As Christmas approaches and anticipation builds, I remember many events associated with Christmases past. My experiences living in Dawson City stand out for me: for example, adding a garland of last minute Christmas lights outside the house at 30 below, fumbling around with numb fingers.
Every year, I looked for a Christmas tree that wasn’t too thin or out of balance, and then I decorated the slender branches. I used the same tactic many others used: I picked up extra spruce branches and drilled holes in the trunk of the Christmas tree to fill in the gaps. It was unsuccessful and the branches quickly withered and lost their needles.
One Christmas, I searched in vain for a suitable Christmas tree. I resorted to the cut of a 30ft tall spruce top so that I could take the perfectly formed top for our living room. Another year, I think 1995, I tried unsuccessfully to find a suitable choice, so I bought one that had been imported from British Columbia. This too was a failure, as the tree quickly dried up and threw needles on everything below. Due to the risk of fire, the tree was quickly removed after Christmas was over.
Another year, I pulled our tree out of the bay window in the living room after the holidays and found that the apron underneath had frozen to the ground. Our house needed a little more insulation to make it comfortable.
Attending the Christmas Eve service at St. Paul’s Church has always been memorable. For years the problem of keeping the church warm went unresolved. The main radiators have been in use for some time. Due to the noise they produced, they could not be maintained during the actual service. Their roar and jets of hot air filled the voluminous interior until at the last moment they were extinguished, leaving only the tantalizing smell of kerosene and the rapidly diminishing heat.
As the cold crept back into the building, people at the back of the church felt it first and urged proceedings to “hurry.” The minister in his mukluks and everyone bundled up in long underpants and parkas were reminders that Mother Nature reigned right outside the doors.
One Christmas Eve, the mail truck, carrying cards, letters and important packages, arrived late in town. I went to get our mail, but got the news that we, like everyone else, had to wait. Finally, the truck arrived, and unloading and sorting continued. The clock listened to the minutes and the closing time ticked by, but the dedicated post office staff remained at their posts, continuing to place letters and parcel notices in boxes. Finally, they were finished, hours after the usual closing time. My wife Kathy made a big batch of cookies which I took with me and delivered to the post office staff, who stayed at the counter until the last possible moment when they would have just as well were able to close the doors and return home to their families. We received our mail and our packages, and Christmas was saved. It’s like that in a small town.
Things were different 100 years ago. There were no planes to transport Yukoners to visit relatives in distant places. Automobiles were a rarity. There was no Internet, radio, television or Netflix. Closest thing to media entertainment was the silent, squeaky moving images, years out of date. How could the community survive without these modern conveniences, you ask? Well, there were newspapers carrying the latest news from abroad. People gathered, sang and had fun. Fresh fruit? Not until the river boats arrive in the spring.
Christmas in Whitehorse also had its unique aspects, such as the arrival of Santa Claus aboard the White Pass train in the 1950s as he stormed into the Main Street station. Santa, I’m told, then went to the Hougen department store, where he met all the kids with their Christmas wish lists.
For years, Chief Isaac hosted special celebrations in Moosehide around Christmas, to which all Dawsonians were invited. He has always strived to remind newcomers to his homeland what his people had lost due to the Gold Rush. It took almost a century to address these concerns through land claims.
Looking back in the old newspapers, I read about the celebrations that took place in the previous century. On the last day before the school closed for the holidays, the children performed in recitals attended by proud parents. This is something that has not changed over time!
There were celebrations they called âChristmas treesâ, or just âtreesâ for short, that everyone attended, where gifts were handed out to the children. We have similar gatherings today, but somewhere along the way we stopped calling the events âChristmas treesâ.
Newspaper advertisements prompted shoppers to purchase these last minute Christmas gifts. Years later, as Dawson’s population dwindled to a few hundred, parents had to place their Christmas catalog orders the previous summer, in hopes that they would be delivered to Dawson before the last paddle steamer. is not put up on the roads for the winter. What a challenge that must have been.
This year we could experience commodity shortages as supply chains are disrupted by COVID and dramatic weather events, but somehow I don’t think it will slow our morale over the holidays. .
One thing that hasn’t changed is the spirit of the season. In a 1902 editorial, the Whitehorse Star said: “At this time of year we should all put aside all political strife, partisan sentiment and non-charity and give everyone the grip of good fellowship – it behooves us to forget our sorrows and for this time of year at least, strive to live up to these words – Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men. âIt’s a feeling that is as significant today as it was a hundred years ago.
So, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, wherever you are.
Michael Gates is the first recipient in Yukon history. He is the author of six Yukon history books. His latest, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine”, received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. You can contact him at [email protected]