● By Wendy Sipple
"Christmas Day! But why mention it in this county...! It makes me sad to write the words, for they bring memories of home and civilization and household affections.” –William Perkins, 1849
These words of a young Canadian argonaut reflect the feelings of indifference most early gold rushers had toward what was traditionally a joyous day. Early personal diaries left behind by 49ers scarcely mentioned the holiday, and many listed December 25 as just another workday. Times were harsh in the mines, leaving the miners with little time for sentimentality. There was pay dirt to be washed, dams and flumes to be built, ditches to dig, wood to cut, and clothes to wash. Small wonder, then, that Christmas was treated like any other day.
Like most of the predominantly male population, Andrew Hall Gilmore spent Christmas Day in the pursuit of gold. “This morning we got up by daylight. As we had no invitation to any Christmas parties,” he wrote to his brother, “and feeling no inclination to go on a ‘bust,’ we thought we might spend the day as profitably by going down to our diggings and working like fine fellows, even if it was Christmas and awful rainy at that.”
Until the mid-1850s, when women became less scarce, and families and communities were established, the Yuletide broke the heart of the average miner. Many already suffered from homesickness, so why not try to shut it out with hard demanding work?
Others chose different ways to escape their holiday blues, which brought on new traditions of celebration in a land not reminiscent of past holidays. “The day here ushered in by the firing of guns, pistols and some blasting of heavy logs in lieu of cannons, and this is about the amount of our celebrating,” Elisha Perkins wrote in his diary. “Some have passed the time in drinking and gambling, which latter vice is very prevalent in this country”
Although Christmas found most of the miners missing their homes and families, they did have each other. Many camps made the best of their circumstances and celebrated the season with true holiday spirit. In 1849, William Kelly described Christmas along the Trinity River: “Every tent was prepared with some hospitable welcome...Our dinner table was quite a spectacle in the diggings, with its bear meat, venison, and bacon, its apple pies pleasingly distributed, its Gothic columns of plain and fancy breads...the plum-pudding alone being reserved for the second course.”
The Christmas of 1851 found miners in Rich Bar gathered at the Humboldt Saloon for holiday festivities. Louise Clappe, better known as Dane Shirley, also joined in the merriment. “All day long, patient mules could be seen descending the hill,” she wrote, “bending beneath casks of brandy and baskets of Champagne, and, for the first time in the history of that celebrated building, the floor was washed...I believe that the company danced all night...The revel was kept up in this mad way for three days, growing wilder every hour.”