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Sunday, December 24, 1995

Solano Christmas holidays festive in 1800s

Kristin Delaplane

Gifts and trees scarce, but parties weren’t

First of a series
Last-minute shopping was the order of the day back in 1863. The first newspaper ad for the season did not appear until the second week of December. And then there was only one ad for toys in the Solano Republican. The ad read: “Toys! Toys! Just received a beautiful assortment of toys for the holidays.”

In these early days, it was not customary for individual homes to have trees. In part, this may have had to do with the scarcity of trees in the area. There was always a Christmas tree downtown, usually in the church. This was not always a pine tree, but rather whatever tree happened to be available. One year it was a grand olive tree.

Presents were not put under the tree, but were instead placed and hung on the branches. Often these presents were unwrapped so that a favorite doll might gaze lovingly at its new owner. Usually a child only received this one present, so it was very special indeed.

A Christmas Eve celebration in 1863 was at the Brick Church in Fairfield. It was announced that those wanting to have presents there for Santa to pass out were to bring their gifts a few days before. The entertainment prior to gifts being handed out included declamations, speeches, readings, music and song. Much of this entertainment was presented by the children.

On Christmas Day, many people in the county attended the annual grand Christmas Ball in Silveyville at E.S. Silvey’s hotel for which “good music was engaged.”

The year 1864 was hailed with a New Year’s ball. It was the Fireman’s Ball at the Union Hall, and the merriment included music and a fine supper, as the hall was located in the Union Hotel which featured the choicest food the market had to offer.

When the holiday season rolled around the next year, it was announced on Dec. 12 that there was a fresh arrival of goods for the holidays at Mrs. Pearce’s store in Suisun. She respectfully informed her friends and the public generally in her ad that she has just received new and fashionable goods from San Francisco, making her assortment the most complete of any to be found. These included millinery goods, dress trimmings, ladies’ and misses’ furs, infants’ clothing, toys, fancy articles, perfumery, brushes, and soaps. To further entice prospective customers, Mrs. Pearce’s establishment offered embroidery, stamping and pinking done to order.

P.J. Chrisler announced that his business had a number of articles suitable for Christmas and New Year’s presents and that he had just received a shipment of toys of all descriptions from San Francisco, which he offered at the lowest prices. He also sold confectionery and “fancy goods.” All were invited to come to his shop and examine the merchandise.

The Douglas business establishment in Suisun offered millinery goods, cloaks and ladies’ and children’s furs.

As it turned out, that Christmas Eve of 1864 was a muddy night: “The heavens were hung in a heavy drapery of black and there was mud in the roads, mud on the sidewalks, mud everywhere.” Nevertheless, the local populace trooped down to the Brick Church for the annual Christmas festival where an assortment of presents hung from the grand tree. All who came were given oranges, nuts and confectionery.

In an editorial the following week, it was noted that the “scholars delivered declamations, some in good style, others not so good, others far from good . . .” Women from the Glee Club sang and one gentleman “sang a little solo in a very credible manner considering his age.”

The Solano Street Church also had a celebration. Scholars from the Sabbath School sang and it was reported they “acquitted themselves most creditably. The singing by the children showed excellent training and marked improvement.” After the entertainment, each child was given a present.

On Dec. 28 of that year, there was a Christmas Ball, again at the Union Hall in Suisun City. This was a benefit for the new schoolhouse. Admission, which included a concert by the inimitable Gidons, was $1. Supper was an additional 50 cents. Children under 12 were admitted free; their supper was 25 cents. The doors were open at 6, the supper was at 10. Immediately following the meal, the floor was cleared for dancing.

Though the festival was after Christmas Day, gifts were still placed on the tree for children and for friends. In addition there was a grab bag, which was opened at intervals, containing favors for the children.

The New Year, 1865, was rung in with a dance at the Pacific House in Suisun City. When the clock struck midnight, the fire engine bell was rung and rockets were fired.

For Christmas 1870, watches and jewelry were advertised as gift possibilities by Suisun’s watchmaker. He announced that he had just returned from San Francisco with an entire new stock which included jewelry, watches, chains, ear-drops, brooches and rings and was offering all at prices that were cheaper than ever.

George Green of the Pioneer Market offered to forgive his customers the interest on their accounts for a period of three months up to the 25th of December. At that time, everyone was to pay up or be charged interest of 1.5 percent per month.

The people of Denverton extended a countywide invitation to their “Grand Social Housewarming and Ball” held Dec. 12, which was to benefit the Hall Building Fund. Tickets, including supper, were $2.

The following year, 1871, the Grover & Baker Sewing Machine Co. advertised that “a poor seamstress was given one of their machines by a few interested friends and this gift effectively removed the trials and cares that beset her.”

Mince pies were a holiday favorite, and Asa Crocker at “The Office” advertised he had on hand homemade Oregon cider that was ideal for mince pies. Perhaps pumpkin pies were held in less esteem, as pumpkins were offered by the wagon load as the best and cheapest food for hogs or cows.

Rio Vista was advertising its goods for the Christmas season. “Hurrah for Christmas. Our merchants are beginning to lay in their annual supply of Christmas toys.” Judge J.D. Ingersoll displayed a booming stock of toys, albums, horns and other holiday trinkets.

Walnut creams, French candies and fancy sugar toys at San Francisco prices were available at the Rio Vista Bakery, as well as the popular mince pies for Christmas and New Year’s.

The holiday meal was the focus of a turkey shoot in Vacaville. All the crack shots of the neighborhood were there to participate. For an entry fee of $2.50, they aimed their rifles at a target. It was reported that the shooting was very erratic, with few of these “crack shots” able to hit the bull’s eye. Jonnie and Frank Hickins outdid them all, taking home the lion’s share, five turkeys between them.

That year, the season’s festivals were kicked off by the ladies of the Vacaville Mite Society. Posters were printed up announcing the festival at the College Chapel the evening of Dec. 22. Making this a special treat was the provision of a hot supper. Generally, the suppers at these festivals and balls were cold buffets.