Cecilia DeRose is reliving her childhood in a way this Christmas with the creation of gifts for her 13 “great ones” that resemble the first gift she ever received.
She has made baskets for dolls with handmade clothes, similar to the doll she received the year she was turning six years old.
That little rubber doll with dark skin was also the first toy she owned.
Her family was from Esk’etemc, (Alkali) although they spent most of their time living away in the meadows.
“We would always go to the nearest community for Christmas to go to church and I remember all the children in Alkali getting gifts that year.”
Charles Wynn Johnson, who owned the nearby Alkali Lake Ranch then, purchased gifts for all the children.
“He must have done a headcount or something,” DeRose said. “My dad was on the hockey team and I remember one of his teammates had an old Ford car. He picked the gifts up and brought them to us. I loved and treasured that doll so much. The legs and arms turned.”
Johnson also butchered a cow and divided amongst everyone living in the community so they all had meat for Christmas, she added.
The love affair with her beloved doll was short-lived because the next year she was sent to the residential school at St. Joseph’s Mission near Williams Lake and never saw it again.
When it was time to go to school in September of 1941, her family was living on Timothy Mountain.
Her dad, Matthew Dick, was working as an outfitter for Buster Hamilton who along with his wife Milly built Ten-ee-ah in 1942 as a hunting base camp near Lac La Hache.
“Mom made our new clothes on a hand machine in a tent on Timothy Mountain before we left for school,” DeRose said. “She made everything, even our underwear. There was my brother Willard, my sister Martha and myself. My older sister Harriet Victorine died when she was 10. She had got TB.”
Similar to other children who arrived at residential school, DeRose didn’t speak English and said she couldn’t understand anything at first.
“I didn’t know which way to move show ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And I did not know any of the children there, not even from Alkali because we lived away so much.”
The students stayed at the school for Christmas, she recalled.
Her first memory there with the season is being about 10 and involved in a Christmas concert the students put on for the Indian Agent, Bill Christie, and his friend, which she did many times after.
She doesn’t remember receiving any gifts initially at school, but the nuns would put out some new games such as marbles, snakes and ladders, checkers and puzzles for them all to share. No one got a gift to themselves.
Things started to change when she was about 11 years old when the “old mean sister superior retired or wherever she went,” and Sister Jean Baptiste took her place.
“Then we started receiving games or little extras. Then she started skating parties, we’d have hot chocolate and those biscuits that had chocolate on them.”
One of the joys of the skating parties was being able to skate with their brothers or boyfriends if they had them.
“We mixed with our brothers because normally we weren’t allowed to.”
There were dancing parties too, but everyone was pretty shy so the girls just danced with each other.
“We skated to music too. We’d go on the boys’ rink. It was big because they played hockey, but the girls didn’t so our rink only had logs around it. It was a boys game in those days.”
She remained at the school as a student until she was 16.
The students left after Grade 8 or when they turned 16, whichever came first.
DeRose and her sister, Martha, worked at St. Joseph’s in the kitchen cooking.
Her first “real” celebration of Christmas as an adult would have been when she was 18 they were very excited to go home to Esk’etemc and celebrate Christmas with their family.
“We went into Williams Lake and bought a turkey and gifts and sent them ahead of time to mom with the priest and said to tell mom we would cook the turkey when we got there. Well, mom panicked and thought we weren’t coming and boiled the turkey. We were so upset and couldn’t believe it.”
Their family had a little log cabin at Alkali and the tradition was to nail a Christmas tree outside to the door.
“It wasn’t even decorated, but years later when we brought the turkey home we put a tree up for my mom inside the house and we decorated it.”
As DeRose prepared to pack up the gifts for her “grand ones” with dolls for the girls and handmade teddy bears for the boys, she said she started buying them in the summer at a craft fair.
Instead of making baskets out of birch bark she made them out of cardboard and then covered them with material and made little mattresses inside.
“A friend of mine that’s a quilter helped me make little blankets for each one.”
Today she believes Christmas is too commercialized.
“I think people have forgotten the real meaning. I know it’s still the birth of Christ, but I don’t know if many other people do.”
Last year DeRose was honoured with an Indspire Award for preserving her language and culture.