Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Host of holidays began on the farm

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2So begins the editorial titled Yule Logs and Wheat in the December 1929 edition of The Scoop Shovel, the co-operative-owned farm publication that was the forerunner to today's Manitoba Co-operator.

Editor J.T. Hull spent the next several hundred words describing the history of winter solstice celebrations that preceded Christmas. Many of our holiday traditions, such as exchanging gifts, the yule log, and mistletoe, took place for thousands of years before the coming of Christ.

"Christmas originally was a weather feast and a harvest feast, in which men rejoiced in the elements which gave them warmth, food and clothing... so it is correct to say, in a general way, that Christmas is the natural heritage of the men who till the land."

One of the customs Hull described was the Serbian tradition of sprinkling wheat onto the yule log, which had been harvested with care from the forest and placed on the hearth so it would burn for days, and for visitors to enter a home during the holiday season with a glove full of wheat to sprinkle on the occupants as a way of bestowing good health and bountiful harvests upon them.

"The visitor then goes over to the fire, takes a poker or shovel and strikes the burning log. As the sparks fly from the log, he says: 'For as many sparks as come out of you, let there be as many oxen, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and beehives,' " Hull wrote.

"Wheat, cattle, horses, pigs, logs -- can you imagine prosperity centering on these things for city men? Certainly not, and yet go far enough back and you will come to the time when they were the only evidence of wealth, and when men in those times wished each other good luck and prosperity, they visualized it all in terms of the farm."

It was an astute reminder of the context of the times. The stock-market crash of 1929 left penniless many who started out the year wealthy. Grain prices collapsed in tandem with the stock markets and the farmer-owned Central Selling Agency, the first attempt at a voluntary wheat board, was on the brink of insolvency. There were large carryovers of unsold grain -- predominantly wheat --from the previous year.

Yet then, like now, as farmers struggle to deliver this year's crop, unsold grain represented a physical asset which, unlike stocks and bonds, can never be worth nothing. In those days, if nothing else, it meant the people holding it wouldn't starve.

The message is just as important today, even though few Canadians still live on a farm and the number that do continues to shrink.

Farming is perhaps the only economic activity in our society that creates new wealth. A farmer harnesses the sun's energy and the earth's resources to multiply one seed into many. Who else can make that claim? Much of our economy is based on the exchange of goods made from things that already exist, and trading services that only have value because we commonly perceive it.

For most Canadians, the days are long past when the annual Christmas holiday meant celebrating at home on the farm. Natural-gas fireplaces have largely replaced wood-burning hearths. Google "yule log'' and you'll turn up a bunch of dessert recipes, and mistletoe nowadays tends to be made of plastic.

Wheat is one of the few elements of those ancient traditions that remains relatively intact. Despite the best efforts of plant breeders to increase its yield, improve its processing qualities and boost its disease resistance, it remains genetically complex and resistant to human efforts to fully control its destiny.

I don't know about you, but in my books, that's something worth celebrating. As families and friends far removed from their rural roots gather this holiday season, perhaps a sprinkling of wheat is in order.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 B9

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