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Doug Capra © 1998

This story is from, Something to be Remembered: Stories from Seward History.

 

Christmas 1920:

Waiting for Santa

During that week before Christmas day 1920, downtown Seward sparkled and glowed with decorations. Each of the column supports in front of Brown and Hawkin's general store was decorated to look like a Christmas tree. Another tree, in the window of Ellsworth's store, helped brighten the night with its glitter. Borgen's shop was also lavishly decorated, and inside Smithy's Bakery, a gigantic Christmas cake claimed center stage, while pounds and pounds of fruit cake filled the drawers behind the counter.

Still - something was missing. A sense of winter, perhaps.

The fall weather had been mild and rainy - too mild and too rainy. On December 16th the Seward Gateway had commented: "Some thaw. Whew. Talk about your banana belt weather! Southern Mexico has nothing on Seward today." But lack of snow and cold wasn't the main problem. Something else was lacking.

It sure wasn't the Christmas spirit. In early December a committee started collecting donations for the Community Christmas Tree. It was a Seward tradition, as it graced - as a center piece - the children's party at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall {now Dreamland Bowl at Fifth and Railroad Ave.}. The Seward schools prepared a program filled with songs, recitations and skits for that Christmas Eve celebration. A visit from Santa Claus, who distributed nuts, candies and presents, highlighted the event.

All around town people dropped coins and stuffed paper money into collection boxes at the Northern Saloon, Sylvia's ice cream shop, Seward Drug Store, and the Seward Gateway office. The amount soon reached $300, enough to cover expenses.

So it wasn't lack of Christmas spirit that bothered people that last week before Christmas Day. There was more than enough of that. Indeed, some foresighted citizens had already started organizing the New Year's Fireman's Masquerade Ball. What bothered Seward was the anticipation mixed with a bit of fear. Anticipation for the arrival of the S.S. Victoria, Seaward's "Santa Claus Ship" for 1920.

While children "Outside," in the "lower forty - eight" states, had visions of Santa arriving in a sleigh, children in many of Alaska's coastal towns expected Saint Nick to arrive each year via steamer.

"After all, didn't everything come on big boats?" recalls long - time Seward resident Karen Swartz. " Wonderful packages from the mail-order houses; food, fuel oil, even friends returning from visits to the States. Many of our fathers worked on the docks, unloading these things. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for Santa to come over the water from Seattle instead of by reindeer from the North!"

Unfortunately, many kinds of catastrophic events caused steamer delays. Perhaps this Christmas, people feared, the S.S. Victoria would not arrive in time.

Earlier, on December 14, a tragedy on that ship had shocked the town. Four men had been killed and several injured in a coal bunker explosion. One of those killed had been blown through a porthole onto the pier slip. S.S. Victoria had arrived in Seward the night before from British Columbia and was scheduled to leave within a few days. Now there was concern that perhaps the damage would cause delay.

On December 22, the Seward Gateway commented: "We have received 126 telephone calls asking whether S.S. Victoria would arrive in Seward today. We have been asked 133 times on the Main and other streets if we had received any news about the Victoria's arrival today. We expect the steamer to tie up at the dock sometime today. Most everybody in Seward is expecting a letter or package from the outside."

But S.S. Victoria didn't arrive that day and people began to worry. On December 23, the Gateway tried to reassure its readers: "The biggest present that Santa Claus will deliver to the Alaskans this Christmas will be the S.S. Victoria. Everybody is awaiting the arrival of this boat with keen expectancy. Alaska's Christmas boat. She was expected to arrive here yesterday, also last night. She didn't and now we are looking for her sometime today. She'll come when she does and most everybody in Seward will be busy. Every merchant in Seward has freight and express on the boat. All this freight and express contains Christmas goods. And mail. Sacks and sacks of it fill the hold of the ship. She'll get here sooner or later. Just be patient."

The towns patience paid off, for Victoria arrived the evening of December 23, and the next day - Christmas Eve - Postmaster William E. Root and his assistants worked overtime sorting and distributing the mail. Hundreds of sacks filled several trucks, but it was all in the right hands by evening.

Karen Swartz describes a typical arrival of a Santa Claus ship from a child's point of view after weeks of waiting: "Then, one morning, we saw that the Santa Claus boat had docked during the night! Dozens of busy mothers in Seward had their hands full settling dozens of excited children down to breakfast. I recall trying to eat some oatmeal while butterflies danced wildly in my stomach."

After breakfast, the children dressed in their best and rushed down to the dock, their "breath making excited exclamation puffs in the crisp air." Sometimes the ship's masts were decorated like Christmas trees. The children climbed up the gang plank and entered the lounge where they lined up and waited their turn to sit on Santa's lap. " while we waited, " Swartz recalls, "my dazzled eyes wandered over the red plush an gilt splendor of the huge salon. And the Christmas tree! So beautiful with all the brightly colored ornaments glittering with the lights." Santa gave each child some trinket - candy, a popcorn ball, a small doll or toy - and perhaps a red net stocking full of nuts and fresh oranges and apples. Sometimes the ship's orchestra played holiday music.

Events probably weren't much different when Victoria finally arrived in town. "Guess we never really outgrow the Santa Claus belief," the Seward Gateway concluded that Christmas of 1920. "Way down deep in our hearts it still exists, even if we sometimes openly scoff at the idea. Christmas will always be the most wonderful day of the year."

 

{Fox Island} {Harding}

 

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