Christmas in the days of yore

Re-enactors at Fort Vancouver demonstrate historic food, games, gifts




Christmas Day was a rare day off for Hudson’s Bay Company employees who lived at Fort Vancouver in the 1840s.

They spent it playing games, preparing a holiday meal, drinking wassail, making music and dancing.

The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site will re-create that time in history with a series of events on Dec. 12.

“It’s an opportunity to learn about the holidays in the 1840s, which were very different,” said Kimm Fox-Middleton, Supervisory Park Ranger and Special Events Program Manager for the Fort Vancouver National Site.

The fort has hosted similar programs in the past, but this year there are more hands-on activities, Fox-Middleton said.

In the kitchen, re-enactors playing Hudson’s Bay Company workers will prepare for the holiday meal by starting a fire at about 9 a.m., which will need hours to burn to coals and heat surrounding bricks so they can properly cook food and bake bread for a midday meal. They will make a menu typical to the fort in the 1840s, including meat — most likely a goose — pickled vegetables and fruit.

Visitors are often shocked at how long the meal preparations took, Fox-Middleton said, and that it was possible to create an elaborate meal without the help of modern tools such as meat thermometers.

Off to the side of the cooking area, visitors can learn how fort residents made potpourri. Potpourri was used to help the residents and their clothes smell better, since they had fewer opportunities back then to bathe or do laundry.

In the fort’s visitors’ center, re-enactors will show off the kinds of games families played. They include jack straws, which is similar to pick-up sticks, and marbles.

“Some of the games have carried over from generation to generation,” Fox-Middleton said.

To re-create the music that families would have made, the Madrigal Singers will rove the property performing Christmas carols.

Some of the activities on Dec. 12 will reflect what fort residents did to prepare for the holiday such as making decorations. In the bake house, for example, re-enactors will teach visitors how wreaths were made. “There would have been a large wreath at the chief factor’s house,” Fox-Middleton said.

Gifts were often crafted from recycled materials. Women would reuse printed paper sent as part of tea shipments along with leftover scraps of yarn to make bookmarks. “It was a small way for them to say happy holidays,” Fox-Middleton said.

Near the end of the day, fort employees will show how workers for the Hudson’s Bay Company got their food through hunting with a demonstration of historic weapons.

Beyond the fort, the Marshall House on Officer’s Row will invite visitors to learn more about a Victorian-era Christmas. The house’s two trees will be decorated with traditional Victorian ornaments, many of them made in the image of birds.

“There was a lot of emphasis on the natural world,” said Susan Holton, communications manager for the Fort Vancouver National Trust.

In the 1800s, trees would have been lit with candles, but because of the fire hazard, the Marshall House tree uses electric lights.

The Restaurant at the Historic Reserve, Pearson Air Museum and the Water Resources Education Center will also take part. For those who want to make a day of it, Holton said, there will be bus service available to shuttle guests from one facility to another. The only exception is the Water Resources Education Center, where there is ample parking.

At Pearson, children can visit with Santa, who will be sitting in a historic airplane.

The Restaurant at the Historic Reserve will provide a place where families can stop for a meal. During the day, there will be a breakfast buffet, which will feature an appearance from Santa. In the evening, local schoolchildren and a theater group will perform an improvisational interpretation of “A Christmas Carol” while guests eat dinner.

At the Water Resources Education Center, the emphasis will be on recycling items into holiday decor.

In one hands-on session, participants will learn to make felt from old wool, such as discarded sweaters. The staff will share a polar bear pattern, which visitors can use to make a felt ornament.

Fox-Middleton said the intention is to provide enough activities that families can spend an entire day at the Fort Vancouver National Site and that there will be something of interest for all age groups.

“The idea is that people can spend the whole day here doing all these activities,” Fox-Middleton said.