Dickens and dinner by lamplight: a North Hastings treat

Awaiting the Christmas guests, Old Ormsby Schoolhouse

The tree is lit, the lamps are lit, the tables are festively set, and the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse awaits the guests to come and enjoy Dickens and Dinner by Lamplight.

Tonight, people, I want to tell you about a splendid Christmas event that takes place each year in tiny Ormsby (population 20) up in the northern reaches of Hastings County. Raymond and I had been wanting to attend it ever since we first heard about it, and this past weekend were fortunate enough finally to be able to do so. And guess what? If you are lucky enough to be able to snag a ticket, you can too, this coming weekend. (And if the tickets are gone, or your schedule doesn’t allow it, you can mark it in your calendar now for next year. It is most definitely worth planning an excursion around.)

Dickens and Dinner by Lamplight

The event in question is called Dickens and Dinner by Lamplight, and it takes place at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse (oldormsbyschoolhouse.ca), a beautifully restored historic one-room schoolhouse that is now a tearoom/restaurant. Both the restoration and the running of the tearoom are the work of Ernie Pattison, who happens to be the twin brother of Gary Pattison – who, with his wife, Lillian Oakley Pattison, runs the Old Hastings Mercantile (oldhastingsgallery.ca) just over the brow of the hill from the Schoolhouse. I’ve written before (notably here) about the Mercantile, one of the most splendid gift shops you are ever likely to find. And the great thing is, when you visit the Schoolhouse Tearoom you can shop at the Mercantile, and when you shop at the Mercantile you can eat at the Schoolhouse. It’s a terrific setup.

A cheery fire blazes in the wood stove at the front of the schoolroom.

A cheery fire blazes in the wood stove at the front of the schoolroom.

So here’s the deal with Ernie Pattison’s Dickens and Dinner evenings: You take your seat at a seasonally set table lit with an old-fashioned hurricane lamp. You soak up the warmth coming from the blazing fire in the wood stove. If you’re a little early, you can poke around the schoolroom and take in all the interesting and fun artifacts Ernie has collected: old schoolroom maps (brought to you by the chocolate-bar companies, remember?); vintage textbooks; all the old chalkboard tools, including a protractor for that pesky geometry; and so on and so on. It’s fascinating! You can also leaf through meticulously kept photographic records of the project of restoring the schoolhouse.

Editions of A Christmas Carol at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse

Ernie Pattison has amassed a collection of editions of A Christmas Carol, and at Christmastime they are displayed on the old wooden school desks.

Okay, so then you are served a wonderful turkey dinner: butternut-squash soup, then turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and stuffing and veg and cranberry sauce and a light-as-a-feather homemade scone. And then comes the dessert plate, a beautifully presented collection of half a dozen sweet things. And as dessert is served, the lights are dimmed and the evening’s entertainment begins. That entertainment is an hour-long radio adaptation of Charles Dickens‘s beloved A Christmas Carol – first aired by CBS on Dec. 24, 1939, with narration by none other than Orson Welles and starring Lionel Barrymore as curmudgeon-turned-giant-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge. It is beyond delightful.

It’s quite magical to sit and listen to an entertainment, just as people did back in the days of radio and before television. You really do have to listen; which means you can’t be chatting amongst yourselves or doing something so foolish and trivial as sending texts on your phone. (Good luck with that anyway; Ormsby is far enough off the beaten track that there isn’t much of a cell signal.) And as you listen, your imagination conjures up the images for you.

Candelabra at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse

The candelabra at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse really does have candles, the light of which glows against the beautifully restored tin ceiling when the electric lights are turned off for the radio performance of A Christmas Carol. On the walls are oil-burning sconces.

As the roomful of us this past Sunday evening sat in happy silence, listening and enjoying the story (and digesting our excellent turkey dinner), I couldn’t help but think of how cozily old-fashioned it all was. There we were on a dark and cold winter’s night, gathered in a warm and lovely place around good food and a simple, charming entertainment. It was what people in small rural places used to do all the time – when going to “town” was a big deal and something not often done, and people created their own entertainments in community halls and churches, with songs and plays and pageants and recitations. Simpler times. Some would say: better times. I think I might be among those people.

Anyway, if you’d like to attend this wonderful event yourself (either this coming weekend or next year), here are the particulars:

Dickens dinner details

I urge you not to miss this old-fashioned celebration of Christmas in our very special part of the world.

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