Memories of Christmas in Saanich a century ago

Saanich celebrated the holidays through the hardship of the First World War

Local soldiers from Willows Camp were called out to help clear the roads during the record-breaking snowfall in the winter of 1915/16.

As Saanich residents prepared for Christmas in 1915 their thoughts were with those fighting overseas. The Great War was in its second year and nearly every Saanich family had a son, brother, father, friend or neighbour in service.

Local branches of the Women’s Institute and IODE were busy preparing packages for soldiers at the Front.  Warm socks were always welcome but it was good food from home that the men most looked forward to.  Donations of salted almonds, candy and mittens were sought for the packages as well as plum pudding and Christmas cake cooked in small tins for easy shipment overseas.

The Aitkens family of Gordon Head maintained an active correspondence with many local soldiers throughout the war. In a letter preserved at Saanich Archives, Private G.H. Powell of the 47th Battalion wrote to thank Mrs. Aitkens for her parcel: “I think I never enjoyed anything so much as the shortbread and cake which is a perfect treat, to say nothing of the dates, candies, tobacco, cigs and pipe.”

Saanich families also opened their homes to servicemen stationed in Victoria who might otherwise spend Christmas alone.  Many of the soldiers training at Willows Camp in Oak Bay were granted leave to spend Christmas in good cheer at the downtown hotels.  Those unable to get away enjoyed a festive dinner with turkey and plum pudding at the camp.

Community groups were active in fundraising, sending money to support Belgian, Serbian and Armenian refugees displaced by the conflict.

Donations of cash as well as surgical shirts, pajamas, scarves and caps were sent to Europe by the Women’s Institutes at Lake Hill, Mount Tolmie, Cloverdale and Gordon Head, as well as by the masters and boarders at the University School.  Ready to do their part, Saanich school children helped to knit socks and wrap bandages while Muggins, the Red Cross dog from Gorge Road, canvassed for donations from his little stand downtown.

Local residents were not forgotten. The war brought economic hardship to many Saanich families and this was especially felt at Christmas.  In early December 1915, the municipality had laid off its single male employees of military age, leaving some, like Harry Tolmie, without work but unable to enlist as the army recruiters considered him too old.  Saanich families struggled to maintain their farms with fathers and sons away.

To help those in need, Saanich schoolboys made toys in their woodworking class. Assembled at Tolmie School, the toys were then decorated by the schoolgirls and distributed by benevolent societies. Presents were simpler then. Teachers helped students make aprons from white flour sacks as gifts for their mothers. For those able to purchase items, linen handkerchiefs for 25 cents and wool skating capes for $1 were popular gifts.

As families gathered in homes across Saanich on Christmas Day 1915, they toasted absent family and friends and looked forward to a time of peace.

Caroline Duncan is the archivist at Saanich Archives.  Explore Saanich history online at saanicharchives.ca.