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Christmas at Nome, Alaska, 1901

Arctic & Northern History

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) - Sunday, December 15, 1901

    PROBABLY the strangest Christmas celebration in the domains of Uncle Sam will be that at far off Nome this year. The actual day lasts but 180 minutes. In Alaska the natives know nothing of the significance of the Yuletide, and what knowledge they have gained since the advent of the miners has quickened their desire for the time only insomuch that then they sell more to the whites.

    EXPERIENCE of Christian workers in the Yukon and Nome regions show that the Alaskan Indian is unappreciative, and if he is persuaded to join in a celebration it is only for what he can get out of it. In Dawson several years ago, before the city had its electric lights, modern houses and direct communication to the seaboard over which every delicacy of the various seasons are now imported, an impromptu Christmas festival was held in a rudely constructed hall.

    A number of Indians were invited and attended. They were treated liberally at the feast and decorated with small, but brilliant presents with the hope that the occasion would impress them, and awaken a desire for more Christian light. They left with many grunts of satisfaction and delight.

    The next day the camp preacher found his guests of the previous day lined up in front of the hall. On his approach all stretched out their hand crying, in native tongue, for more food. Since then the natives of Alaska who have become Christians participate in the celebration of Christmas. In Dawson and the Yukon conditions have improved so rapidly within the last three years that all spend as comfortable time, gastronomically and socially, on Christmas as we do in the "states." In Nome things are vastly different.

    Visiting in St. Louis, Enroute from Nome to his home in Memphis.

    NOME'S Christmas "day" will last three hours, but there will be plenty of fun before daylight and after dark.

    Santa Claus will not be in any hurry getting around, for there will be little doing before 9 a. m., and then it will be yet pitch dark. Along about 11 o'clock there is a dull, gray glow in the heavens, and we can distinguish persons on the streets. This brightens a little toward noon, and then it gradually recedes until 2 p. m. it is as dark as ever.

    The day's celebration must, therefore, be between 11 a. m. and 2 p. m.

    Two weeks before Christmas the townspeople begin to plan for the day. The auditorium of the Presbyterian Church is the largest room in Nome, and it is selected for the day program.

    The most important matter in the preliminaries is obtaining a tree. Nome beach is devoid of vegetation, and for 100 miles back there is nothing higher than stunted bushes at creeks. After traveling east for 100 miles the shrubbery gets larger, and finally you get cedars, the real, Christmas tree. It is no pleasant undertaking in the dead winter of the Arctic to go inland 125 miles. No one could be hired to make the trip for less than enough to keep from want until the thaw, so the Christmas committee must depend entirely upon volunteers.

    As rough a country as that is and where men so often forget all that Christmas stands for in our lives, it is a remarkable fact that when the time comes hard hearts are so touched that the worst characters step forward and ask that they may undertake that awful trip, every step of which is challenged by death. But so it is, and there is always enough hardy spirits come forward to guarantee a tree.

    Granted the courage of all volunteers is equal, and all being equally familiar with the hardships and suffering the journey entails, the selection is influenced by the ability of the dog teams represented there by the owners. A man must use from 12 to 15 dogs on this trip, and every animal must be as sound as the proverbial dollar when the start is made. Consequently, to the man who owns the best dogs the honor of bringing in the tree goes. No man makes the trip alone, but one is responsible. He selects one or two companions, and they contribute dogs, provisions, furs, etc., to the expedition.

    A long sled is pulled by the dogs in single traces. The sled itself, when ready for the start, most resembles a prairie schooner set down on runners. Of course the shelter is much more efficient than the ordinary schooner cover. Ours is heavy tarpaulin, with furs over that. In the bed of the sled are furs to sleep on, a little stove, fuel, provisions, axes, ete. With no accidents it will take over a week, say 10 days, to go and return. This is at forced traveling, running the dogs until they become very weary.

    The town gives the party a great send off, many sleds accompanying it for miles out, where, at some tavern, there is a last good-luck toast, and the sturdy little dogs trot off over the frozen snow into the almost impenetrable darkness.

    Then there is suspense until one glad day a team will come in with the report that as it was leaving such and such a creek, a sled arrived dragging a big cedar tree.

    This is over town in five minutes, and everybody gets ready to welcome the travelers. Dog teams are hastily harnessed and away hundreds go shouting, blowing horns and discharging firearms. Sound travels very far in that cold, clear atmosphere, and it is only a few minutes before there are answering shots.

    There is a joyful meeting out on the snow, and a procession is formed for the run back to town. Here everybody is received with the wildest delight, and the tree is delivered at the door of the Presbyterian church to the arrangement committee in the presence of the foremost citizens. There are speeches of congratulation, and then the crowd scatters out for a general good time. The greatest interest centers in saloons, where the travelers tell of their trip. As the jollification proceeds the modest demeanors of the returned wear off and their deeds of valor and hardships are magnified a hundredfold. They are all good fellows, however, and entitled to all the credit they can get, so nobody cares, and the evening is one of enjoyment.

    The next three or four days is spent in trimming the tree, that has been set in one corner of the church auditorium. Gold spangles, and tinsel, and horns, and bright new toys, so familiar down here, are memories to those up there. Women make flowers and little bows and things out of bright paper that are tied to the limbs, and as there are plenty of little candles scattered all over, the effect is really pretty in the dark. There are presents to be given to the children by Santa Claus, of course, but every one has seen service before in some capacity perhaps two or three times, but the spirit of the thing is there, and that, after all, warms the heart more than aught else.

    Indeed, In Nome it is the spirit of the time that makes it at all worth while, for no costly presents are exchanged, and in most families none at all.

    On Christmas Day there is usually an early hurrah in the streets, some shooting, but not really much doing until it begins to get light, at 11 o'clock. Then the women and children get around and everybody is off to the church. There the usual Christmas hymns are sung, the ministers of the various denominations deliver short sermons, and, as by that time it !s growing dark, the big lamps are extinguished and the tree candles lighted.

    The jingle of bells is heard on the outside, and before anyone leaves the hall, old Santa stalks in and down the aisle to the cheer and applause of the children. He takes his place by the lighted tree, and motions to the organist. A march is played, and the children pass before him receiving candy, usually common stick or mixed variety, and any little present that has been provided. After St. Nick has disappeared and has been heard to drive off, the big lamps are lighted, there is more singing, a prayer, and the church service is over.

    It is then pitch dark, but the very young people enjoy themselves until bed time at 9 or 10 p. m. In the evening at the largest dance hall in town the older people, the society people of Nome, have their annual Christmas dance. It is in reality a very enjoyable and conventional affair. Admittance is by card, and these can only be secured by persons whose characters are above reproach. When it is considered that there are many men and women in that country from the best families in the states, it is not hard to imagine a ball in a mining town without liquor and shooting. The men for the most part wear evening dress, and there is not a woman of worth there who did not bring up one or two party dresses.

    The music is very good, and the dancing continues until 4 or 5 o'clock the next morning.

    There are final cheers and shouts of "Merry Christmas" as the beaux and belles drive off in their dog sleds.