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Stanton Cabin
Typical homestead of the Ahtanum valley. This is the Matthias F. Stanton cabin - circa 1870. Click on picture to find in Yakima Memory Collections.

Early Christmas in the Yakima Valley

By Robert E. Pace

The Christmas season is now upon us and the usual festivities of the holiday are being carried out. The shopping, the meal planning, and the constant communications with family and friends, making plans to get together for the most celebrated of family traditions.

No one will probably give a single thought as to what Christmas would have been like for the early settlers - say 130 years ago in the Yakima Valley.

One man, Attorney John H. Lynch, in 1923, recalled his early childhood in the Ahtanum valley, tells of the traditions celebrated in what he called the "outposts of the sagebrush."

"My first Christmas in the Yakima country was in 1878 when I was three years old, Mr. Lynch related. Father, mother, my four sisters and three brothers and I arrived from the Wahkiakum country in the spring of that year. We traveled by Indian dugouts down the Cowlitz to Portland by boat from there up the Columbia to The Dalles and then overland in a mule drawn covered wagon through Goldendale along the canyon road past Fort Simcoe and to Old Town or Yakima City as it was called. Father had been over the previous year to pick a homestead site that was on the Ahtanum near the Catholic mission. Father was an expert carpenter. He wanted to put up a lumber house, so with the aid of a few neighbors built a primitive sawmill between Tampico and Soda Springs. He built a four-room house, the first frame dwelling in the community.

"Our Christmases were pretty much alike from year to year. If there was little or no snow, father would take time from his work and he and my oldest brother would go up in the hills for an evergreen tree, usually a pine. But some years I remember we couldn’t have a green tree so we contented ourselves with a scrub oak or cottonwood sapling.

"Tallow candles and popcorn strings were the chief decorations of the tree.

" Turkeys were rare but we had plenty of wild game to draw upon for our Christmas dinner. Prairie chickens were plentiful; often 250 to 300 in a flock and native grouse were everywhere. Jackrabbits and cottontails hid behind every sagebrush, it seemed.

"Mother always made currant and raisin loaves and fruitcakes and we children pulled taffy. That and hard candies brought in small kegs from The Dalles were the only candy we had. Chocolates were unknown.

"Christmas Eve we never failed to hang our stockings. Toys, delight of boys and girls today were scarce, our gifts being articles for use rather than pleasure.

"Christmas shopping as we do it now was impossible. We couldn’t go to town a week or two in advance and buy our things. Practically everything had to be purchased at The Dalles. The store at Old Town had a few articles but prices were too high so the ranchers made it a point to lay in their Christmas supply at The Dalles when they took their grain and hops to market in the fall.

On Christmas Eve there was always a dance either at our place or at a neighbor’s. Everybody in the community came. Square dances, the Virginia reel, polka and waltz were the only kind we knew. Accordions and fiddles wielded to the accompaniment of stamping feet provided the old time ‘jazz’. Whisky was the favorite article of Christmas cheer among some of the pioneers, as I remember.

"Midnight mass at the mission was attended by everybody, regardless of creed. Many converted Indians mingled with the whites and they had excellent voices."

"As a young boy, Christmas, primitive as it may seem now, was a very exciting time creating many fond memories," stated Mr. Lynch.

Christmas in 1878, by today’s standards, may not have seemed like much but to those who were there, it would probably be referred to in later years as the "good ol days."



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