Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Times change, traditions remain

Christmas in the valley has always meant togetherness, celebration

Express Staff Writer

Staff stand in waiting at a Wood River Valley mercantile store, which is decorated for Christmas. Photo courtesy of The Community Library Regional History Department, Ketchum, ID

Wood River Valley inhabitants in the late 1800s knew well the comforts of family and tradition, and they, like generations after, expended extra effort to make their holiday bright.

Early residents engaged in similar activities that people do today: planning, eating, giving, worshipping, visiting and shopping.

Christmas in the valley brought festive gatherings, from simple dinners to grand feasts.

In her book, "Spring of Gladness: Reminiscences of Pioneer Life in the Wood River Valley," Mary Brown McGonigal recalled a scene from Christmas 1881. A group of residents pooled their talents and their scarce resources to create a shared meal consisting of venison, beans, pickles, dried fruit, cake, cookies and pie.

Each guest brought his or her own place settings, as people of modest means didn't have extra plates or silverware for dinner-party guests.

Gifts were not exchanged—there wasn't money for that kind of luxury—but one big-hearted guest made a baseball bat and ball for the boys, McGonigal wrote.

After dinner, the group played cards, drank brandy and coffee, and made plans for New Year's.

The Ketchum Keystone newspaper advertised retailers' offerings for residents with more income, or for those who saved money for seasonal indulgences.

"The merchants are busy arranging their show windows to make a pleasing display of their goods," stated the Dec. 22, 1894, issue of the Ketchum Keystone.

Gift-givers had plenty of options for "handsome, durable, desirable" holiday presents, according to an ad in the Dec. 18, 1886, issue of the Ketchum Keystone. Jewelry, scarf pins, charms and other "fancy goods" could be found at something akin to a pop-up store.

Presents ranging from 25 cents to $500 were for sale at E.H. Hendrick in Hailey, according to its 1886 ad. Clocks, silver-plated items and jewelry were among the offerings.

Shoppers might stop in at McMann & McKim butchers in Ketchum to get some beef, mutton, veal or pork for dinner. Those of means in 1885 might patronize Greenhow & Rumsey grocers for wine, liquor or "fancy" cigars.

People also extended the giving spirit to those outside the circle of family and close friends. A Sunday school concert in December 1886 served as a Christmas fundraiser. The concert at a Methodist church "proved a pleasant affair," stated the Dec. 18, 1886, issue of the Keystone. "The proceeds derived from the sale of tickets will very materially assist in the purchase of gifts to adorn the Christmas tree and afterward given to the children," the paper reported.

After that Christmas Eve event took place, wherein a "useful and appropriate gift" was given to every child, the paper reported, young revelers enjoyed a candy-pull at the Union Church.

Christmas services were available to those of many faiths, especially as the valley's population grew with the mining boom. Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists and others marked their holy day in prayer, reflection and communal feasting.

On Christmas Eve 1885, a "grand ball" was held at the Metropolitan Hall in Ketchum, benefiting the Ketchum Fire Department. An ad in the Ketchum Keystone extended a "Cordial Invitation to All"—or to those who could afford the $2.50 ticket.

Celebrants in 1894 made their way to Town Hall on Christmas Eve to get a "tour around the world with a stereopticon." This version of a stereopticon was described as "a splendid exhibition of eighty views in brilliant colors thrown on a large canvass by a modern dissolving stereopticon lantern with 'lime light,'" the Keystone stated on Dec. 22. After the show, the paper reported on Dec. 29, ladies handed out bags of candy and nuts to children.

Then, as now, the season is marked by coming together, indulging a little and counting fortunes great and small.

"The coming of the most generally observed of all our holidays brings happiness to many hearts," stated the Dec. 25, 1886, issue of the Keystone. "To-day the home circle rejoices, for it brings the young and old of many households together, at least once during the year, and the peaceful influence of the happy homes thus spent are pleasant reminders of the day to those whose good fortune it is to once more enjoy the privilege of such a family gathering."

Rebecca Meany:

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