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December 18, 2012 > Christmas Past

Christmas Past


There were very few Christians in our area in 1797 and most of them were connected with Mission San Jose. The Mission was only six months old by December 1797, but the East Bay's first Christmas celebrations were probably held there. Food served would have been whatever they were able to raise, gather, catch or hunt. Mass would have been an important part of the religious ceremonies.

Later Christmas celebrations were traditional Spanish events with feasts, choirs, drama groups and a large nativity backdrop, made to look like a cave, and landscape with 23 large clay figures in the foreground. It was said to be the most elaborate of any mission. Spanish and Mexican families came from miles around to join Mission residents celebrating this great feast day.

American occupation of California in 1846 brought many changes including war and the American Flag. John C. Fremont came through the area recruiting and raiding for his Volunteer Battalion.

Americans who migrated to California brought with them the holiday customs of their homes and towns, but the first American Christmas at Mission San Jose must have been very different. The Mission buildings were abandoned, run down and deserted except for a few survivors of the mission system and some homeless American newcomers. Some of the men had gone south with Fremont. More Americans would have been here, but they were caught with the Donner Party, snowed in, freezing and starving in the mountains.

The discovery of gold changed everything, even Christmas. People were in a big hurry to find their "pot of gold" and get rich. Mission San Jose changed from a religious center to a stop where men on their way to the gold fields could drink and gamble.

Alameda County was only eight years old in 1861 when the Civil War began. Although major battles were far away to the East, there was much concern, and several military groups were organized to maintain the peace and protect against sympathizers. Christmas celebrations were somewhat subdued and religious, but there were some parties.

The United States entered WWI in April 1917 and the war dominated the news. Christmas celebrations were subdued by disruptions caused by the draft. Patriotic fervor ran high. Editorials usually supported war efforts, conservation calls and petitions to join the American Red Cross. School children sent Christmas letters and donations to orphans in France and Belgium. Food donations came from every school in the township.

Local papers noted in 1928 that Washington Township was doing its part in an effort to have 50,000 live Christmas trees in the state. Lighted outdoor trees were featured at the California Nursery, the Main Street of Niles and Centerville Park.

National conditions and events have sometimes affected local Christmas celebrations. Our country was in the midst of "The Great Depression" in 1933. The living Christmas trees blazed with light as usual and "rows of trees by store fronts added to the sparkle of decorated windows." The Southern Pacific offered reduced coach fares for holiday travel, and merchants touted after-Christmas sales. In spite of all this, a local editor observed that "it will not be easy to be merry this year."

The Washington News reported on January 4, 1941 that nine local boys had enlisted in the armed forces. Several others had enlisted the year before. Washington High School distributed forms for "unemployed youths" to sign up for training courses to aid the National Defense program.

Pearl Harbor changed everything, even Christmas. Fear, anger, racism and hysteria swept the country. All Washington High students were stunned, and Japanese Americans were overwhelmed, too ashamed to look people in the eye. Fear and concern overshadowed the Christmas of 1941.

Christmas 1943 was shadowed by information about rationing, shortages, war events and especially news about the men and women in the service. This was the third "War Christmas." Washington Union High School presented an annual Christmas Pageant, the student body's gift to the residents of Washington Township. Christmas wishes and prayers were sent to the far corners of the world to the men and women in the armed services. Happiness of the season was tinged with sadness in many homes because loved ones were absent from the family circle. The prayer of all was "May this be our last war Christmas." Sometimes it seems that our Christmases have been dominated by wars and disasters. Maybe the bad news just made it appear that way.

The spirit of Christmas has survived crisis, catastrophe and calamity and lives again in 2012 to see us through all the problems that will face us in the coming year.

Merry Christmas to all.

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