Christmas a special celebration in the Yukon

It was 1894 and she couldn’t have chosen a more unlikely place in which to celebrate Christmas. Emilie Tremblay’s new home was a…

It was 1894 and she couldn’t have chosen a more unlikely place in which to celebrate Christmas.

Emilie Tremblay’s new home was a one-room sod roof cabin with a single window made from bottles.

Located on her husband’s mining claim on Miller Creek, in the Sixtymile district west of Dawson near the Alaska boundary, the cabin had been previously occupied by her husband Jack and his partners.

Already several years old, the cabin had a floor partially covered with wood; along the walls were the primitive bunks in which they slept.

A single pole in the centre of the cabin supported the roof. At the foot of this post was a thick black layer of spit. The men, tired from working on their claim all day, lay in their bunks, and spit at the post.

Tobacco chewing was a widespread indulgence throughout the Yukon. As one man said: “It is impossible to keep anything clean. Nothing is sacred to him … If a miner happens to have a clean stove about the place, and a man drops in with his cud in his mouth, the first thing he invariably does is to spit on the stove.

“It is a sort of recognized salutation — an informal way of starting conversation!”

Emilie Tremblay took a shovel and started her clean-up at the centre of the room, and in the following days, cleaned her new home from top to bottom, until it became orderly, if not lavish. The cabin was equipped with the barest of essentials and crudely built furniture.

In 1894, Emilie was one of the first white women to come over the Chilkoot Pass into the interior of the Yukon.

Among the thousand prospectors in the Yukon River drainage at that time, there may have been two dozen other white women scattered along the Yukon valley, but Emilie was the solitary woman living on this Sixtymile tributary that winter.

Women like Emilie faced extreme conditions unlike anything that they had been prepared for before they came into the north, and for which there was no clearly defined niche.

Many early chroniclers spoke with admiration about these women; and, in general, they were treated with considerable respect.

Emilie Fortin was born in Quebec, and later moved to New York State.

It was here, in 1893, that she met and married Pierre-Nolasque (Jack) Tremblay, a Miller Creek miner who had come outside that summer to visit his family in the east.

The following spring, they departed for the Yukon, crossing the Chilkoot Pass in the early in the season, and arriving in Fortymile on June 16th. After organizing their affairs in Fortymile, they made the 60-mile journey upriver and over the hills to Miller Creek on foot.

For Emilie Tremblay, it was a difficult adjustment.

There were no other women on the creek, which the miners felt was no place for the fairer sex. She was further isolated by the fact that she did not speak any English.

Upon her arrival, Emilie started working on her grammar and vocabulary. Her English gradually improved, and by the following spring she was joined on Miller Creek by the French-Canadian wife of one of the Day brothers, whom she had met the previous spring in Juneau.

Being the only woman on the creek, she decided that she and Jack should offer a Christmas dinner to the miners living nearby.

This in itself, proved a challenge as there were none of the usual amenities to make a Christmas dinner a success.

They improvised and made invitations written on birch bark. The guests were told to bring their own utensils to eat their meal.

The task was further complicated by the fact that she could only cook dishes which were small enough to fit into their tiny oven.

She had little with which to cheer up and civilize her primitive log home so she adapted an unused long skirt to serve as a table cloth.

The Christmas menu was a selection of stuffed rabbit, roast caribou and brown beans in broth.

There were King Oscar sardines, evaporated potatoes, sourdough bread and butter, cake and a plum pudding with blueberry sauce, which was served for dessert.

Just before the end of the meal, a latecomer arrived with a bottle of rum to add to the festivities. He had walked all the way to Fortymile and back, in the cold winter weather, to obtain the liquor. After the meal, they played cards and filled the cabin with tobacco smoke and good cheer.

The following spring of 1895, she planted a garden on the roof of her cabin to improve their diet. At the end of the summer, the clean-up proved most satisfactory, so she and Jack returned to New York State.

But they couldn’t get the north out of their blood. The Tremblays returned to the Yukon to live their lives in the Klondike.

 Madame Tremblay eventually established a dry-goods store in Dawson City, which she operated for many years. She became highly respected, and a Whitehorse school is now named in her honour.

In later years, Emilie reflected on the first year she spent on Miller Creek; she regarded that and the improvised Christmas celebrated with the good-hearted miners, as the best time she ever had.

Over the years, Yukoners have also found many other ways in which to improvise their celebrations of Christmas in the isolation, the cold and the dark.

I remember with some amusement, the comments of a newly arrived colleague at work, who had just experienced his first Christmas in Dawson City.

Being a rather proper Englishman, and a high Anglican, he was nonplussed by the experience of the inter-denominational Christmas Eve service traditionally celebrated in St. Paul’s Church.

The minister, he reported, was wearing mukluks instead of proper footwear. There were dogs wandering about in the church during the service, and the improvised heating system, that for years had failed to provide adequate heat for the typically frigid service, had to be augmented, prior to the beginning of the ceremony, by kerosene-fired heaters that roared like jet engines.

Sitting at the back of the frigid church, which was filled with kerosene fumes, one shivering parishioner urged the minister to hurry up and finish the service so that they could all go home and warm up!

Never in all his years had my friend experienced anything like that Christmas Eve service in Dawson City.

Beyond the pomp and ceremony that Christmas can be, beyond the abundance that our affluent society enjoys, there is something essential about a Yukon Christmas that requires neither formality nor gifts.

It is the spirit of the occasion, the joyful sharing of the community at the coldest, darkest time of year.

Madame Tremblay and her Miller Creek neighbours figured it out, and Yukoners today also seem to find unique and special ways in which to celebrate this special holiday season.

May all of you find your own special Yukon moments, and have a merry Christmas!