Christmas in the Archives

Historical photos of Father Christmas found in the BC Archives and posted on our Twitter feed recently generated lots of interest and questions from our followers:

  • A century ago, was the Yuletide figure called Father Christmas or Santa Claus in British Columbia? How was Christmas celebrated back then?

In an effort to answer these questions, we delved into the Archives’ Library Collection and retrieved a volume of the Sound Heritage series. These periodicals were published by the Provincial Archives of British Columbia (PABC), as it was then styled, from 1974 to 1984. Sound Heritage (GR 3376) organized recorded interviews and transcripts from the PABC’s “Aural History” collection with historical photographs, manuscripts, ephemera, and other records. Sound Heritage No. 29 was researched and written by Rich Mole, a former broadcaster and historian, and published in 1980. Entitled Season’s Greetings from British Columbia’s Past: Christmas as Celebrated in British Columbia from the 1880s to the 1930s, it does not indicate whether Father Christmas or Santa Claus prevailed. But Mole’s interviews with members of prominent Victoria families from “the Old Country” suggest that Father Christmas was current in the Edwardian era (1901-10). By the 1920s, Santa Claus seems to have been front and centre (at least in newspaper stories and advertisements) in the weeks leading up to December 25th.

Rich Mole commented on the challenge to find illustrations because relatively few archival images were catalogued with a subject heading “Christmas.” He relied on PABC archivists to locate suitable images. We still rely on knowledgeable archivists, but thanks to the AtoM search engine, we can find many images in the BC Archives online catalogue of Christmas celebrations and events.

A search for “Christmas” brings up several records, including two images of Father Christmas/Santa Claus arriving in Victoria’s inner harbour with helpers/companions wearing pantomime costumes (these were the images that generated questions and comments on Twitter). A third image is captioned “A gathering on the causeway in front of the Empress Hotel in Victoria for the arrival of Father Christmas.” However, it’s not clear from attribute information whether the crowd is waiting for the same visitors featured in the other images. Another image of Father Christmas shows a crowd gathered outside Duncan’s Cowichan Merchant’s Building in 1910. This building, at the corner of Craig and Station Streets, opened to the public December 8th, 1910. It may be that the arrival of Father Christmas captured in the image was taken at this grand opening. Whatever the event, the image is a reminder of Father Christmas’ commercial associations.

Other images found through AtoM show a decorated tree in the home of Moses Smith, a successful commercial baker and a leader in Victoria’s Black community; and a Christmas Day dinner in the home of Benedict Bantly, a Victoria music teacher. There are also images of nurses in the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, c. 1900; Christmas trees being despatched from Ladysmith in 1940; a Vancouver Island Coach lines bus with Santa from 1951; and junior high school girls in Lumby creating a Christmas display in 1958.

A search for “Xmas” also brings up several interesting records, including images of Christmas during the First World War from the Ellanore Parker fonds (PR 0398). Parker served as a nursing sister in France with the 2nd Canadian General Hospital near Dieppe. The images from 1915 and 1916 depict Christmas behind the front lines for nursing sisters and the soldiers they cared for. Entering the word “nativity” into AtoM brings up photographic and audio records relating to Christmas at Inkameep Day School. Similarly, a search for “pageant” provides images of Christmas plays in the communities of Ahousaht and Palling (near Burns Lake).

Through these archival records we are introduced to several different ways that Christmas was celebrated and documented. As the Sound Heritage editors noted, a study of Christmas “reveals a great deal about the history and character of British Columbia’s people. Whether Christmas was celebrated as a sacred or secular holiday (or not at all), it was an annual event of which most British Columbians were inevitably aware.”

– Patrick Dunae & Kelly Black


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