About three or four kilometres from Iona, and after crossing the Barra Strait Bridge, we come to the small village of Christmas Island.
Christmas Island is situated on the north side of a peninsula that lies between East Bay and the Little Bras d’Or Lake. Like many other small villages in Cape Breton, it has a church, a glebe house, a fire hall, a post office, and a few dozen houses. Strung out along the highway to Boisdale, with the 500-700 foot Boisdale Hills as a backdrop, it borders the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake.
It is an interesting place to be at this time of the year. The little rural post office is a beehive of activity. Thousands of Christmas cards come in from all over to have the green and red Christmas wreath postmarked on them and then sent out. The postmistress tells me that between 14,000 and 20,000 cards come in each year. In fact, one Christmas season the total hit 22,000 cards.
At Cooper’s Pond, near Christmas Island, is a cairn commemorating the site of the first church in the Grand Narrow/Barra Strait area. As the area was being settled at the turn of the 1800s, this first log church was built around 1812. Settlers had to travel distances to attend mass at Christmas Island for it was a sort of “mother parish” for many years until other parishes and churches were established. The early settlers in Iona and Christmas Island were mainly immigrants from the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
Imagine the faith of the pioneers who ventured out on the rough waters of Barra Strait to get to church and practice their faith. Without roads in those early days it was more common to see dozens of rowboats tied up on the shore on a Sunday morning. Today the existing church is the fourth church built in the parish. The third church of the community was destroyed by fire in 1972.
Is there really an island in Christmas Island? Yes there really is. There are two islands on the Bras d’Or shoreline that are now connected to the shore by sand/gravel bars with a coastal pond between them and the mainland. Both islands are wooded with no visible buildings on them. Probably at one time the bars did not exist or were in the process of being naturally built. The larger island is several kilometres long and about a kilometre wide. An island like this that is connected to the mainland by a bar is called a tombolo.
Once again with so many places and geographical features in Cape Breton, we ask the question where did the name come from? As in most districts, more detailed land surveying took place after all land was granted. Suggestions are that upon completion of surveying a Hector MacDougall property, the surveyors forgot to name the island that lay offshore. The following day being Christmas, it was suggested that the island be named Christmas Island. There might be many other suggestions but the real one has been lost through the pages of time.
Most travelers who take Cape Breton’s central route through the middle of the island remark of the beauty and peacefulness of this part of the trip. There are no sawmills, gristmills, heavy traffic, or passenger trains whistling by on the old Intercolonial line that parallels the shoreline. However, Christmas Island is a place to visit during the annual summer Gaelic Feis and its islands and sandbars are a place for me to ramble with my camera in hand.