Michael Dawe: Christmas of 1959 offered good reason to celebrate

Another Christmas will soon be upon us.

It is a time when people love to look back to Christmases past, full of holiday cheer and family gatherings.

One memorable Christmas in Red Deer took place 60 years ago in 1959.

To many, it was one of the best Christmases ever.

The 1950s had been a wonderful time of growth and prosperity for Red Deer. The population of the city jumped from 7,000 in 1950 to nearly 18,000 in 1959. At one point, Red Deer was deemed to be the fastest growing city in Canada.

The wonderful economy was in large part fuelled by the discovery of significant oil and natural gas fields across central Alberta and the development of Red Deer as a centre for the energy services industry.

Most of the newcomers to Red Deer consisted of young families looking for new opportunities and bright futures. There were also a great many young families already in the city. The great post-war baby boom was at its height.

A clear indication of the burgeoning number of children in the community is shown by the fact that over the decade, a new school and/or major addition to a school was constructed each year.

Red Deer’s main retail district – the downtown – flourished. The key major chain retailers such as Eatons, Kresges, Woolworths, Macleods Merit, Saan and Metropolitan stores were busy with customers, as were the numerous locally owned stores.

An emerging geographical expansion of Red Deer’s retail sector became evident with the official opening of the West Park Shopping Centre on the west side of the community on Nov. 25, 1959.

The stores were particularly packed after the start of the traditional Christmas shopping season at the beginning of December. Ironically, the problems of parking downtown were made worse by the recent introduction of parking meters.

After a judge’s negative ruling on the legality of the city’s new traffic tickets, city council had to quickly pass new amendments to the parking bylaw.

A more serious damper to the growing Christmas spirit was the Robert Raymond Cook murder trial. It commenced Nov. 30 at the Red Deer courthouse. The trial ended with a guilty verdict by the jury Dec. 10. However, the controversy about the case continued for a long time afterward.

There was a heavy snow Dec. 15. While that added to the traffic problems, most people felt it helped to bolster the sense Christmas was on its way.

The city was bright with Christmas lights and decorations. A huge decorated Christmas tree was put up in front of City Hall.

The city greenhouses on the south end of the Gaetz Avenue bridge were also extensively decorated for the season.

Carling put up an impressive Christmas display at the brewery and adjacent retail beer store on 43rd Street (the main road to West Park).

One of the most impressive residential displays was at Grace Kanngiesser’s large boarding house on the corner of 53rd Street and 49th Avenue.

Also of note was the beginnings of an extensive neighbourhood display on 40A Avenue in Grandview. Not only were the houses interconnected with Christmas lights, there was also an illuminated nativity scene at the south end of the close.

The Christmas card tradition was at its height. The post office reported the highest volume of cards and parcels in Red Deer’s history. On just one day before Christmas, the post office managed to deliver 100,000 pieces of mail.

The downtown merchants and chamber of commerce organized a special Christmas shopping carnival.

The stores stayed open until 9 p.m. They were also open Wednesday afternoon, which was normally a weekly half-day retail holiday at the time.

Free movies at the Paramount and Crescent theatres on Ross Street were provided on the afternoon of Dec. 24 to keep the children occupied while their parents finished their last-minute Christmas shopping.

Christmas Eve was a Thursday and Christmas Day a Friday.

Local churches were packed with people taking in the traditional Christmas services. There were also the festive gatherings of family and friends in their homes throughout the community.

There were many exclamations of “Merry Christmas to all” and “Best wishes for a happy new year.”

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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