Christmas has always been a very special time of year for our family. Living in Dawson City and putting up Christmas lights at 30 below was especially challenging. My efforts would alternate between working frost-stiffened fingers to manipulate the strings of lights into position and rushing inside where my glasses would immediately fog up as I rubbed some flexibility back into my aching digits.
Attempting to find a suitable Christmas tree was also a challenge. They were all thin of plumage, as I recall. Some years, I remember cutting additional branches to bring home, where I would drill holes in the trunk of the tree to insert the extra limbs to fill in the gaps. It seemed that I was doomed never to find a tree that was symmetrical from all aspects.
One year I had to chop down the tallest tree in the stand so that I could sever the top, which was usable. On another occasion, we used a defective axe; it was so soft that when I attempted to cut down the tree, the blade deformed as though it was made of putty. And I will never forget the year that the apron under the tree was frozen to the floor when we removed it after Christmas.
Cars wouldn’t start, busses wouldn’t come to town and planes wouldn’t fly. I can remember white-knuckled ticket-holders waiting apprehensively for the bus to arrive because the plane upon which they were planning to fly out on was cancelled. The bus didn’t make it either.
Once, the mail truck was late arriving on Christmas Eve day. It looked like cards might not be delivered and last-minute gift packages might not make it under the tree. Then we got word from the post office staff that the truck had come in, late in the day.
Instead of going home to prepare for their own Christmas, the staff remained at their posts, sorting packages. They even extended the courtesy of calling us at home to let us know that our packages were ready to pick up. It was 8:30 in the evening, so we gave them a tin of fresh-baked cookies to show our appreciation.
Christmas is always a very busy time in Dawson City. The round of open houses and Christmas events keeps calendars full right up till the big day. Don’t forget the annual Christmas concert at the school at which all the children got to strut their stuff in front of proud parents.
There was a service in St. Paul’s Church on Christmas Eve that members of all faiths attended. Everybody was bundled up in six layers of clothing in anticipation of the falling temperature inside the church because the heating was too noisy to allow it to run during the service. Those at the back urged a hasty conclusion so that the service would finish before they became frozen. Over the years, the church eventually solved the heating problem – almost.
Bear Creek was a small community 10 kilometres out of Dawson that existed because it was the headquarters of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation, until it shut down in 1966. Former residents that I have talked to remember it fondly. There was a satellite community of employees surrounding Bear Creek. Salaried staff sometimes had the benefit of company housing. Others built their own homes nearby.
Until the 1960s, Bear Creek residents rarely had their own automobile, so it was hard to get to town. One family remembered that they could make it into Dawson for Christmas Mass if Victoria Faulkner was going because she ordered a taxi, and there was enough room for them as well.
The entire community of Bear Creek enjoyed Christmas together because the company shut down its operation for two weeks. Because nobody went Outside for their holiday, everybody shared the festive season together.
Bear Creek provided its own Christmas events. There was a Christmas party in the community hall, where Santa gave out gifts to every boy and girl. Of course the parents had to order their gifts well in advance because they relied upon river transport to bring goods into town before the highway was built. The Christmas orders were made up and sent in by August so that they would be delivered to Dawson before the last of the sternwheelers was beached for the winter.
The Christmas party was for the children, so there wasn’t as much drinking taking place, but there was plenty of alcohol consumed during the holiday season. Several former residents described the “progressive parties.” A couple would show up at somebody’s house early in the evening, and after suitable libation, the two couples would then go to the next house for another round.
The crowd grew in size and got merrier as they progressed from one house to the next. These parties would last well into the early hours of the morning. If the Christmas party was for the children, then New
Year’s was the time for the adults to celebrate.
The stories and the memories of Yukon Christmases past could fill a book. In 1882, the party of men who wintered over with Jack McQuesten, the trader at Fort Reliance, had snow shovelling contests, foot races, and a special Christmas meal. The First Nations people joined in the celebration, and had a moose skin toss. This practice continued for many years. In later years, Christmas also meant a lot of drinking and dancing, as well as eating and the men usually had a hang-over that lasted for days.
Charlotte Bompas, wife of the Anglican missionary Bishop Bompas, noted that on Christmas day, 1893, a deputation of miners presented her with a gold nugget weighing about three ounces, in honour of her being the first white lady to winter over so far north.
Author Pierre Berton remembered ogling a marvellous toy in the window of Madame Tremblay’s Store. He then berated himself later for not thinking of giving it to his friend Alex McCarter, before Alex purchased it as a gift for the future author.
All of these shared and individual memories from Yukon Christmases past combine to make it a most magical time of year. So I hope that this year will be another joyous and memorable Christmas for you all, and that you all will have memories to cherish for years to come.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing book about the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org