12 Days of Cowboy Christmas
Ghosts of Cowboy Christmases Past Captured in Cheeky Pioneer Papers
By David Goss
What a comfort the newspaper must have been to the early settler! Whether the news was up to date or not, it brought the wider world to the homesteader in what the Edmonton Bulletin referred to in 1882 as “this intensely practical and lonesome county.”
In the Canadian West, it’s obvious from reading papers that if the Christmas season was celebrated at all by the pioneers, it was done very simply until the 1880s. As the West grew, so did the year-end festivities.
The Family Herald and Weekly Star claimed to be in 100,000 homes in every state and province from California to Newfoundland. Perhaps a prairie settler struggling with homesteading followed the Star’s advice for those unable to locate a Christmas tree. “A Christmas Ladder,” the article noted, “is a very good substitute . . . made of inch square wood built in the form of an easel . . . on which wound cotton batting is held in place by pink twine.” The article described how candles, strings of popcorn, coloured cornucopias, glass balls and shiny tinsel complemented the decorating.
In the local papers, reports of Christmas happenings were not always what one might expect.
The Edmonton Bulletin noted in December of 1880: “We don’t like to mention it, but quite a number of the citizens of Edmonton and vicinity were more or less (probably more) drunk on Christmas Eve.”
On a more positive note, the same paper reported: “Jim Campbell was cavorting around all Christmas Day, his horse’s head decorated with a laurel wreath.”
In 1882, the Roman Catholic services at St Albert mission, with music by the “Sisters of Charity and orphans,” received oodles of print, and noted that besides “solemn high mass” in “French, English and Cree,” supper was to be served from 7 till 11, and that “all respectable visitors will be made welcome.” However, it also noted, “admittance will be strictly barred to all persons under the influence of liquor.”
School closures garnered lots of coverage; the students’ final exams were printed after they had passed them in at school so the general population could test themselves.
Other reports made note of sleighing adventures, skating opportunities, football matches and Sunday school entertainments. Typical of the latter, “Christmas Tree at the Methodist Church of 1895” read: “A short intermission was given which was ended by the arrival of Santa Claus arrayed in fleecy white, with a long beard and bells jingling as he walked. His appearance was so strange that some of the smaller children were frightened and would rather have gone without their presents than have taken them from his hands.”
The Calgary Daily Herald contained similar reports of both traditional and unusual aspects of the season thorough the 1880s and 1890s. Columns noted Christmas Skating, Bazaars, Bachelors’ and Firemen’s Balls and Smokers’ Concerts at the RCMP Barracks. One report mentioned: “The curlers to play for sixteen dollars of meat to be distributed by the Chief of Police among the ‘necessitous’.” Certainly this shows that the spirit of giving to the less fortunate was alive and well as part of early Christmas in the West.
In 1889, the Herald printed with pride that “there was not an arrest in Calgary on Christmas day on account of Christmas rejoicing.”
By the late 1880s, Calgary’s stores were beginning to rival those anywhere in the Dominion when it came to seasonal decorations and merchandise selection. For example, G. C. King’s grocery store was described in 1889 as “beautiful,” and “dressed for Christmas in high artistic style” with “ neatly arranged displays of fruits,” and “Xmas goods can be seen everywhere.”
The West’s most colourful paper, the Calgary Eye Opener, was the work of one man, Bob Edwards, whose feisty personality defined the paper during its years of operation from 1902-1923. He wrote in 1906: “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all those who have become our friends through this little paper. May God Bless you and may He, incidentally, damn our enemies.”
A bit of an acerbic comment, but one typical of a writer who, it would seem, did not take the season entirely seriously.
For example, in 1903, he wrote: “The dance on Christmas Eve given by the immortal Billy Brown of Nanton was like all dances given by this popular gentleman, a great success. Quite a number of High River people drove down to take it in. One rig, with seven occupants was capsized on the road, but as they were all men, it didn’t matter….”
In that same issue, he noted: “Last Sunday we had the privilege of listening to a fine Christmas sermon by the Rev. Mr Clark in the Calgary Presbyterian Church, the text being, ‘A little child shall lead them.’” He credited the orator with using “beautiful language,” but stated he would have preferred if “the preacher . . . explained to us why a child howls when it is empty and a man howls when he is full.”
Practical advice, scandalous reporting and a dollop of humour were the hallmarks of frontier newspapers. It’s worth a trip to the archives of a museum or library for a read through these treasures. They afford a precious a glimpse of how our families celebrated the season as the West was opening up.