Spirit of Christmas past

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  • The Whitefish community Christmas tree. (Photo by R. E. Marble from the collection of E. B. Gilliland)

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    The Christmas trees in Depot Park were lit up during the Christmas Stroll Friday.

  • The Whitefish community Christmas tree. (Photo by R. E. Marble from the collection of E. B. Gilliland)

  • 1

    The Christmas trees in Depot Park were lit up during the Christmas Stroll Friday.

The Christmas of 1903 was noted as being rather sparse in terms of decorations and celebrations. The new town of Whitefish was just beginning, not many permanent residents were in the area and only a few merchants. Those merchants did a landmark business, though, due to the presence of hundreds of railroad workers who were engaged in the building of the new Great Northern mainline through Whitefish.

The first true community Christmas celebration held for the citizens of the new town of Whitefish was organized by the Whitefish Eagles Aerie No. 906 in 1904. The program included dinner at the Model restaurant followed by dancing at Skyles’ hall. Other features of the evening included prizes for the best lady and gentleman waltzer.

The merchants about town decorated their show windows with bright colors and ornaments showcasing their Christmas offerings. Goods available included burnt wood stamp boxes, match holders and picture frames. There were liberal stocks of toys, decorations and sleds for boys and girls. Candies, cigars, and souvenir china were on display. The meat market and bakery turned out all the goods of the season.

Christmas Day 1904, was said to have been a beautiful day with good weather and Christmas trees could be seen all over town.

Capping the 1904 Christmas season at Whitefish was the three-night engagement of the Londale Theater Company at Skyles’ Hall. Opening night, Dec. 26, featured a presentation of “The Creole Spy,” a story of the Civil War.

In 1905 the Brotherhood of Railway Trainman organized their first Christmas dance and celebration. The local school children presented their janitor with a rocking chair that Christmas for taking such good care of them. C. E. Ordish had a slightly less than ideal Christmas when he was cited and fined $100 for killing more elk than the law allowed.

By 1906 the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen had grown substantially and their Christmas program this year was quite an affair. Prof. A. P. Sheridan’s orchestra furnished the music for the dance. Each of the churches in town held a Christmas tree program for the children. The Catholic church program was held Christmas Eve afternoon, the Methodist Church on Christmas Eve evening, and the South Side Presbyterian Church held a program in the evening the day after Christmas. Jesse Monk took an unexpected dip in the river near the schoolhouse when he and his sled broke through the ice. Fortunately Jesse was able to save his sled.

The Chamber of Commerce presented the idea of a community Christmas tree in 1916. Committees were formed and plans were laid for the event to be held on Christmas evening. James Dawson wired the tree for lights and Dan McDonald of the Northern Idaho & Montana Power Company provided all the necessary materials.

The community tree was placed in the middle of the intersection of Central Avenue and Second Street. On Christmas evening parents and most of the children in town attended the celebration. Mayor Schoonover greeted the guests and H. T. Mayfield gave a Christmas address to the crowd. Carols were then offered by the school children. Four large bonfires were lighted to help warm the youngsters. Santa handed out a bag of candy and nuts, and a large orange to the children. Each child then received a free ticket to attend the Orpheum or Liberty theater, something that had become a holiday tradition. L. J. Sissel hosted the annual children’s party at his Orpheum theater. The community Christmas tree tradition would continue for decades.

In 1924 many of the businesses around Whitefish began placing small Christmas trees in the flag staff holders at the curb in front of their business. This added nicely to the holiday atmosphere about town.

Along with all the usual events for 1926, an assembly of carolers, including school children, gathered at the train station at 5:30 Christmas Day to sing “Silent Night” and “Joy To The World” to the passengers on that evening’s Oriental Limited, the Great Northern’s premier passenger train.

Three large trees were erected for the community in 1934 instead of the usual single tree. The trees were placed on Central Avenue at the intersections of First, Second and Third streets. Business men of the city contributed the funds for these three trees. An especially festive attitude was evident this year.

The Whitefish Retail Trade Bureau met in advance of the 1935 Christmas season to discuss a plan for decorating the downtown streets. The curb Christmas trees used in years past were becoming a traffic hazard so it was decided to discontinue these trees. Instead more attention would be paid to decorating the store fronts and downtown. Merchants were asked to pay special attention to their display windows this year. Cash prizes would be awarded for the three best decorated windows. The displays were judged on the evening of Dec. 6. Santa was also there handing out gifts to the children.

The community Christmas tree festivities of 1941 were unique. That year Santa arrived by special train on the Great Northern Railway escorted by Trainmaster L. E. Cooper. A large crowd gathered at the station to welcome Santa on his arrival. Santa then rode in a place of honor on the city fire truck on his way to the community tree. Members of the border patrol and Whitefish police force assisted Santa in handing out more than 1,400 candy treats to children. The Thomas Jewelry store, Ben Franklin and Knott Mercantile were the prize winners in the 1941 decorating contest.

Another special feature of the 1941 Christmas season, in addition to all the usual programs, was the “live” Christmas tree, a Norway spruce, in the center of the Great Northern gardens east of the depot. The tree was elaborately decorated and lighted. These gardens were quite lavish and very well maintained under the watchful eye of Paul Gallo who was caretaker of the gardens beginning in 1937. The tree inside the depot was dispensed with, the garlands and lights strung about the building taking its place. Great Northern Division Superintendent and Mrs. L. E. Manion had a similar “living” tree at their residence. The trade bureau encouraged residents to light up the whole town.

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