A pioneer Christmas in SW Washington
December 1, 2022
by Maude Kimball Butler, (1880-1963)
Edited by Karen Bertroch
As I read accounts of the pioneer Christmas celebrations it occurs to me that the observances depended on the locality and the backgrounds of the settlers. For that reason, it may be interesting to know how we celebrated the day of days in an isolated spot in Southwestern Washington. The few settlers included ex-employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, New Englanders, Irish, Californians, and Mid-westerners. In 1882, my parents, both from New England, came to Cathlamet, Washington on the lower Columbia River. This little community had been founded in 1846 when James Birnie, retiring from the Hudson's Bay Company, chose it for his home. As Birnie, his son-in-law, William Anderson, and Judge William Strong, had homesteaded all the river frontage both east and west of Cathlamet for several miles, the new settlers coming in pushed back into the small but fertile Elochoman Valley where they took homesteads.
Logging was beginning to become an industry of importance and my father had been hired to superintend the two new camps that Ordway and Weidler of Portland, Oregon were putting in on the Elochoman. We were to live on a farm that had been previously owned by early pioneers. This farm was to supply much of the food for the loggers – an innovation at that time. The former owner's house had been destroyed so we would have no place to live until spring when the camps would be finished and the carpenters free to build our house.
Father, who was a devoted family man, could not bear the thought of being away from us all winter. He persuaded the Morris Sullivans to board Mother and myself. They had a big white farmhouse directly across the river from the new camp and four miles up the valley from the landing. There were six lively children in the family, four boys and two girls. It was late November when we arrived, a rainy, nasty November such as are common in this locality. The roads were seas of mud and with deep ruts underneath and it was with difficulty that we reached our destination. The Sullivans had generously given us the big front bedroom upstairs and we were very comfortable. As the days passed, Mother began to think about Christmas. She had hoped that we could celebrate in our own home as it would be the first one that I would be able to remember. Plans were really on the way. I remember all the whispering between Mrs. Sullivan and Mother, the arrival of a great many boxes and bundles from time to time, but many of the incidents of the behind-the-scenes were told to me afterwards by Mother. It seems that as soon as the news got out that a Christmas tree was being planned everyone was eager to help. Mr. Sullivan was much surprised when Alec Birnie and his beautiful daughter Louisa drove out with packages and offered to do anything that would add to the fun. Louisa gave Mother a package of red sugar for frosting the cookies that must be baked. That colored sugar was a great mystery to us children.
The Birnies were delighted to be included with the other guests on Christmas Eve. China Jim and the Chinese cooks at the camps sent bags of lichi nuts, China oranges, and pounds of candied coconut strips, such as are common in this locality. The roads were seas of mud with deep ruts underneath and it was with great difficulty that we reached the Sullivans.When Mother wrote to Uncle Fred, a bachelor friend of the family, for glass ornaments and candles for the tree, he sent not only those, but a Santa Claus suit and said he would be there to wear it. For many years those ornaments were brought out for our family tree, also the ornate candle holders and the wax angel who always flew from the topmost branch away from the candles. Everything was turning out so well that it was decided to invite the neighbors. "I am sure," Mrs. Sullivan explained, "that none of the children in this valley have ever seen a Christmas tree. You know, they are not very religious. In fact, some of them don't even believe in God, if you can think of the likes of that." It was decided to put the tree in the milk house which adjoined the woodshed but could be locked up to keep us children out. That was a point to be considered with seven youngsters ranging from two to fifteen years of age. It was always spotless but Mrs.Sullivan and Mother reassured themselves by giving it a series of scrubbings.
We children never knew when the tree was brought in. We heard whispers – "Harry Toucher is going to cut it. Being German, he knows just what we want." "Yes, by sled." "At night after the children are in bed." Try as we did we could not stay awake to see it. Two days before Christmas, the milk house door was locked and cloths had been fastened over every window and nailed down. For once, the big pans of milk were placed on the shelves in the kitchen and such a hurrying and scurrying as ever there was. On the afternoon before Christmas Day, Uncle Fred arrived with more excitement and more squeals and more shouts from the small fry. The cows were milked and we ate supper early. Did I say eat? We just sat and pretended.
Uncle Fred disappeared and the neighbors began to arrive before the dishes were done. "We all milked early so we could get here without using the lanterns. Only have to use them going home," they all explained. In those days, a lighted lantern was hung from the tongue of the wagon and another was hung over the dashboard. I think that it did not rain that night but it took quite a while for the guests to put away their coats and hoods and boots in the cold best bedroom. The horses had to be unhitched and tied in the shelter next to the house. Mother and Father and Mrs. Sullivan seemed to be everywhere, dashing out of the kitchen, through the woodshed into the milk house, we children at their heels trying to storm the door. Then Mrs. Sullivan came in and lined us up. The door was opened and there at the far end stood a great bushy evergreen that reached the ceiling.
It was ablaze with lights from the dozens of colored wax candles. There were beautiful colored balls, strings of glass beads, stockings full of candies and oranges, paper cornucopias also filled with candy and nuts. We children, who a few minutes before were whooping and jumping, were awed. We could only put our hands behind us and tiptoe into the room. The grown-ups streamed in after us and found seats on the rough plank benches that had been placed around the room for the occasion. Then the fun began! Some of the older children cried, "There's Santa Claus!" The window beside the tree was flung open and in bounced a big, jolly Santa, pack and all. There were gifts for everyone, even the fathers and mothers and so much candy, so many nuts and oranges, that the children just stuffed. Two or three of the men kept anxious eyes on the tree candles and a half dozen pails of water were within easy reach. Everybody joined in playing "Blind Man's Bluff" and "Drop the handkerchief," and then the oldsters and the older girls danced the quadrille until one by one the little folks were laid out on the benches sound asleep, their tummies full of goodies. Then it was off to home.
To be continued)