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YULETIDE: Trees, Gifts and Gratitude

1089px-Still_Life_-_Boeuf_a_la_mode Yuletide: Trees, Gifts and Gratitude

 It's redundant to say that year 2020 has been a most "unusual" year. At a time when we sought warm embraces, laughter and at least a smidgeon of kindness, 2020 introduced us to facemasks, social distancing and deadly disease.

Setting the present aside, let's step back in time to the 19th century at the Fort Vancouver historic site and Clark County. What did people do then to celebrate the holidays?

1868. Vancouver Register January 2, 1869

"'Merry Christmas' has come and gone since our last issue. The propitiousness of the weather heightened the enjoyment and exercises which gave zest and appetite to the creature comforts in sitting at home.[i] Preserved among the recollections of the day there is none but that it is pleasant to look back upon. Misery in rags, to be met with almost anywhere in the world, casting a shadow over many an otherwise happy scene, was not here to dampen our enjoyment or mar our happiness: peace and plenty, the inevitable result of thrift and industry, abide with us. It is the fervent prayer of my heart that as our dear little village expands to the proponents of a city, that every recurring year will find it as happily situated as it was on the 25th of December, the 1868th anniversary of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Midnight Mass was celebrated with more than usual pomp at St. James Cathedral on Christmas Eve, the Rt. Rev. Bishop [Augustin-Magloire] Blanchet officiating.[ii] Rev. Father Younger preached a very eloquent and appropriate sermon, replete with liberal sentiments and enlarged views of Christian duty. The choir sang in a most excellent manner several selections of sacred music. The spacious cathedral was crowded to its utmost capacity, the aisles even being occupied by those unable to obtain seats. The occasion was one to be long remembered by all who were present.

"At the Methodist Episcopal Church[iii] the Christmas tree, laden with choice gifts for the little folks, presented a handsome appearance. Appropriate remarks were made by the Honorable A.G. Clark and S.W. Brown. A song was very feelingly sung by a blind lady, which was exceedingly touching, awakening feelings of sympathy for the bereft lady in every heart. Miss Belknap, and others, also sang some sweet hymns. The distribution of presents was the occasion of much joy to the children.

"At St. Luke's Episcopal Church there was another Christmas tree loaded with rare gifts to gladden little hearts. Mr. J.M. Fletcher despoiled the tree of its precious fruit and distributed it among the children, much to their delight.[iv]

"Christmas beef of a fine quality was displayed in the markets of Durgan & Co. and Richard Steggert. In fact, nothing that the epicurean taste could crave but was obtainable at either of those places.

"John Powell's Shooting Match on Christmas Day attracted a large crowd. Mr. Powell is entitled to the credit of reviving this old time custom in Vancouver and making it a Christmas sport."


Emily FitzGerald, wife of the garrison's doctor, wrote to her family in the east in December 1875:

"I have contrived quite a number of little things out of scraps for my Christmas gifts here. I am beginning to think I am an undeveloped genius. I got some of the loveliest cretonne patterns.[v] They made me want some money awfully.

"I mean to light my tree up on the afternoon before Christmas. Then Mrs. Field will light hers up on Christmas morning. I have some little matters for all of the children, at least I will have if the little rubber toys come in this boat." [The Army and the community relied on the river steamboats to deliver goods and mail, not wagon roads or Pony Express. This was true throughout the Pacific Northwest and settlements were generally built facing the waterfront.]

Vancouver Independent, December 30, 1876

"There was a great gathering together of people at the Episcopal Church last Saturday evening, December 23, to witness the ceremonies incident to the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas tree was a marvel of delight to the little folks, as it held upon its branches many beautiful gifts from a cornucopia of assorted candy to a gigantic doll that shuts its eyes when it goes to sleep.

"Rev. Mr. Nicholson read the usual services in an impressive manner after which Colonel [John S.] Mason[vi] read selections from the 'Christmas Carol' of Charles Dickens. The Colonel is a good reader, but the house was too full, little people were too anxious, and too many people were standing to allow this part of the ceremony to pass pleasantly. The reading over, the gifts were distributed by Mr. Fletcher, assisted by Louis Sohns, Jr., and H.N. Kress. The singing was rendered by the choir, assisted by the Sunday School. Among the beautiful songs were 'Three Kings of Orient,' and 'Wonderful Night.'

"It was 9 o'clock when the audience dispersed. The church is very beautifully trimmed with evergreens. Every day during the week, busy workers had been industriously preparing the decorations, and when on Saturday afternoon the work was done, the room swept and the tree all ready for the evening, the interior of the building presented a most beautiful appearance. The Chancel wall, under the superintendence of Miss Nickels, is decorated in a most tasteful and elaborate manner.

"Other beautiful arrangements throughout the building are due to Mrs. Hakes, Mrs. Whitney, Miss Ella Stoughton, Mrs. Fletcher, and others of the ladies were – as they always are – active in this work. Great credit is due to Mr. Nicholson and the faithful members of the congregation who so kindly devoted themselves to the work of making a joyful Christmas for the children and friends of the church.

"Christmas at LaCenter" in 1877. Vancouver Independent January 10, 1878

"On Tuesday last it was our good fortune to be present at a pleasant an entertainment as we have 'Old Santa Claus' had not been forgetful of the numerous happy homes in this part, and many a little heart was thus caused to throb with delight at the sight of the well-filled stockings hanging on the wall. But this was not enough. There was a richer treat yet in store for the youth of this vicinity. We are fortunate enough to be blessed with some of those whole-souled, generous-hearted people, who are never content with making their own firesides happy but are continually rooting up thorns and scattering flowers along the pathway of others. Such was the spirit in which the affair on Tuesday afternoon was planned and carried into effect. It was an entertainment especially gotten up for the benefit of the scholars of the school; but the parents were also expected, and the doors were open to visitors too.

There had been some hesitations in getting it up, owing to the report to the effect that the diphtheria had broken out afresh in the adjoining neighborhood. But this report proved untrue; yet it had the effect postponing the call till so late in a day that there was not sufficient time for extended literary preparations on the part of the school. But the physical man was not neglected. There were oysters 9that great invention of modern times) in abundance. Pies, cakes and countless other luxuries were furnished without stint. The tables were thus bountifully spread and all invitations to partake. They did partake, and though the number present was at least twice as great as anticipated, there was enough to spare. It was a pleasant affair throughout and well calculated to create a healthy public sentiment in school matters. The school is very large. There are now 70 names on the roll.


At Vancouver Barracks in the 1850's, the soldiers prepared for Christmas celebrations sometimes weeks in advance. There was an abundance of big game in the region, and on Sunday, the Company Commander would excuse the best shot to go hunting for the companies and run the game as near the Post as possible before being shot, so as not to have such a far haul. There were deer and wild fowl of all kinds. …a detachment of ten men, with a noncommissioned officer in charge and a wagon would proceed down the river and kill whatever they could in the ten days and bring it back to the Garrison for the use of the trips.

Other soldiers had duty at the hospital. Those soldiers on hospital duty were detailed from the companies and no one wanted the job. The pay was extra duty pay, but the duties that the men had to perform did not suit them, so it was hard to get a man to stick to the job.


Captain U.S. Grant served at Vancouver's garrison in the mid-1850's. Though married, Grant's family remained in the east while Grant served at posts on the West Coast, including "Columbia Barracks" at Vancouver. Cooking was an engaging pastime for most of the officers, and Grant developed several favorites while living here. He enjoyed venison, goose and swan dinners prepared in wood stove ovens. Fortunately, his favorite recipe was not so exotic and has survived. (This recipe comes from Oregon: A Feast of Delights by Cecile Alyce Nolan.)


 By Carel Nicolaas Storm van's Gravesande - Own work; Photo by Szilas in the Teylers Museum, Public Domain,

Boeuf a la Mode

4 lbs round roast

3 onions, sliced

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

1/3 cup brandy

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

1 Tablespoon chopped parsley

3/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Pinch of thyme

1/3 cup white wine

½ cup water

Larding ingredients:

2 Tablespoons of softened butter

1 small onion, chopped fine

1 cup bread crumbs

Larding: A very old process that spreads flavor throughout the meat. When sliced the white spots show and you will know why it is called "Boeuf a la Mode." Another larding trick is cutting slashes in the meat and stuffing several garlic cloves into the holes. Delicious taste.

With a sharp knife, cut slashes in the roast. Season with salt and pepper. Combine butter, chopped onion and breadcrumbs. Stuff into slashes in the roast, press openings together. Place roast in Dutch Oven with 1 pint of water, onions, carrots, parsley, salt, pepper, nutmeg, thyme, brandy and wine. Bring to boil, skim foam from the top. Lower heat, simmer for 2 ½ hours. Add vegetables of your choice, cook 35-40 minutes. Serve roast sliced on a platter surrounded by cooked vegetables.Bon appetit!

May the blessings and good wishes of the Yuletide Season carry us forward to kindness and goodwill toward all throughout the coming year.


[1] Arctic cold fronts and heavy snows (6" to 7") just prior to Christmas were common in the Vancouver/Portland region in the 1800's. Meticulous army records dating to 1850 recorded "coldest known temperatures" in 1851 and 1863 in late December. By January and February, the Columbia River was often frozen over.

[1] The cathedral building was located at 6th and Fort Vancouver Way within the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. It was built of wood with permission of the Hudson's Bay Company and dedicated as "St. James Church May 30, 1846. May 31, 1850, the Vatican under Pope Pius IX established the Diocese of Nesqually [sic], with Augustin Blanchet as its bishop. Blanchet chose to have his new diocese headquartered in Vancouver and chose the existing St. James Church as his cathedral. The church was formally dedicated as St. James Cathedral on January 23, 1851. Construction of the present-day St. James Proto-Cathedral began in 1884 on 12th Street.

[1] A Methodist following was established at Vancouver as early as 1848, and Rev. C.O. Hosford became its first resident pastor in 1852 but no building was constructed exclusively for the congregation at that time.

[1] The first church building for St. Luke's Episcopal Church was a converted schoolhouse near the fort. While he had been conducting services in the village since coming to Fort Vancouver, Reverend McCarty started regular services in this schoolhouse in 1857. On May 27, 1860, Whitsunday, the church was consecrated by Bishop Thomas Fielding Scott, becoming the first Episcopal Church in the Territory of Washington. Participating as founders of the church were a number of current and former US Army officers and community businessmen: John D. McCarty, John Eddings, Colonel Henry C. Hodges Jr., Louis Sohns, James Crawford, H. G. Struve, James Davison, Joseph K. Barnes, Benjamin Alvord (mathematician), and others. On February 21, 1868, St. Luke's was incorporated in Washington Territory.

On March 2, 1873, a new church with a prominent 119-foot steeple seen throughout Vancouver, was used for the first time.

[1] "Cretonne" referred to a strong, printed cotton cloth, that was stouter than chintz but used for very much the same purposes. It is usually unglazed and may be printed on both sides and even with different patterns. Frequently cretonne has a fancy woven pattern of some kind which is modified by the printed design.

[1] Born in 1824, John S. Mason of Ohio received an appointment to the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, on July 1, 1843. He graduated 9th of 38 cadets in the Class of 1847 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U. S. Artillery. Among his classmates were future Civil War generals A.P. Hill, Henry Heth, John Gibbon, and Ambrose Burnside.[2]

With the Mexican War raging, he was assigned to garrison duty at Tampico, Mexico, where he contracted yellow fever. After spending time in Cincinnati, Ohio, recovering, he returned to Mexico to Puebla as a commissary officer. He survived a second severe bout with yellow fever in New Orleans at the end of the war.[2] He later served in a variety of posts, including Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island, Fort Yuma, several garrisons in California, and finally at Fort Vancouver in the Washington Territory. He was a quartermaster from June 1854 until June 1858, and was promoted to first lieutenant in September 1860.

Lieutenant Mason was still at Fort Vancouver when news arrived in April 1861 of the outbreak of the Civil War and the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. After the departure of Edward O. C. Ord, Mason assumed the role of post commander at Fort Vancouver on May 7, 1861 and remained in that position until June 11, when relieved following the arrival of Capt. Henry K. Black of the 9th U.S. Infantry. .[3] Later in May, he was promoted to a captaincy in the 11th U.S. Infantry.[1] In October of that year, he was appointed as the colonel of the three-years' 4th Ohio Infantry. He joined 4th OVI in western Virginia, where they served during the fall and winter under command of Maj. Gen. James Shields.

Following the Civil War, Mason remained in the U.S. Army following the war (reverting to his Regular Army rank of major and transferring to the 35th U.S. Infantry in September 1866 as commander of the new District of Arizona). He subsequently performed garrison duty in a number of outposts on Western frontier in the 1870s and the 1880s. He was transferred to the 15th U.S. Infantry in March 1869. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 4th U.S. Infantry in 1873 and to colonel of the 9th U.S. Infantry in 1883.

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