Thursday, December 24, 2009


A Merry Christmas. Embossed, coloured postcard, divided back. Stamped - General Delivery, Vancouver, B.C. Jan 1 5 I 12. US one cent stamp. Addressed to Mr. E. C. Shaughnessy, Vancouver, B.C.

In 1906, the Times Printing and Publishing Co., producer of the Victoria Daily Times newspaper of Victoria, British Columbia, sent a sprig of holly to the Morning Telegram in Winnipeg, Manitoba “as a Christmas greeting....This holly was gathered a few days ago in outdoor gardens, near Victoria, and is a tribute to the mild weather prevailing there at this season of the year”. (Morning Telegram, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 25 December, 1906, page 9.)

At this time of year, I wish that I could send each of you some holly too. It’s one of my favourite things about Christmas – we had two trees at home when I was young. But since I can’t do that, I thought some might like a glimpse of Christmas Eve in British Columbia’s early days.

In 1907, the Victoria Daily Colonist, then a rival of the Times, asked Edgar Fawcett, an old time resident, among others, to write about his memories of Christmases past in Victoria on Vancouver Island. Some of his comments will sound very familiar to modern ears.

Born in Australia, Fawcett went with his family to San Francisco in 1849. After some business reverses, the family emigrated again, to Victoria, Vancouver Island, in 1858, an eventful, indeed a momentous year – when gold was discovered on the mainland’s Fraser River, and the Crown Colony of British Columbia proclaimed in Fort Langley on the Fraser. (Vancouver Island had been made a Crown Colony in 1849, although it was still controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company.)

Fawcett was not overly sentimental – “ speaking of 'the good old days' of the sixties, I would not convey the impression that they were literally so good, for they were, so far as I can remember, some of the hardest that Victoria has seen....” Nonetheless, “there was a something, a charm indescribable” about them.

The weather was different in the 1860s, he said: “Christmas, to be genuine, should be bright and frosty, with a flurry of snow.... Less snow and cold and more rain now.”

“After the advent of the first snow, and when deep enough, there might be heard the sleigh-bell, either on a grocer’s or butcher’s sleigh, or on an improvised sleigh made from a dry-goods case with a pair of runners attached, to which would be fastened a pair of shafts from a buggy or wagon not now usable.” Anyone with a horse thus had a sleigh for “long drives in the country or to church, or to a Xmas party or dance.”

He describes the week before Christmas as busy with preparations, like the decorating of the fronts of houses and shops with "wagon-loads of young fir trees"“Imagine Government Street, both sides, from end to end, one continuous line of green, relieved with, it might be with white; just enough snow to cover the ground, ‘bright and crisp and even.’ ”

Shopping too was done that week, at the few fancy goods stores, and at the butchers’ and grocers’. "There was not the choice in toys and fancy articles then. Children were satisfied with less, and were just as happy," Fawcett said.

But by the late 1860s Christmas ads in the Colonist featured such things as Balmoral skirts and velvet mantles (just arrived), all kinds of novelties from Paris, London and San Francisco, Christmas fruits (dried), all kinds of sauces and pickles, and “superior” English cheeses, music boxes, sugar toys, “crystaline candies for ornamenting Christmas trees”, Hudson Bay rum “33 per cent over proof, 50 cents per bottle”, men’s warm suits at $5 and up, and raffles for "turkies", geese and iced cakes.
“Presents to please everyone; prices to suit all.”
(For examples, see the British Colonist, Saturday morning, 23 December 1865.)

“Christmas Eve, after dinner, mother or father or both with the children, were off to buy the last of the presents, visit the shops or buy their Christmas dinner, for many left it till then. Turkey might not have been within their reach, but geese, wild or tame, took their place. Sucking pig was my favorite dish. Wild duck and grouse (50c per pair), with fine roasts of beef. Of course plum pudding was in evidence with poor as well as rich, although eggs at Xmas were $1.00 per dozen.

A great feature of Christmas time was shooting for turkeys and geese at several outlying places, and raffles for turkeys at several of the principal saloons and hotels.”

“We nearly all went to church; the Anglicans, and many Nonconformists with them, on Christmas morning, and the Catholics on Christmas Eve.”

“A special feature of the saloons on Christmas Eve was 'Egg-Nog', and all we young fellows dropped in for a glass on our way to midnight mass at the Catholic Church on Humboldt Street."

From the Colonist advertisements, there seemed no shortage of alcoholic refreshments in Victoria. William W. Gibbs's ad boasted:

Hear Land o’ Clams and Brither Scots,
Frae Clover Point to Queen Charlotte's,
If you want a glass of fine Brandy;
If you want a glass of fine Rum;
If you want a glass of fine Whisky;
If you want a glass of fine 'Bunster';
If you want a glass of fine Porter;
If you want to be waited on by a Lady:
Then make “tracks” for the
Royal Exchange, Fort Street.

According to Edgar Fawcett, for most the service at the Catholic Church "was one of the attractions of Xmas Eve, and the church was filled to overflowing, and later on there was standing room only. We went to hear the singing, which was best obtainable....

Amongst the well-dressed city people were many Cariboo miners. Trousers tucked in their boots, said trousers held in position with a belt, and maybe no coat or vest on. When the time came for the collection, all hands dug down in their pockets and a generous collection was the result....

‘Twelve-thirty’. Service is over, we are off to bed, for we must be up betimes in the morning for service at 11 o’clock.”

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Sunday, 22 December 1907, page 50. The Colonist first published in 1858, the same year Edgar Fawcett and his family came to Victoria. The Victoria Daily Times didn’t begin till 1884. In 1950, the two businesses merged, although it was not till 1980 that the Times Colonist was published as one paper.

Edgar Fawcett's stories, and those of others, were later published and now you can read more about Victoria’s Christmases at Project Gutenberg:

Some Reminiscences of old Victoria by Edgar Fawcett. (Toronto:
William Briggs, 1912). Project Gutenberg Release Date: July 13, 2008, EBook #26048.

And, if you'd like to read the newspapers,

Morning Telegram, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, issues from June 1898-August 1907 digitized and available free:

Victoria Daily Colonist, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, issues from 1858-1910 digitized and available free:


lindalee said...

Happy Holidays from Flipside and I am looking forward to reading your blog in 2010.

Dorene from Ohio said...

What a delightful post card!!

Happy New Year to you!