Christmas 1914 was a Christmas like none before it. The world was at war. Cowichan was at war. Although only into its fifth month, with more than four years of horror and millions of casualties to go, the First World
War already had touched upon the lives of many Valley residents whose fathers, sons and brothers had rushed to serve God, King and Country.
By the time it was over it was estimated that one in six Cowichan citizens had served in uniform. One in six – said to be the highest enlistment per capita in all Canada!
So what was Christmas like on the home front? In a full-page ad Cowichan Merchants Ltd. proclaimed 15-minute specials on everything from dry goods, clothing, gifts and groceries. For the lady of the house a highlight of the sale was a Bissell "Cyclo" ball-bearing sweeper – light to handle, simple to operate, and always ready, quote, unquote. (Even on Christmas Day, no doubt!) Varying models of these hand-powered sweepers ranged from $3.25-$4. For the man of the house (presumably) there was a rattan easy chair in brown and natural colours, $4.50-$5.25.
Not to be outdone, Bazett Bell Co. promoted their selection of chocolates (-10 per cent from Dec. 19 on). For Yuletide dining they had molasses (25 cents for 3 pounds), raisins, figs, dates, various nuts, popcorn, grapes and mince meat at prices that (strictly by today’s standards) appear to be ridiculously cheap. In the gift line they offered crockery, glass and chinaware, boys’ skates and hockey gear and jack knives, all with a five per cent discount for cash purchasers. There was nothing for the girls, it seems, but the family Dobbin wasn’t forgotten, a set of "non-skid" chains (I’m not making this up) costing $1.25 per set of four.
Clothiers Dwyer Smithson were more laid-back with their ad which, although prominent, merely suggested gifts in a price range guaranteed to fit most budgets: 25 cents to $25 (with specials on leather collar boxes.) Upper-scale competitors Kibler Truesdale were offering half-prices on their selection of fancy silk armbands, garters, ties, vests, shirts, slippers, etc. Gidley the druggist who candidly admitted he wanted "a share of your Xmas trade," had a selection of cut glass, leather goods, brassware, fountain pens, Kodak cameras, chocolates and Parisian ivory – everything, it seems, but pharmaceuticals.
Miss L.E. Baron’s Bon Ton Millinery Parlor was promoting silk and net waists, and ladies’ satin and silk underskirts. She urged shoppers to check out her 25-cent table and to get a ticket on a raffle for a doll. For the children, stationer and future mayor H.F. Prevost (he actually carried a little bit of everything over the years)
knew his way to their hearts: "We are proud of our stock of Toys, and justly so as we have been told by many people who are in a position to know, that there is not a finer stock anywhere in B.C. So make the children happy!" The Duncan Trading Co., sounding more like the Grinch, took an opposing tack to Prevost by urging parents to make their children’s Christmas "a different one from last year" by giving them something unexpected: clothes. They guaranteed that a new suit, coat or sweater would "give more pleasure than a carload of toys!" An unlikely vendor of toys and novelties, so one would think, was the Victoria Lumber Manufacturing Co. But, as Chemainus’ largest employer, it operated its own company store hence their half-price sale of items left over from 1913.
Such was the commercial side of Cowichan Christmas in 1914. Socially, there was just no ignoring the war, not with a front-page appeal by Lord Kitchener for another million men and another billion dollars. This was addressed to the British Empire as a whole; residents could respond, if not by offering themselves, by donating to the Cowichan Branch of the Canadian Patriotic Fund. Chemainus students responded to the call with an impressive $32, half of which they wanted to be given for Belgian relief, tens of thousands of refugees having fled that hapless (and non-belligerent) country when it was invaded and occupied by the Germans in their rush to invade France.
Already, a second parcel of hospital slippers, wristlets and "other woollen comforts" for convalescing soldiers had been sent by the Shawnigan Lake chapter of the Canadian Red Cross Society. It would be the first of many to be sent overseas over the next four years.
Those still intending to mail letters or parcels to their menfolk overseas were reminded that postage rates had been doubled as part of Ottawa’s drive to finance the war.
To date, Cowichan had suffered a single fatality. Young Lt. Clive Phillip-Wolley’s death would be the first of hundreds and each succeeding Christmas, 1915, 1916 and 1917, would be in many respects more subdued, more sombre than that of 1914. Indeed, for many, no Christmas would ever be the same after the First World War.