Harmon’s Histories: Christmas in Montana brings tales of struggle, but celebration too
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
For the very young, time never moves quickly enough: Is it Christmas yet?
For older folks, time moves far too quickly: Geez! It can’t be Christmas already!
So, using my “older folks” excuse, my story deadline has come “far too quickly;” therefore, I offer up a Christmas tale or two from my columns of the past:
Christmas 1864 was a dangerous time in Virginia City. The town's newspaper, The Montana Post, in its very first Christmastime editorial, remarked: "The life of man is fitful as a tropical breeze. Whilst thinking of the dangers we have surmounted, let us not be unmindful of the mercies we enjoy; but looking backward with gratitude and forward with hope ... may we live to enjoy a still happier season when peace shall be restored to our land, and Union, purchased by so much blood, and endeared by so many hallowed memories, (rendering) our beloved country once more, the pride and hope of the world."
There were other sobering Christmases past.
The Big Timber Pioneer in its December 25, 1930 edition (following the stock market crash) said, "Santa Claus is not dead, just one of the millions working half time."
On Christmas Day 1941 (just weeks after Pearl Harbor), the paper's editor told readers, "Let us hope that one year from today may be bright, cheerful and peaceful at home. Probably it is a vain hope, but hope is the vitamin B of life."
Most Montana Christmases have been much more lighthearted.
In 1874, Missoula's courthouse was "handsomely decorated and brilliantly lighted," as were two giant trees placed on either side of the Judge's stand. The place was packed. As the Missoula Coronet Band played, "the gleeful shouts of the little ones, with the jokes, banterings and laughter of the older ones, mingled with the discordant noises tortured from blatant toys, drums, etc., were almost deafening (requiring) repeated calls for order."
In 1887, Miles City created an ice rink with "electric light for illuminators." In Missoula, the Knights of Pythias were busy planning a "grand masquerade ball." In Philipsburg, Colonel G.W. Morse was preparing a grand Christmas ball for his opera house. He expected it to be the best attended affair of its kind ever held, drawing a crowd from the whole valley and "outlying camps."
That same year, there was a near disaster in Missoula at the lighting of the community Christmas tree. "Unfortunately for Santa Claus, his wooly head caught fire from one of the wax candles on the tree, and he had to leave very unceremoniously; but as he was not injured in the least, he left all the presents, with the message that he would return again next year."
The modern-day complaints of the commercialization of Christmas have deep roots. The Dillon Examiner printed the view of the local ministerial association in 1921, "There is a danger of a commercialized and pleasure-staged Christmas that may rob us of all benefits (of the true Christmas). ... Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men."
Still, to be fair, there does seem to be a balance between the religious and the secular over the years. Christmas 1894 was described by the Weekly Missoulian as "a joyous day (with) with loads of happiness for the youngsters." At the same time the paper noted a number of excellent church services, singling out the Catholics who brought in Professor Steele's orchestra to back up the choir.
At the county poor farm, the "unfortunate inmates" were served goose, duck and chicken, plus vegetables, pudding and pastries. The 13 men, two women and one child who were kept there were "loud in their praises of the splendid treatment."
In 1899, referring to recent depression years, the Billings Gazette suggested, "The poor be generously remembered and care and trouble banished."
Finally (reflecting the basis of all my writings – historical newspaper stories), I must acknowledge the most famous Christmas-related item of all time. It appeared in late September 1897 in the New York Sun.
Soon it was reprinted or referenced around the country. We found it in a lot of Montana publications.
It was journalist and editor Francis Pharcellus Church's answer to a question posed in a letter from a young girl named Virginia O'Hanlon on September 21, 1897.
"Dear editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun it's so." Please tell me the truth: is there a Santa Claus? Virginia O'Hanlon. 115 W. 95th St.
Shortened response: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.
"Not believe in Santa Claus? You might as well not believe in fairies! Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
"No Santa Claus! He lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.