Christmas in the Klondike
December 05, 2012
From A Gold Miner's Life in Dawson City (1898-1901) Jeremiah Lynch writes in his historical account that after twenty-one days of leaving St. Michaels, his ship arrived in Dawson to crowds of people, cheering their arrival. It was the second boat that year arriving from civilization and people looked eagerly for mail and news from the outside. Jeremiah had been forty-six days on a long voyage from San Francisco and was excited to start a new life of mining. He shared his impressions of seasonal changes, his first big snow and sleigh journey and of course, his mining enterprises.
In December, Jeremiah's description of cold sets the scene for winter. He says it is 'so cold, that energy, ambition and even life itself seem not worth the value, of a warm fire and a comfortable apartment. On December 21, the sun rose at ten and set at two; thermometer 45 degrees below zero. The stars were bright, and the ice and snow were so clear that it was quite easy to travel by night as by day.
On Christmas night, Jeremiah's party dined in a restaurant in Dawson. The dinner consisted of moose, caribou, and ptarmigan. He describes many meats available from the abundant wildlife from hares and mountain sheep to little gophers and graylings fished from the lakes. A year later finds Jeremiah a successful miner, who prospered along with Dawson itself, changing from single-roomed cabins and tree stumps in the streets, to neat felt shoes and well-appointed cottages of several rooms. During the holidays, he and friends obtained fernery for decorating, by digging under the snow. They gathered berry bushes, with red twigs and branches like mistletoe. Musicians played "simple good old tunes" in harmony while the men and women dined in evening dress, feasting on French cuisine. Such was Christmas in Dawson City.
In Writing Home- to Dorset from the Yukon, letters by William White, readers can gleam more emotional descriptions from heartfelt letters written to his parents back home in England. William settled into a mining camp at Lake Tagish and later moved to Atlin to continue his life as a miner with the Southport Yukon Syndicate Limited company. His visit to Skagway in April 1898 was traumatic as he landed there only one day after the deadly avalanche on the Chilkoot Trail. After a few weeks, he and his company took the White Pass trail to Lake Bennett.
William's first mention of Christmas was in a letter dated October 9th, 1898: My dear Father and Mother, ever since leaving Bennett last June we have had a young Scotch midshipman travelling with us, but he is now about to leave us and return to Glasgow so as to be home for Christmas. (Lucky fellow, how I envy him that privilege.) Next, at the last day of October, he writes to his family- "It has just struck me that you will anxious to send me a small package of letters, papers, chocolates, etc. and as Colonel Hayes is going to Vancouver, I am getting him to bring me a few things I am likely to run short of. I have had no further letters or news from you since that one letter last month so anything addressed to me, could be called for by Col. Hayes of Australia. In case I should be unable to get my Christmas letters out in time, let me hastily wish you all A Very very very Happy Christmas. You will all be in my thoughts, dear ones. There will be a little Christmas for me. Your loving Will (PS. I am doing well and shall be back before Christmas '99 with something worth coming for! "
About twelve days later, William writes home again, full of expectations and news for Christmas celebrations. He looks forward to a "chunk of roast" for Christmas. He describes a big party planned to celebrate the occasion with other English boys in the camp. He sounds a bit homesick, and shares "However we spend the holiday, my heart will be at home. I have never spent Christmas away from you before and the remembrance of the happy times we have always had will make me feel just the least bit homesick I expect. But never mind, we'll all be together again before next year's Christmas is upon us, if God will be so good to me." William closes the letter by saying "Be sure and take care of yourselves and your appetites at the treacherous season."
When the holiday season finally arrived, Will sent letters home describing how they kept up Christmas in the good "Old Country" style. He shared a Christmas Eve dinner with thirty other miners. Apples, nuts, and oranges were absent, but they enjoyed a good spread with moose meat, plum pudding, mince pies, and a jolly good time.
Whether they were on the losing end of a stampede or they were finding nuggets, Christmas was Christmas and the miners of the Klondike Gold Rush observed the holiday with good food mixed with memories of home.
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Did You Know?
During the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, Finnegan's Camp on the Chilkoot Trail was a tent city. There were saloons, restaurants and hotels all housed in tents.