November 28, 2007

THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT-IDAHO STYLE

By Senator Mike Crapo

 "Here, then, there was a cessation from toil, from hunger, and alarm. Past ills and dangers were forgotten. The hunt, the game, the song, the story, the rough though good-humored joke, made time pass joyously away, and plenty and security reigned throughout the camp." 

                        -Description of Captain B. L. E. Bonneville's trapper's camp, Stanley Basin,                                                December, 1832 (Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series)

 

In 1832, befriended by Nez Perce and Flathead Indians, Captain Bonneville and thirteen fellow trappers found safety and bountiful game in the Stanley Basin from December 9 through December 26. Historical records note "an elaborate Christmas celebration with the Nez Perce, who joined enthusiastically in the celebration." A decade later (1842), Father Nicholas Point and Father Pierre J. de Smet decorated the Sacred Heart Mission (now Cataldo) for Christmas, celebrating with the Coeur d'Alene Indians. These are some of the first Idaho Christmases in recorded history. Reflecting on some past Idaho Christmases helps us appreciate the spirit of our holiday today. 

 

As pioneers settled Idaho, they obviously didn't have access to merchandise like people on the East Coast. While the popularity of catalog shopping reaches back to early Idaho households, most Christmas presents were handmade dolls, clothes and toys. Similarly, most decorations were handmade. 

 

In the mid-1800s, Boise residents had a community Christmas tree rather than trees in their homes. The nearest trees were in the foothills, a prohibitive distance for most families to get one for their house. Also at that time, charities played second fiddle to the generosity of individual families. Perhaps because hardship was so common, there was an acute awareness of the needs of those less fortunate. Many gifts were brought to the community tree for others. 

 

Idaho has had its share of war Christmases. In the summer of 1916, the Idaho National Guard, Second Regiment was placed on duty in Nogales, Arizona. Over the next few months, all other regiments were sent home, to the frustration of family and Idaho Governor Moses Alexander. In December, Alexander received word that the regiment would be mustered out of Utah. This was the last straw. He asked for a reconsideration of the order and sent telegrams to the Idaho Congressional Delegation, pleading for assistance. The order was changed and the Idaho Second returned to spend Christmas with their families and was mustered out of Boise Barracks on January 22, 1917. 

 

Just two years later, Idaho families received another Christmas present of sorts-a welcome respite from the Spanish Influenza epidemic that ravaged Idaho throughout 1918 and 1919; it subsided for a month in December 1919.   

 

Many Idahoans experienced scarcity and hardship during the Christmases of the agricultural depression of 1921-1928. Idaho's farming, ranching and timber families were just starting to recover when the Great Depression struck. Prior years of want may have prepared Idaho families for the struggles of the 1930s, but hardship is hardship and, as Idaho's economy gathered strength after World War II, Christmases of the 1950s on were better for most. 

 

Today's holiday season is very different than those early pioneer days. The Internet has changed the face of shopping. We are comparatively better off than our predecessors. As we prepare for the holidays, Idaho Christmases past can help us be thankful for our blessings, and keep our historical spirit of generosity and close family ties alive in our celebrations. If we can find time to enjoy, as Captain Bonneville did well over a century ago, a "cessation from toil, hunger and alarm," in our own holiday season, it's indeed something to be thankful for. 

 

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