Early yuletide celebrations in the Klondike were characterized by isolation, scarcity, extreme weather, and improvisation.
The first Klondike Christmas was celebrated in December of 1896. Amid the cluster of hastily built tiny log cabins, only one building, a saloon, was large enough to accommodate a Christmas crowd. The dozen or so women in town arranged with the saloon keeper to close down his establishment on Christmas Eve, and through Christmas Day so that these determined ladies could provide some Christmas cheer and a nice meal. For two weeks these women worked night and day making preparations.
Tables were improvised by laying boards across barrels, and the diners sat upon boxes, kegs and benches. Evergreen branches were the only ornamentation to be found that year. The women and their husbands served the meal to the rough and unwashed miners who had come in for the event, armed with their own plates, cups and cutlery.
The meal consisted of baked beans, followed by stewed codfish. Next came cakes of baked salmon, then stewed prunes and tarts of dried apples sweetened with condensed milk, washed down with coffee and tea. According to one witness, “No meal prepared by the most famous chef or in the most epicurean establishment, was ever more eagerly devoured”.
Christmas the following year could have been grim, but everybody made the best of it. Thousands of people flooded into Dawson during the summer of 1897, but most of them came ill-equipped for the Yukon, and lacked sufficient supplies. By September, the spectre of famine hung over the rapidly expanding gold rush town like a gloomy cloak. The Mounted Police posted bulletins advising those with insufficient food to leave town, and hundreds did, some going downriver, others going upstream and out over the Dalton trail. There were miners running around town looking for food, but food was more valuable than gold that winter.
Among those who escaped famine in Dawson that winter were Mr. and Mrs. James Clements. A former brakeman on the Southern Pacific railroad, James Clement had struck it rich on Claim Number 4, Eldorado Creek. To their comfortable hotel room in New York City, the Clements’ brought a Christmas tree, which they decorated with 95 kilograms of gold nuggets from their claim. They sprinkled the largest nuggets, one weighing more than a kilogram, around the base of the tree, amid small piles of $20 gold pieces. Totaling $70,000, the gold weighed in at 165 kilograms. At today’s gold prices, that tree would be worth over five million dollars!
Mrs. Huson, who, with her husband had come into Dawson early in the spring of 1897 with the first piano, decided to boost morale during the darkest month of winter by having a party in her cabin, located on Second Avenue. She planned a modest affair and invited a few friends, each of whom brought food or beverage to add to the supply. There was no turkey, and the fruit was limited to the canned variety.
Captain Hansen, the manager of the Alaska Commercial Company sent a half dozen cans of plum pudding, candy, and some candles, while John J. Healey of the NAT&T Company contributed a couple of hams, some dried potato, sugar and 25 litres of claret.
Word of the little party spread like a Dawson fire and so many people showed up that neighbours opened their homes to accommodate the overflow. They mixed the claret with canned fruit juice, citric acid and a little hootch in a 20 litre coal oil can that had been cut open to form a crude punch bowl. The single lemon was deemed too valuable for such a use and was taken instead to the hospital, along with ham sandwiches, candy and a supply of the punch.
Prominent miners who were visiting Dawson from the creeks showed up with more provisions and gold nuggets for the ladies in attendance. Several neighbours showed up with pots of beans.
Within a couple of years, the rough edges had been smoothed off the Klondike Christmas celebrations. In 1900, everyone was able to celebrate a more amply provisioned and traditional holiday. The Catholic Church planned for an elaborate Midnight mass. William Sheridan, the choirmaster, was scheduled to sing Prevost’s Mass in A, while Mrs. Boyes was to sing the solo in Adeste Fidelis at the second mass.
The Presbyterian Church was offering a Christmas Cantata at 7:30 in the evening while the Anglican Church celebrated holy Eucharist in the evening and a morning prayer service on Christmas day. The Salvation Army dispensed with the formalities in favour of a large dinner for 150 people. There were to be two sittings; one at noon, and another at 1 p.m. Included with the roast turkey (and cranberry sauce, of course) were caribou, roast beef, chicken, and boiled ham. “No one need go without a taste of Christmas cheer,” they stated, “as the price is within the reach of the poorest, absolutely free.”
Turkey, which was not to be had in 1896, was abundant by 1900; a supply had been brought in before freeze-up. Even so, the demand outstripped the supply and the price climbed by 30 per cent in the days before Christmas. The big trading stores and the Mounted Police also put on big celebrations, with the latter holding an open house the afternoon of Christmas day. “Nearly everyone in official life visited them … and none came who were not royally welcomed and entertained.”
Even First Nations people got in on the action. The Klondike Nugget for 1901 notes that in addition to the regular offering of supplies to the widows and orphans, the North West Mounted Police took five dog sleds laden with beef, mutton, tea, apples, flour and baking powder to Moosehide. A couple of years later, Chief Isaac invited Dawsonites to join him at Moosehide for a big “pow wow,” but asked that they refrain from bringing whiskey with them.
Within a few years, citizens were enjoying indoor skating at the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association, the early day equivalent of today’s Canada Games Centre. One holiday evening the skaters were even entertained with music provided by a local brass band.
In less than a decade, Dawson had overcome the challenges of distance, isolation, severe weather and a multitude of other problems to celebrate Christmas in as high fashion as anywhere in the civilized world.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org