PAT NEAL: Christmas of yesteryear

IT WAS DAYLIGHT in the swamp on the shortest day of the year. Christmas was coming and I wanted to get a goose for Christmas dinner.

Failing that, I was hoping for a duck — the prime ingredient for stuffed duck on a board, where the duck is stuffed with an oyster-cornbread dressing and baked on an alder board until medium rare. The board, that is. Then you set the duck aside and eat the board.

Things could be worse. We know this from the ghosts of Christmas past, when hard times were the norm. Christmas was an idea instead of a budget shortfall.

The first documented Christmas in the Pacific Northwest was celebrated in 1805 by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who began the day with “a volley, a shout and a song.”

Gifts were exchanged.

Sacagawea, or Bird Woman, gave Captain Clark two dozen white weasel tails. Clark divided the remaining tobacco among the men, giving handkerchiefs to those who didn’t smoke. Christmas dinner was spoiled elk meat, dried fish and roots washed down with water.

This was a sumptuous repast compared to the next Christmas celebration in 1809 on the upper Hoh River by the surviving crew of the S.V. Nikolai who had wrecked near La Push and made their way south hoping to be rescued by a ship.

Being Russian, it would have been a Russian Orthodox Christmas, but it was Christmas all the same. Since all they had to eat was dried salmon and salmon eggs packed inside of seal skin bags, we can assume that was Christmas dinner.

In 1854, James Swan recorded a festive Christmas dinner at Shoalwater, now Willapa Bay, where a pair of crows was substituted for the traditional turkey, ham or goose.

The crows were included in a “sea-pie” complete with dumplings, salt pork, potatoes and onions. Swan later said he could eat crow but, “hang me if I hanker after it.”

In 1889, members of the Press Expedition, a newspaper-sponsored expedition attempting to cross the Olympics in one of the hardest winters ever recorded, didn’t eat crow for Christmas, but their dinner was not much more festive.

After a day spent skidding green lumber for their ill-fated boat, Gertie, through the snow all day, the men were entertained with a reading by Doctor Runnels of high and ancient English, followed by a dinner of bacon and beans.

It was a meal which James Christie described as a “feast compared to the food in a majority of the restaurants they had visited of late.”

Christmas dinner was more substantial in 1892, for the surveyors of the proposed Pacific Trail.

A precursor of Highway 101, the Pacific Trail was constructed entirely of split cedar boards. It eventually ran from Forks to the Queets River, crossing rivers, swamps and jungles.

Christmas Day found the surveyors out of grub, deep in an unknown country.

One of the surveyors, Chris Morgenroth, shot a bear which was served for Christmas dinner.

The best pioneer Christmas was related by Elizabeth Huelsdonk Fletcher in her book about her father, John Huelsdonk, who was known as the Iron Man of the Hoh for his ability to pack incredibly heavy loads of supplies the family needed to survive winters in the upper Hoh Valley.

She mentions all three children taking a bath, dressing in their best calico and getting real dolls with hair and lacy dresses.

I wanted a goose for Christmas but all I got was a teal.

Now I could make my famous stuffed duck on a board.

Christmas dinner was saved for another year.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected].

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