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Harmon’s Histories: Remembering Christmases past

Christmas Eve 1888

By Jim Harmon

Merry Christmas!

I’ve spent the week reliving holidays past through the pages of Montana’s newspapers. It’s been fun, and eye-opening.

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 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.”

Over at Fort Missoula on Christmas Eve, the post hall was “decorated in magnificent style (and) fully illuminated.” Major Bartlett agreed to play the part of Santa. Later, Professor Stoddard’s orchestra provided the music for the “social hop.”

Santa personally took out some advertising space in the Philipsburg Mail in 1888 to announce he’d dropped off hobby horses, doll carriages and fancy crockery at Dawson’s department store and, “cheerfully commend(ed) his prices.”

In 1889, Helena’s Broadway fish market advertised in the Independent, the “First, last and only chance (for a free) can of the celebrated Rockaway brand big ‘R’ select oysters” with the purchase of a turkey.

In 1911, the Ronan Pioneer newspaper advertised a local amusement company’s Christmas night dance. Tickets were $1.50 or 10 cents a dance. In the same issue, the local phone company encouraged everyone to “make some loved one happy this glad Christmas Day by the sound of your voice,” at half price!

Clearly 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 thirteen 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.

Have you guessed yet? Here’s a clue: 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.

I leave you with the original article from September 21, 1897:

“We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

“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.

“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole truth and knowledge.

“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. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

“Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. 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.

“You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

“No Santa Claus! Thank God! 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 retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.