Back in time for Christmas

Volunteers go extra mile to show what holiday really looked like in mid-1800s




Courtney Toivonen, 12, of Yacolt twisted fresh fir boughs around a metal loop. Toivonen had to hunch closely over her meticulous work in the darkness of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site’s bake house, the result of overcast skies and no electricity.

“I’ve always wondered how to do these,” said Courtney, referring to the under-construction wreath in her hands.

The wreath-making was one of several activities volunteers offered Saturday as part of the annual Christmas at Fort Vancouver.

Volunteers, decked out in hand-stitched period costumes, go to great lengths to ensure visitors experience the place as it was when employees with the Hudson’s Bay Company worked there between 1824 and 1860, including a ban on electricity.

“I thought it was kind of dark,” Courtney said. “I wished there was electricity. I’m grateful for the stuff we have now, like phones.”

Christmas is no exception in volunteers’ dedication to authenticity. Volunteers tried to set a scene for visitors.

Employees at the fort worked hard. The holiday was treasured not only for its religious meaning but also because it meant a respite from their labor, said volunteer Celine Guess, a Camas High School student.

Examples of their glee over free time played out throughout the fort.

Courtney’s sister, Lani, 10, flanked by fir boughs and holly, delighted in reliving historical life at the fort.

“I like the old buildings,” she said. “It’s cozy. I think about how people lived here, and all the things they made, where we just go buy it from the stores.”

Alex Scharfstein, 15, of Lake Oswego, Ore. participated in a game of “hoops.” With a long stick, he pushed a wood hoop along a paved path on the fort’s grounds, under a light drizzle.

“You try to keep it up and see how far you can do it,” Scharfstein said. “It’s pretty fun.”

Inside, visitors kept warm by sipping imitation wassail, a liquor made of apples, sugar and ale.

“They definitely celebrated,” said park ranger Aaron Ochoa. The majority of employees were French Canadian, so there was a strong Catholic sentiment, Ochoa said.

“They danced vigorously throughout the night,” Ochoa said. “Thomas Lowe, a clerk with the company, described (in his journal) spraining an ankle while dancing.”

Volunteer Amber Smith said Christmas presents were not as numerous as today.

“The majority of things you would have would be things you would need,” Smith said. “You have one or two gifts, and they were usually things you couldn’t get normally, like a piece of fruit. That could be a gift.”