Christmas at fort, Marshall House blend modern, traditional

Variety of activities set for Saturday

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter



If you go

• What: Christmas at Fort Vancouver.

• Where: 1001 E. Fifth St., Vancouver.

• When: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the fort, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Marshall House.

• Cost: $3 for adults, free for those 15 and younger.

• Information: or 360-816-6230.

There was no Santa Claus — or Christmas tree for that matter — at Fort Vancouver in the 1840s. Those concepts hadn't yet taken off in the Americas.

But you will find them at the Marshall House as part of the Christmas at Fort Vancouver celebration.

Pictures with Santa, hot cocoa and activities for children will be the order of the day Saturday at the Marshall House, which will offer a modern array of Christmas fun to visitors, said Madi Kozacek, a spokeswoman for the Fort Vancouver National Trust.

"People can make Christmas cards and enjoy holiday beverages here before checking out the historical activities in the fort," Kozacek said.

Things get more historically accurate down the hill at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, where visitors can see what the Christmas season was like in the 1840s, when the Hudson's Bay Company was running the show.

"This was a time from Christmas Eve through Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, and almost everybody at the fort was off (work)," said Betty Meeks, a volunteer and historian. "The only folks working during that time were the poor schlubs in the kitchen."

The holiday week was often celebrated with feasts, alcohol, dances and special church services.

The halls were likely decked with boughs of fir branches, wreaths and holly, but back then Christmas trees were much more of a German tradition.

"I haven't found any reference to trees at that time here," said Greg Shine, chief ranger. "That was around when they were just being introduced in the Eastern U.S. But there were traditions of decorations — light and candles and things that were evergreen."

Christmas trees were generally thought of as pagan symbols in America until 1846, when The Illustrated London News printed a sketch of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children standing around a tree. That helped the tradition become widely accepted both in England and the United States.

And Santa Claus?

The red-clad merry elf wasn't there, although there may have been tales of Father Christmas, a figure of peace, joy and revelry for the English. Back then, Father Christmas often wore green, not red. The red suit appeared in the late 1800s.

Christmas was also more of a religious festival back in the 1840s, with New Year's Eve taking on more of the gift-giving and celebratory aspects of the holiday week.

"Around (the holiday weeks), the company gave out an extra regale, which is like a present or a Christmas bonus, and usually included food, drink and other extra rations," Shine said.

Visitors to the fort can try some traditional activities of the 1840s, such as making potpourri, caroling and toy crafting, said Robert Gutierrez, a ranger.

"Families can also make wreaths together, which personalizes the holiday more," Gutierrez said. "It makes it more of a family event."

Adult admission to the fort is $3. Admission is free for those 15 and younger. Activities are also free.

In 2012, about 1,000 people showed up for the event, and organizers are expecting a similar crowd this year.

"(The fort event is) a nice thing to come visit," Gutierrez said. "Growing up, you remember not so much the gifts you got as the memories you created. And this has become a family tradition for many people here."