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Christmas greeting from the History Hunter

As Christmas approaches and the anticipation mounts, I recall many events associated with Christmases past. My experiences from living in Dawson City stand out for me: for example, adding a last-minute string of Christmas lights on the outside of the house at 30 below, fumbling with numb fingers.
Christmas, Whitehorse, 1953: After getting off the train, Santa went to Hougen’s department store, where all the kiddies could share their wish lists with him. (Courtesy/Valerie Graham)

As Christmas approaches and the anticipation mounts, I recall many events associated with Christmases past. My experiences from living in Dawson City stand out for me: for example, adding a last-minute string of Christmas lights on the outside of the house at 30 below, fumbling with numb fingers.

Every year, I searched for a Christmas tree that wasn’t too skimpy or lopsided, and then decorated the spindly branches. I used the same tactic employed by many others: I collected extra spruce boughs and drilled holes in the trunk of the Christmas tree to fill in the gaps. That was a failure, and the branches quickly dried out and shed their needles.

One Christmas, I searched for a suitable Christmas tree in vain. I resorted to cutting down a 30-foot-tall spruce so that I could take the perfectly formed top for our living room. Another year, I think 1995, I tried without success to find a suitable choice, so I bought one that had been imported from British Columbia. That, too, was a failure, as the tree quickly dried out and shed needles on everything below. Because of the fire hazard that posed, the tree was quickly removed once Christmas was over.

Another year, I removed our tree from the bay window in the living room after the holidays were past, and found the apron beneath it had frozen to the floor. Our home needed a little more insulation to make it comfortable.

Attending the Christmas Eve service at St. Paul’s Church was always memorable. For years, the problem of keeping the church warm remained unsolved. Master heaters were used for a while. Because of the noise they produced, they could not be kept on during the actual service. Their roar and jets of hot air filled the voluminous interior until, at the final moment, they were shut off, leaving only the eye-watering smell of kerosene, and the rapidly diminishing warmth.

As the cold seeped back into the building, the people at the rear of the church felt it first, and urged the proceedings to “hurry up.” The minister in his mukluks, and everybody bundled up in long johns and parkas were reminders that Mother Nature held sway just outside the doors.

A Christmas tree crowded with gifts. (Courtesy/Michael Gates)
A Christmas tree crowded with gifts. (Courtesy/Michael Gates)

One Christmas Eve, the mail truck, carrying cards, letters and important packages, was late arriving in town. I went to pick up our mail, but instead received the news that we, like everyone else, would have to wait. Finally, the truck arrived, and the unloading and sorting went ahead. The clock ticked away the minutes, and closing time passed, but the devoted postal staff stayed at their stations, continuing to place letters and package notices in the boxes. Finally, they were finished, hours after regular closing time. My wife Kathy baked up a large batch of cookies, which I carried with me and delivered to the post office staff, who remained at the counter until the last possible moment, when they could just as easily have shut the doors and gone home to their families. We got 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 airplanes to convey Yukoners to visit relatives in faraway places. Automobiles were a rarity. There was no internet, no radio, and no television or Netflix. The closest thing to media entertainment were scratchy silent moving pictures, several years out of date. How could the community survive without these modern conveniences, you ask? Well, there were newspapers bearing the latest news from abroad. People gathered and sang and entertained each other. Fresh fruit? Not until the riverboats arrived in the spring.

Christmas in Whitehorse also had its unique aspects, such as the arrival of Santa Claus on the White Pass train during the 1950s as it chugged into the station on Main Street. Santa, I am told, then made his way to Hougen’s Department Store, where he met all the kiddies with their Christmas wish lists.

For years, Chief Isaac organized special celebrations at Moosehide around Christmas, to which everyone from Dawson was invited. He always took pains to remind newcomers to his homeland of what his people had lost as a result of the gold rush. It took nearly a century to address these concerns through land claims.

Looking back through old newspapers, I read about the celebrations that took place in the previous century. On the last day before school closed for the holidays, the children performed in recitals attended by proud parents. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed with the passage of time!

There were celebrations that they called “Christmas Trees,” or just “Trees” for short, that everybody attended, where gifts were handed out to the children. We hold similar gatherings today, but somewhere along the way, we stopped calling the events “Christmas Trees.”

Newspaper advertisements enticed shoppers to pick up those last-minute Christmas gifts. In later years, as the Dawson population dwindled to a few hundred, parents had to place their catalogue orders for Christmas the summer before, in hope of them being delivered to Dawson before the last sternwheeler was drawn up on the ways for the winter. What a challenge that must have been.

This year, we may suffer shortages of merchandise as supply chains are disrupted by COVID and dramatic weather events, but somehow, I don’t think this will dampen our spirits during the holiday.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the spirit of the season. In an editorial from 1902, the Whitehorse Star stated: “At this time of the year we should one and all put aside all political strife, party feelings and non-charitableness and give the grip of good fellowship to everyone — it behooves us to forget our griefs and for this time of year at least, endeavor to live up to those words — Peace on Earth, good will to men.” It is a sentiment that is as meaningful today as it was a hundred years ago.

So, I wish Merry Christmas to all, wherever you are.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. He is the author of six books of Yukon history. 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