Reflecting on the Christmas season of 1887

Christmas will soon be upon us.

It is a time of goodwill, generosity to others, and pleasant gatherings with family and close friends. It is also a time when people like to reflect on long-held traditions and Christmases past.

It is therefore interesting to reflect back to one of those ‘old-fashioned Christmases’ – the Christmas of 1887 when Red Deer was a small frontier settlement with only a few dozen residents.

The town of Red Deer did not exist yet.

Instead, there was a small cluster of buildings, located to the west of current site of the City, where there was an all-weather ford across the Red Deer River.

The biggest buildings in the community were part of Fort Normandeau, which had been constructed in 1885 during the Riel Rebellion, but which was now manned by a small detachment of the North West Mounted Police.

There was a brand new schoolhouse, but it was not located in the fledgling hamlet.

Rather, it was located halfway between the Gaetz family farm, in what is now downtown Red Deer, and the Crossing. The location had been chosen so that the school was an equal distance to walk for the Gaetz children and those living in the main part of the settlement.

The crops had been fairly good that fall.

Wheat had been damaged by a mid-July frost. However, other grains such as oats had done well, as had most gardens, particularly with the root vegetables.

Wildlife was particularly abundant that year, thereby ensuring a plentiful supply of fresh meat.

The sloughs and lakes had been covered in ducks and other wildfowl. Large numbers of deer could be found, particularly around Antler Hill, Horn Hill and the Divide to the south and east. One farmer reported being able to bag several prairie chickens in a little over an hour.

The weather throughout the fall and into early winter had been generally warm and dry.

A series of strong chinooks melted away the little bit of snow which had fallen. By mid-December, however, the weather had turned more seasonably cold and snowy. An estimated 30 cm of snow fell in the days just before Christmas.

On Christmas Day, most of the settlers in the area gathered in the small log schoolhouse.

A large, rather rusty box stove, with pipes running the length of the classroom, provided the heat. A few long, hand-made benches, mostly without backs, provided the seating.

The service was conducted by Rev. William A Vrooman, the young Methodist minister, who had also served as Red Deer’s first certified school teacher.

Rev. Leonard Gaetz, who was also a Methodist minister and who was considered by many to be the patriarch of the settlement, gave the Christmas address.

With the oratory and eloquence for which he was famous, Rev. Gaetz spoke of the authenticity of the celebration of Christmas. He reminisced about Christmases past. The small choir then led the congregation in singing Christmas carols and traditional hymns.

Rev. Leonard and Caroline Gaetz then invited as many guests as their home could hold for a Christmas dinner.

While the preparations were being completed, the younger folk went down to the nearby river for a skate.

After everyone had eaten all that they were able of the enormous Christmas feast, the older men retired to the parlour to argue politics. The women cleared the table, washed the dishes and carried on conversation sf their own. The young men slipped away to another part of the house for a smoke and ‘amusement’.

Later, everyone gathered in the parlour.

The rest of the evening was spent with readings from the Bible and caroling. Caroline Gaetz and young Rev. Vrooman provided the music with a small pump organ and a violin.

It was probably well after midnight when the last of the guests departed for home on their horses or in their sleighs. As they travelled in the crisp cold air, with the clear moonlight, all agreed that 1887 had truly been a Christmas to remember.

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