, people in traditional and/or historic and all set against the village alight with lanterns and fires.
A bit of Sainte-Marie history
Sainte Marie among the Hurons was founded in the early 1700s by French Jesuit missionaries who had arrived in the Wendat village (related to the indigenous Iroquoian) to spread the religious word.
By integrating in the lives of this people and learning their language and way of life, (did you know kinship passed through the female line?) the priests found a way to do just that.
The mission village got its name (Huron means Wendat in French) after it was built away from the villages and next to the river Wye (then called Isaraqui) where it was to become a place for people to retreat and meditate.
It did well for a while but social pressure and ongoing attacks by the Iroguois resulted in the villagers burning their homestead to the ground and abandoning it.
Most of the buildings in the village now, were reconstructed based on information found through historical research and archaeological findings.
The entrance to the village is through a multi purpose building that often host school trips too.
Since we arrive early, we wait outside and get to see a lot of those lanterns being lit.
The line grows long quickly as the sun sets and the dark and the cold take over.
We are admitted through the little museum where a small farmers/crafters market has been set up. The smells are yummy (lunch has been a while), the displays enticing and you simply have to try and taste it all, right?
Chutneys, cheese and garlic jelly
We try chutneys and relishes (Grandma’s Jamin’Jelly, find them through Facebook), so good! The Innisfil Creek Honey.
It’s hard not to leave with bags and bags of goodies before we even enter the village but we do. Even if we meet a fellow Dutchman who sells real Canadian made Dutch cheese (sigh).
Through the literal maze of information in the building, it’s our stomachs that lead the way to the on-site restaurant. We’re lucky we arrived early and they can fit us in. Simple, traditional Canadian fare sets us up for the night.
So many lights
We follow the paths outlined by the lanterns and move from house to house. In some we see crafts and activities, in others performances like native drumming and singing. Slowly we make our way around.
The later it gets, the colder it gets too. The candles create shadows of the lanterns. Reflecting on the creaking snow underneath. The combination emphasizes the light and warmth found in every way in the village.
It is the embrace of warmth when you step into the cozy houses. Especially when you are met by a gathering of strangers singing Christmas carols together. A sense of not just warmth but belonging.
Well, until we try to make our way to the next house. In anticipation of entering I hold the tent flap that hangs over the entrance, to allow people to leave. With them a thick cloud of grating, acrid smoke exits too. Tears spring to my eyes and the sooth that hangs at chest level attacks my throat. I don’t really need to go inside.
According the rest of the family who do make it in, the trick is to enter, duck and sit down as soon as possible. The fire pit outside with the view of ‘wigwams’ lit from within to show different lights, was just as nice.
Drawn by the sound of a cannon we keep going. People in period clothing, ranging from the 1700s to the 1900s walk around the village. They sell cookies and seriously hot cocoa, they tend to the lights and fires, or explain the activities in each house.
Crafts and Santa
After we make a family of snowmen out of clothespins, we take the path along the Wye up to the church on the hill. Because we had been a little early in the afternoon, we had walked up here while it was still light but seeing it dressed in flickering lantern lights in the dark is quite the scene.
Even better, Santa is inside, ready to hear the kids’ wishes while next door a teenage girl sings for the ever-changing audience in pews. In the background tables with craft materials allow for listening, warming up and making tree decorations.
Not long after the great fireworks show – the last one of 2018 – and close to closing time, we say goodbye to this heartwarming event. What a great experience!
Need to know
- What: First Light at Sainte Marie among the Hurons.
- Where: 16164 Highway 12, Midland, Ontario. About 1h 45mins drive north from Toronto
- When: weekend evenings from 5.30 – 9.00 pm at the end of November, beginning of December each year
- Cost: C$10 per person (kids under 5y/o are free) donation of non-perishable food welcomed
- How to get there: own or rental car. Several companies offer (multi-) day bus trips to Sainte Marie. Find details on their websites: www.shorttrip.ca, www.meetup.com . And though these may not take you the entire way, make sure you check out: both Bus Ontario Northland and Bus Greyhound Canada
- Arrive a little early to be able to park in the parking lot, otherwise overflow parking is available down the road.
- If you want to have dinner at the onsite restaurant (traditional Canadian food) make sure to reserve a table beforehand. They may be able to squeeze couples in but they recommend booking. Special offers combining admission and table reservations are available. Make sure to check their website!
- Dress warmly – especially your kids – hats, mitts and winter boots. Seeing the fireworks, hearing the cannon and walking the paths outside can suddenly feel a lot colder after sundown and towards the end of the evening, factor in the snow and well…dress the part.
- Get tickets online, it’s simply quicker for all involved
- Be sure to visit the farmers/crafters market for some special and ingeniously delicious foods and products