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Celebrations Far From Home

12/01/2014 12:16PM ● Published by Jerrie Beard

Christmas of 1849 found many young men camped out in the goldfields of California—far from home and family. It was a lonely day as they longed for the warmth of fires and the companionship of a wife or sweetheart. “Here we are drinking tea next to the fire, covered with soot, with our brows furrowed from the heat,” wrote Ramón Gil Navarro on Christmas Eve 1849. “Elsewhere in the world people are on their way to midnight mass with their girlfriends and lovers. I have a vivid recollection of the scenes from this night last year: what I did, whom I saw, how I enjoyed the company of those who were with me.”
For the family of William Wilson and miners in the area surrounding Canyon Creek near Georgetown, Christmas of 1849 proved to be a memorable one. On that day, Mrs. Wilson delivered a 12-pound baby boy. The news quickly spread up and down the canyon that Bill Wilson had struck it rich and found a 12-pound nugget. Many took this literally, and soon scores of miners were lining up outside the Wilson’s cabin to see the 12-pound lump. The men were let into the cabin in small groups to view the “Christmas nugget.” The miners enjoyed the diversion and, after seeing the Wilson infant, said the “Wilson nugget was the finest they’d ever seen.”
Many miner’s journals did not make any mention of the day. Christmas was just another workday filled with the activities of mining and life in the Gold Country. Aaron Lambert wrote on Christmas Eve 1857, “I worked today as usual at mining. Nuthing new nuthing mutch is said about Christmas, some few parties is all.” Others prepared special foods for the occasion. “We had a pan of eggnog this morning,” recorded John Dobble on December 25, 1853. “We paid for eggs: $2.50 per dozen.”
For others, Christmas presented an excuse for a celebratory spree of eating, drinking, dancing, entertainment and the firing of pistols and canons. Saloons, gambling houses and eating establishments were more than happy to oblige the miners—with inflated prices of course. Sometimes, however, all this jollification resulted in bloodshed as it did in Coon Hollow on Christmas Eve 1854. A dispute over a trivial matter resulted in the exchange of blows and “before the parties could be separated, one fell mortally wounded.”
Not all merrymaking that year ended tragically. By 1854, Placerville and surrounding towns were becoming more established with many permanent residents and, more importantly, with a population of respectable women. For many, Christmas once again began to revolve around socializing with friends and family. Local hotels, such as the United States Hotel in Newtown and the Union Hotel in Placerville, hosted Christmas balls that “attracted quite a large crowd of ladies and gentlemen, and passed off very pleasantly,” according to the Mountain Democrat. “The spacious ballroom was filled with ladies—a number of whom came from a distance. The company was gay and joyous, the music superb, and the supper excellent.” 

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