Our First Alaskan Christmas
It could perhaps be described as a minimalist Christmas, that Christmas of 1948. We had been in Anchorage about six weeks, “making do” with the small amount of clothing and household items we brought with us or were able to purchase from the Northern Commercial Company. Our household goods were stashed in Seattle with many other boxes and crates and barrels headed for the Last Frontier. They sat in a warehouse somewhere, along with others of like kind, lonely for their owner’s attention, and waiting for the Alaska Steamship Company strike to end. Good foresight that Mother didn’t ship her houseplants.
Just before Christmas we found a bedraggled spruce somewhere close by, chopped it down, and brought it home. Alaskan trees are not at all pretty creatures. They are spindly, gawky, and rough, not particularly tall and glamorous. You would never see one in the front window of Macy’s in San Francisco, decorated from tip to toe with bows, and ribbons, and sparkly glass baubles, dainty little ornaments, and twinkly lights, topped off with tons of tinsel. No, Alaskan spruce are wimpy characters by comparison. But they have an odd charm all their own, wielding a sense of survival and strength and endurance that never gives up.
They are the perfect specimens for a Christmas tree. Even today I prefer my imitation, miniature spruce trees to their more prestigious cousins. It is in honor and respect that I decorate them now with ornaments my Mother made or collected from all over the world.
We adorned that first spruce as best we could: a few bobbles, Christmas cards and a minute package of tinsel – real foil – not the plastic stuff they pass off as tinsel today. We didn’t even have the luxury of popcorn strung along brightly colored thread. Thread was precious and not to be wasted in such a frivolous manner. Being new to Anchorage, we had no inkling of where popcorn could be found. Maybe it was stocked at the Piggly Wiggly on the corner of KFQD and Spenard Roads, but Mom didn’t think about it until after her weekly shopping trip.
The spruce was tall, or so it seemed to me, but then anything over three feet loomed above me in those days. A makeshift cross of some sort decorated the wall behind the tree. I cannot see from the old photograph if it was made from yarn or wood, but it served the intended purpose. There was no church service, no candle lighting ceremony that year. The church would not appear in our neighborhood for another month or so and the minister had not yet arrived, still on his way north with his young bride, neither having a clue of the conditions they would find in a primitive Anchorage. And so the simple cross on the wall would do for Mom’s purposes. Dad cared not. He’d had enough of religion in Idaho.
The Christmases of yesterday were defined by the simplest of things. If you didn’t have cash, you didn’t buy. Period. Food, in the Territory of Alaska in those days, was incredibly expensive. Dad’s salary was probably in the neighborhood of $4000 a year, give or take a grand. Mom complained that eggs cost $1.25 a dozen, lettuce $.40 a pound, local milk was $.40 a quart or $.55 per quart shipped by air from Seattle. (This compared to the price of $.86 a gallon in stateside pricing). Sugar cost $.75 for 5 pounds. Feeding a family of four put a big dent in the cookie jar and not much was left over, except for absolute necessities.
And so, we did what families have done for decades when money is tight. We created Christmas in every way we could think of; we improvised. Soon our house was filled with yummy smells as Mom made cookies and taffy and other delectable treats, some of which might just find their way into our Christmas morning stockings. We spent hours making our own Christmas cards and decorations. And at night while Jack and I peacefully slept, Mom stayed up late and knitted us scarves and mittens to keep us warm.
Santa had a limited elf factory and brought sparse gifts in those days. A child was lucky to get a solitary present. In our house, Santa’s limited budget was augmented with stockings full of surprises. In later years Mother knitted elaborate creations that appeared each Holiday season for a few festive weeks before being sentimentally tucked away in a shoe box for another twelve months. Eventually fruit became available in Anchorage, and Mom would stuff each stocking with nuts and tangerines or oranges. And pencils, of course; always pencils to replace the ones we wore down to the nubs in our classrooms or broke when we used them for swords.
We could hardly contain our excitement on Christmas morning, made worse by being forced to endure what seemed like eternity while we were wretchedly imprisoned in our bedroom. A bulky floor furnace claimed the best spot in the living area, waiting patiently and non-complaining to move to the basement (whenever Dad would get around to digging it out). It stood upright like an ugly sentry close to the unfinished bathroom, which contained a washbowl, towels and a chamber pot.
First, before anything exciting could happen, the furnace needed to be revved up, and it took some minutes to diminish the bone-deep chill in the house. But we, Jack and I, were confined to our bedroom, and waited impatiently as our parents accomplished those early morning duties. Finally, we were released, and bundled up in warm PJs, slippers and robes, having used the chamber pot in the as-yet non-functional bathroom, or dashed outside in below zero weather to use the outhouse, we cascaded into the living room, found our stockings and proceeded to tear into them.
Then the best part: Mother served us hot, homemade cinnamon rolls and warm milk and we took turns opening our few packages. I usually got a doll; Jack something in the “guy” category … a BB gun, perhaps, or a sling shot. In later years we would get an article or two of clothing; something Mother made when her sewing machine finally arrived, having spent long, tedious months in a dark and damp warehouse somewhere near the docks in Seattle.
Christmas morning that year would be without the delightful aroma of Sourdough pancakes wafting from the kitchen. That convention came along several years later, after the road to Seward was blasted through the stone cliffs along Turnagain Arm. The Seward Highway opened up the Kenai Peninsula to fishing, hunting, and just the curious, and a few years after we arrived, at Hentons Lodge on the Kenai, Mom was given her first Sourdough starter. Sourdough pancakes became a ritual that our family savored every Saturday morning, and every Christmas thereafter, or other holiday as deemed appropriate, a custom that has carried down in our family for 64 years to the present day with my daughter and myself.
Christmases of old bring memories of Daddy’s “Moose Milk”, his version of a hot toddy. If I was extra sweet and did all my chores, I could usually convince him to make me one of his concoctions, sans the whisky, of course. The combination of hot water with Eagles Brand condensed, sweetened canned milk, sprinkled with nutmeg and cinnamon, and topped off in later, more affluent years, by a dab of whipped cream, was a beverage for the soul. Although, his was undoubtedly far tastier than the tame version he gave me!
Later in the day, Dad would take a few blurry photographs, a tedious process that later involved pans of smelly solutions, and clotheslines with dripping photographs hanging on clothespins. All this in our non-functional bathroom, frequently turned into a make-shift darkroom.
Later that afternoon we shared dinner with the Gus’s across the street, and enjoyed a delectable main course of moose roast and wild low-bush cranberry jam.
Of all my Christmas memories, the simplicity of those early years in Alaska are among my favorites. It’s not the neatly wrapped packages under the tree, but the warmth of hearth and home, of family and friends and community, that remain with me today. Those are the best memories of all.
About Jana Ariane Nelson
Jana Ariane Nelson (nee Janet Griffith) moved to Anchorage in 1948 with her parents, Donald and Denney Griffith, and her twin brother, Jack.
Jana worked in the legal field in Anchorage before moving to Oregon. She retired from Lane Community College in Eugene where she was the Mathematics Division Coordinator.
Her daughter, Naomi Sweetman, is the Alaska DARE Coordinator and her son, John Nelson, is a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch in Anchorage. Jana has 4 grandchildren and one great grandchild in the Anchorage area. Her brother, Jack, runs the Griffith Lab at the University of North Carolina.
For more stories of early Anchorage, visit growingupanchorage.com.