Michael Dawe: With the war now behind it, 100 years ago, Red Deer savoured Christmas

Another Christmas will soon be upon us. However, it is interesting to reflect back 100 years to the Christmas of 1919, as it was a very different one than what we are experiencing today.

Christmas is generally a time to celebrate “peace on Earth, goodwill to all men.”

While the First World War officially ended Nov. 11, 1918, Christmas that year was not fully one of peace.

While some veterans had been able to return home before the end of 1918, most were still overseas. It took a long time and a lot of paperwork to arrange transport back to Canada and discharge from the military.

Moreover, despite the official end of the war Nov. 11, there were a number of Canadians (including some from central Alberta) who were still fighting in the Murmansk/Archangel area of northern Russia and at Vladivostok in Siberia. Those men did not make it home to central Alberta until the early summer of 1919.

Hence, the Christmas of 1919 was in many respects, the first true peacetime Christmas in central Alberta.

Tragically, the war had left the economy in a phenomenal mess. The worst inflation ever recorded in Canadian history struck, fuelled by the massive spending during the war.

Once the inflation bubble burst, the economy plunged into a deep depression. A great many businesses went bankrupt, or else quietly closed their doors. Local unemployment soared to almost 25 per cent.

The state of the unemployed was made worse by the fact many were veterans who had come back from overseas with injuries to their bodies and/or their minds, or else were suffering from chronic illnesses acquired while they were still on active service.

Local farmers struggled, not only because of the poor economy, but also because of poor harvests. Winter came early, with heavy snows starting Oct. 8.

Temperatures soon plunged to some of the lowest levels recorded since the brutal winter of 1906-07. The poor weather deepened the feelings of misery and hardship.

Nevertheless, people looked forward to the coming of Christmas and the new year with the hope things would start to get better.

At the very least, people hoped there would be a bit of relief from all of the problems.

Stores began their Christmas sales in the latter part of November, a bit earlier than had been usual at the time.

Great bargains were offered in the hopes of increasing sales and enticing local farmers to make the trip over snow-plugged roads to get to town.

Local community groups and schools organized concerts and Christmas tree celebrations for the children.

These Christmas trees involved decorating the trees with many presents and then giving one to each of the children in attendance.

As was the tradition, Santa Claus was given the honour of passing out the gifts and treats.

The Red Deer High School also used one of the days leading up to Christmas for what was referred to as commencement ceremonies. Medals and awards were given to students for their academic and sports accomplishments. For many, it was the first time in years that their fathers got to watch them receive their recognitions.

An old students’ reunion was later held at the high school. This allowed those who had come home for the holidays to get together with their former classmates. There was a large turnout.

A supper was served, followed by a big dance in the school assembly hall. The Bones, noted local musicians, and the veterans’ orchestra provided the music. The dance went on until 2 a.m.

Christmas Day fell on a Thursday. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day featured the traditional church services. However, other than those gatherings, most people stayed close to home. It was the first time in a long time family and close friends had been able to get together for a holiday celebration.

Boxing Day had traditionally been the day for a community hockey game or curling bonspiel.

In 1919, the latter event was preferred because of the long spell of cold weather and the fact Red Deer lacked an indoor hockey/skating rink.

The curling club staged a huge dance at the Red Deer armouries Dec. 26. Three hundred and forty tickets were sold, an impressive number when one remembers Red Deer had a population of 2,800 at the time.

The dance also earned a profit of $200, a welcome bit of cash in the otherwise tough economic conditions.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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