Turning the pages of an old family album is always a delight. The black and white photographs, neatly arranged on each page, capture family experiences, changing seasons and the passage of time.
Family albums can be found in the collections of many local archives. While the photographs are unique to each family, seen together they tell a story of our community over the decades.
From the great snowfall of 1916 to tobogganing on local hills and skating on frozen ponds, photographs recall colder winters of the past. Panama Flats and Portage Inlet regularly froze in the winter, attracting skaters from nearby neighbourhoods. At Beacon Hill Park, Goodacre Lake was a favourite spot for ice skating until safety concerns put a stop to it.
For the Girling family at their homestead on the shores of Swan Lake, the snowfall of 1916 provided them with a Canadian winter unlike anything they had experienced in England. Photographer Annie Girling, with her glass-plate field camera, captured scenes of a wintertime wonderland – skiing across the frozen lake, snowshoeing along Ralph Street, and the family’s home buried beneath the snow drifts.
First World War soldiers from Willows Camp in Oak Bay helped to dig the city out in the winter of 1916, shovelling paths to remote farms in Gordon Head and clearing snow from downtown thoroughfares for the streetcars to pass.
At Christmas, local men serving at the Western Front were not forgotten. Women’s organizations were kept busy knitting warm garments and assembling Christmas parcels for soldiers overseas. Saanich First World War veteran Kenneth Walter Foster recalled Christmas in France as “a very merry one too, taking all things into consideration.” He had received a Christmas parcel of a large cake, pound of butter, candy, peanut butter and a pair of socks.
The Christmas Day swim on the Gorge was a popular event in the early 1920s. Swimmers endured the icy water while spectators, bundled up in overcoats and woolen hats, cheered them on from the dock. Well-known Saanich swimmer Tom Wellburn was a regular participant, winning the first race in 1920.
During the Depression, local governments and social welfare societies collected food and distributed hampers to needy families. Christmas parties for the children were held at community halls and churches.
A visit to the Christmas window at Spencer’s Store downtown was a winter ritual for many families and photographs show decorative displays of toy trains, rocking horses and other toys. Others travelled further afield to the famous Christmas displays at Woodward’s Department Store in Vancouver, featuring elaborate holiday scenes and animated figures. Visits to the Woodward’s Santa Claus feature in many family collections, the black and white prints showing children in their best coats and matching hats.
The tradition of exchanging Christmas cards began in the 19th century. Christmas greetings depicting winter landscapes, flowers and portraits are often found in the pages of old photograph albums.
The holidays are a wonderful time to turn the pages of your own family albums and reminisce about Christmas seasons past.
Caroline Duncan is an archivist and local historian in Greater Victoria.