“We are living in extraordinary times and thus extraordinary effort becomes a commonplace. We have to make an effort…if the Christmas of 1917 is to mean what it should to us all.”—Cowichan Leader.
We are among the blessed in a world of strife. Small-scale wars (for the most part), never-ending international tensions, atrocities, suicide bombers and other violence and tragedy fill the news daily. But, rarely, happily, do we feel the pain here in the Cowichan Valley.
Such was not the case 100 years ago.
The world was at war in December 1917 and Cowichan had the highest enlistment per capita for all of Canada. There was hardly a family that didn’t have a father, son, husband, in-law, friend or acquaintance serving in uniform and overseas.
By then, of course, the war had been raging for three and a-half years and, although it was unknown at the time, had another 10-plus months to go. The cost, as later evidenced by all those names on the Duncan Cenotaph, was appalling.
But it was December and it was Christmas despite the fact that, for most of those at home, Yuletide 1917 was even grimmer than those of 1914-16, particularly in those homes which had already received the dreaded telegram that a loved one had been killed or was missing. And those at home who lived in dread of receiving one.
But Christmas couldn’t be denied by families with children. And the churches certainly weren’t about to forego Christmas services. So Christmas it was.
We get some sense of that sombre time through the pages of the Cowichan Leader, in particular the last issue before Christmas. Among the good news for a change was word that Sapper Harry Parker, the newspaper’s peacetime Lintotype operator, was home on medical leave from the 9th Canadian Railway Troops (1st Canadian Pioneers).
Too, the Cowichan Creamery reported having had a good year and Mayo Singh, who would achieve near-legendary status as a beneficial employer and philanthropist, was heading the “Hindu enterprise” that was building a new sawmill at Sahtlam.
The new Unionist party had won the national election and Island farmers had done well in a New Westminster seed fair. But, for Mrs. A.J. Bailey of Tyee Siding, a mid-December fire had destroyed her home and all its contents. Only some tools in a shed were salvaged.
The Dec. 20 editorial captures some of the prevailing mood: “It is very hard to realize that Christmas — the fourth Christmas of the war — is so near at hand, will in fact have passed into history ere another week has gone. It is harder still to bring oneself into that frame of mind which befits the season.
“For the grownups it is impossible to enter again into the Christmas spirit of bygone years, but there is a crumb of comfort in the remembrance that the human species becomes gradually accustomed to the most extraordinary circumstances.
“We are living in extraordinary times and thus extraordinary effort becomes a commonplace. We have to make an effort of this nature if the Christmas of 1917 is to mean what it should to us all…”
For those who were up to gift-giving, Gidley’s Gift Store advertised chocolates for “the wife” and french ivory (imitation ivory), cut glass and toiletries for “the ladies”. For the well-dressed and fastidious man in the family Dwyer & Smithson promoted gifts that would add to both his pleasure and his appearance.
Duncan’s Cash Grocery offered bargains on sugar, raisins, nuts, candies and “Jap” oranges. P. Burns & Co. had a large stock of the “finest turkeys on the market;” buyers were urged to place their orders early.
Cobble Hill’s The Busy Corner announced with “great pride and satisfaction” that they were ready for the holiday season with a wide selection of “new, fresh, crisp goods,” all at Victoria prices “and in some cases a shade better”.
Another Cobble Hill merchant, Scott & Peden, a name more associated with animal feeds in later years, promised that their prices of groceries and toys were “down to rock bottom…all the time”. Recommended were a sweater for Junior, a flashlight for “the girl,” a shirt for Dad and a washtub or copper tea kettle for Mom. Oh, and a sack of bran for the family cow and one of wheat for the chickens.
Appropriate to the time of the year, in the weather sense, the Island Drug Co. offered a 35 cent rebate when you traded in your old hot water bottle.
Immediately prior to the Big Day, there was a children’s matinee starring Charlie Chaplin at the Opera House followed, on Christmas Eve, by a one-night-only presentation of Child of Mystery, a gripping story in five acts, and Boy, a Drama of the Underworld in two acts. Once Christmas was over there were a New Year’s Eve social evening at Bench School, a Grand Limelight Masquerade Ball with prizes for the best dressed man and woman, the best comic, the best waltzing couple, the “best sustained character,” both genders, and all with consolation prizes. Believe it or not, children were invited, too, music to be provided by Miss Bell’s three-piece orchestra.
So it was, according to the Cowichan Leader in the days leading up to Christmas 1917. Yes, there was a world war raging and, yes, most residents of Cowichan were directly impacted. For all that, other than mention of Harry Parker and the sombre editorial, you wouldn’t have known it by that issue of the Duncan paper, the last to be published before Christmas 1917.