President Joe Biden counseled Americans Tuesday that it’s safe to proceed with Christmas holiday plans so long as one is vaccinated for COVID-19, including a booster shot. This will ease travel anxiety for many, though caution will still cause many others to curtail journeys they might otherwise have taken. Some will travel, vaccinated or not. But for those who are separated from family and the traditions they associate with an earlier time, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will bring a wistful remembrance — not sadness, necessarily, but a longing for what isn’t.
Imagine, then, what it was like for those intrepid pioneers who made Anchorage their home before modern times, before World War II, when the town was an embryo of what it has become. Back then, Anchorage was a mere village, populated by fewer than 3,000 souls, with Spenard a spare hamlet and Mountain View a long way out of town. Unless one left for Seward and a southbound ship by Thanksgiving, there was no Christmas travel. People shared a sense of togetherness that came from the realization that they were a small community united by a cultural tradition, to the upholding of which they dedicated their efforts.
If pining for an “old fashioned Christmas” united Anchorage residents, imagine the feelings of the several hundred students at the Eklutna Indian School, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The school had been established in 1924 to provide home and education for Native children orphaned in the 1918-19 influenza epidemic. In the 1930s, children from across the territory lived there. For many, the holiday exacerbated the sense of isolation and even abandonment they experienced. For all but a handful, any travel for the holiday was out of the question.
In town, there was a determined effort to make the holiday joyous and memorable, especially for children. Lights were strung, carolers sang, there were evening concerts by the choral society, all the trappings of Christmases past. The evening paper, Robert Atwood’s Anchorage Times, informed readers that a children’s film would be presented at the Cap Lathrop’s Empress Theater on successive evenings before the 25th where parents could feel confident leaving their kids while doing their Christmas shopping. Santa held forth at Loussac’s drug store and professional photographer Robert Bragaw, among others, took the pictures of squirming kids on the chubby guy’s lap.
The Great Depression gripped Alaska in the ‘30s as much as any other part of the country. Territorial Delegate Anthony Dimond worked assiduously in Congress to bring the wide variety of federal programs to the territory; without them, many people would likely have had to leave Alaska. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Civil Works Administration, the Social Security Administration with its unemployment compensation division, the Civilian Conservation Corps and a host of other federal programs provided needed employment and benefits. Not least among them was the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation which brought 202 families, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to the Matanuska Valley to develop Alaska’s agricultural potential.
Throughout the Great Depression in Alaska, people often complained about competing federal agency jurisdictions which often made the bureaucracy difficult to navigate. But they did not complain about the federal funds distributed through various jobs which sustained many families. The federal Alaska Railroad with its headquarters here was a mainstay of the economy, providing hundreds of jobs and offering a variety of public services. Many townspeople were treated for temporary and long-term illnesses at the railroad hospital. In the later 1930s, the railroad ran a special train several days before Christmas to bring Valley colonists to town for shopping, and another for volunteers to take presents and sweets to the children at Eklutna.
It’s been common enough since the oil bonanza that began in the 1970s to lament the disappearance of a “frontier spirit” that characterized Anchorage before and during the war, especially as the city now boasts a population of nearly 300,000, more than 100 times what the frail village hosted in the ‘30s. But even with frequent and generally affordable air travel and the ubiquitous internet to put us in instant touch with the world, there’s still a sense of togetherness here born of the 1,500 miles of separation from the rest of the country. It’s palpable on those dark winter nights counting the seconds lost and gained on either side of the winter solstice. It’s symbolized by the remarkable star on Mt. Gordon Lyon, a visible mark of the holiday season, sorely missed when it isn’t there, like family and friends somewhere else.
Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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