A market of mixed spirits
Ontario village at Christmas brims with Mennonites and many others
ST. JACOBS, Ontario — Visiting this delightful village and its Christmas market is like stepping into a time warp. As the festive season rolls in with snow-laden skies on a crisp morning, the muffled clip-clop of horses’ hooves heralds the arrival of the Old Order Mennonites, the second cousins to the Amish.
A black buggy, the first in a line of buggies, is the traditional conveyance for a black-bonneted Mennonite woman, her husband, and children. On their way to the market, no-nonsense parents sit up front, and small girls sit demurely in the sparse interior. For those unfamiliar with the group that has lived and farmed successfully for centuries in Canada’s Waterloo County, their arrival appears as a clip from an old-time movie.
Laden with bread, cookies, pies, apple butter, and sweet maple syrup, Mennonite wives move briskly to their individual booths. Before long, homemade treats — pickled eggs, pickled cauliflower, and pickled garlic in a colorful assortment of gleaming bottles — are stacked neatly. The women are ready to sell.
Despite their strong presence, this is not exclusively a Mennonite market. Local farmers and market vendors from far and wide gather here throughout the year to sell what is reputed to be the finest produce, the best summer sausage, and the tastiest melt-in-your-mouth cookies this side of the Niagara River. Here in a barn that hums with activity, shoppers from Toronto and surrounding towns mingle with country folk in a heady atmosphere of holiday bustle.
On the periphery of the market barn, the hardier vendors have set up outside, where a fresh wind whips their cheeks. Marcello Didiano, a fruit seller, has the right idea. Rollicking, foot-stomping folk music blares from a van parked on the edge of his tiny selling space. The irrepressible Didiano keeps time to his music — and wards off the freeze — by dancing up and down and waving his arms.
Didiano’s neighbor, who is selling honey, is equally lively. Nearby, a Mennonite woman, muffled in coat and black bonnet, stacks zucchini and spreads new potatoes on a frost-rimmed tray. She smiles, but refuses a request for a photo.
Inside, there is no place quite like St. Jacobs Market with its 250 vendors. For foodies it’s paradise. Vendors, their booths crammed with delicacies, are swamped with eager buyers. A note on a tray at Gracie’s Christmas Cookies makes it clear that she is not providing samples on this day.
But Eileen Martin, one of Gracie’s cookie sellers, agrees to talk about life as a Mennonite. Rejecting modern technology, Mennonites generally don’t have electricity in their homes: no washing machines, no electric stoves or refrigerators, no hair dryers . . . no computers. Old Order Mennonites don’t have cars, but some branches of the faith allow car ownership, as long as the car is black with an absence of chrome or ornamentation.
Leaving Martin with customers clamoring for her attention, I head for The Fritter Company. The line for steaming hot apple fritters is a long one. Countless varieties of cheese are on sale at The Little Cheese Company booth. Its specialities include goat milk cheddar, goat milk cranberry, and goat milk jalapeno.
For hungry shoppers, schnitzel on a bun is a popular midday snack. Darlene Dunn, wearing a perky Santa hat, wanders among patrons, handing out samples of pork schnitzel on a toothpick. Even canines are catered to here. Massive bones guaranteed to keep a cantankerous hound happy for days are arrayed on a counter. The bones are going for $10 apiece.
For a bird’s-eye view of the place, I visit the upper echelons of the barn where retailers do a brisk trade. There are jewelry sellers, unusual Christmas tree decorations, a stall with sheepskin hats — “sheep skin, not cheap skin’’ as their advertisement says — and a stand selling “hats with bling.’’ Nearby are flea market treasures and high-end furniture made by Mennonite craftsmen at St. Jacobs Furnishings.
When they get too tired to walk another step, shoppers can either visit the Full of Beans coffee bar, or enjoy a meal from Sausage Express, sitting on a rough-hewn bench at a long table with dozens of other diners.
One cannot help but feel some joy as vendors, Mennonite and modern, work side by side in the warming atmosphere of the St. Jacobs market.
Anne Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.