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A Christmas Past

In 1908, Christmas in Fairbanks and the surrounding areas were not consumed by crass commercialism that surrounds Christmas today. Instead, it was more about sharing special moments with your friends and neighbors and breaking up the hum-drum of winter life in the Northland.

Edited Article taken from the Fairbanks Daily News Miner December 26, 1958

CHRISTMAS SLEIGH RIDES RECALLED 50 YEARS AGO

Louis A. Johnston, who came to Fairbanks in 1904 as a gold prospector, reminisced yesterday about Christmas, as it was observed 50 years ago in Fairbanks. (about 1908)

The streets may not have been so colorful as today, but the dance halls – California Saloon and Petree’s—did a roaring business.

Miners, who were paid $5 a day with board and room, would take several days off and whoop it up on Tom and Jerries (egg and whiskey stirred.)

The halls had dancing frills and live music, which might include violin, piano, drum, harp and cornet. Square dances, waltzes, cakewalks, polkas and czardases were popular dances.

Many men and women would go for wintertime trips to Cleary Creek, Dome Creek or Vault Creek. Horses and dogs provided the locomotion for sleighs. Eight or ten people might hitch up four or five horses to a sleigh topped with a hay covered bed, and while enroute, they would blow horns and whistles or beat tin cans. They also might sing, accompanied by harmonica or guitar.

In those days Cleary City was a bigger town than Fairbanks and numbered about 3,000 people. It had three dance halls with 125 girls. Johnston recalled some men would walk 15 to 20 miles to such towns.

But Fairbanksans also had their religious side and Christmas would also be commemorated in religious services. Fairbanks then had Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic and Episcopal churches, as well as a Jewish Synagogue.

There were no street decorations or private decorated trees, but a few people might display wreaths, candles or artificial holly leaves in their windows, Johnston recalled. Each of the lodges—namely Eagles, Masons, Moose, Odd Fellows and the now defunct Arctic Brotherhood—would put on amateur Christmas shows at their halls and for the children would give parties, with Christmas trees, at which Santa would distribute candy and simple toys.

Johnston said there were no Christmas funds at that time; they were unnecessary, because every day was Christmas in one sense; “Overnight they would raise thousands for a family whose house burned down, or where the father was shot, or a kid drowned.”

Turkey was rare as holiday fare, said Johnston. The Christmas dinner of that time might more likely include roast moose, grouse, ptarmigan, mountain sheep, caribou, or rabbits, though ham was not uncommon. The poorer family might have to eat bacon and beans —the most common meal year-round.

The first Christmas lights appeared at the Auditorium in 1912, he said. This civic and entertainment center of Fairbanks, at 2nd avenue and Wickersham street, was decorated inside and outside for a Christmas dance. This was the idea of Johnston, who used to run spotlights at shows that played there.

No individual displayed outdoor Christmas trees or decorations until the 1920s, said Johnston. The first year it was done was during a Junior Chamber of Commerce contest.

Johnston said his colorfully lighted spruce tree at 2nd avenue and Noble street was equipped with a motor that revolved it around a spindle, and won for him first prize of $25.

Note: Louis Johnston came to the North during the Klondike Goldrush with his parents in 1899. He was also a member of Men’s Igloo No. 4. This glimpse of Christmas past was brought to you by Men’s Igloo No. 4 and Women’s Igloo No. 8 of the Pioneers of Alaska. 

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