While researching a future Heritage Highlights series, I ran across an article entitled, Christmas-tide in Old Fort Garry, which was published in the December 24, 1904, Manitoba Free Press. What was of particular interest was a tale related by a Mrs. O’Meara (no first name given), who told of her first Christmas in Winnipeg in 1877. In her account, “there was little snow on the ground, and the thermometer registered about 62 degrees above zero.”
Obviously, since it snowed this week in Manitoba, there is little danger of experiencing a Christmas without the white stuff on the ground, as was the case in 1877, which is noted in local history as, “The Year There Wasn’t a White Christmas.”
In fact, Mrs. O’Meara said that after their Christmas dinner at Bishop’s Court, St. John’s, they went out onto the lawn and “played croquet, without coats or gloves. The day was bright and clear, quite like spring.” The Mrs. O’Meara’s recollection was quite accurate, since the croquet game was reported in the Free Press of that year.
What was it like during the year without a white Christmas? Well, one of the most unusual ways of celebrating a “Merry Christmas” occurred on the David Adams farm along the Scratching River. Seven competitors came to the farm on Christmas Day 1877, to take part in a plowing competition.
According to the January 12, 1878, Free Press, the plowing was hampered by unfavourable weather, “there being a misty rain all day.”
The winter of 1877-78 remains the warmest winter on record in the history of the province with an average temperature of -7.2°C. Weather in Manitoba was officially recorded for the first time in 1873, although Hudson’s Bay Company and private recordings had been taken in prior years.
James Stewart, who recorded the official weather in Winnipeg during the winter of 1877-78 using the Fahrenheit and Imperial measurement scales, reported the highest temperature reached in the city in December was 47.4°F (8.5°C) on the 28th and the lowest was -3.2°F (-10.4°C) on the 6th. According to Stewart, the average mean temperature for the month was 25.59°F (-3.56°C), which was 23.41°F (4.77°C) warmer than the average for December for the previous five years. The winter of 1874-75 is noted as being the coldest on record and had an average temperature of only -23°C.
Stewart reported that rain fell four days and snow two days for a total amount of precipitation of 2.21 inches (5.6 centimetres).
“This month (December) has been unusually mild,” said Stewart, “so that the like has not been seen within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. During the greater part of the month the farmers have been busy ploughing and sowing. A hawk was seen on the 11th, and frogs are said to have been seen on the 23rd — in fact, the whole month had more the appearance of spring than of winter.”
Besides someone claiming to have seen a frog, an odd sighting was a mosquito at Point Douglas, according to the Free Press. Another unusual sighting was a large grey goose seen by several people at St. Andrew’s “flying over the Rapids Steam Mill on Monday, December 17, at nine o’clock in the morning,” reported the Free Press. “From the appearance of the bird it is judged that it had come from far south, as the feathers were remarkably clean.”
An employee at the provincial penitentiary in Stony Mountain, shot a mallard duck in the swamp to the northeast of the jail. Stewart McDonald also gathered a “quantity of pansies in full bloom and as fresh as if this were June instead of December.”
With the number of unusual happenings around the province, the Free Press wondered whether Manitobans were living in California or Texas.
At Selkirk, residents took advantage of the relatively balmy weather to hold a tea party on the ice. A large tent was erected under which the ice was covered with straw and buffalo robes. A stove was placed in the tent to “take off the chilliness” of the evening.
In Winnipeg, residents encountered “muddy roads, slippery sidewalks, over-flowing rain barrels, and buffalo coats, discarded for oilskins.”
Across Manitoba, roads were reported to be in deplorable condition due to the warm weather.
“If it is a matter of doubt in his mind whether to believe the almanac or ‘appearances’ as to what period of the year it really is — it will suddenly dawn upon one’s confused brain that this is Christmas, if he should take a turn through the market and see the grand holiday display made by the city butchers,” commented the Free Press on December 29.
It was the first Christmas that the new city market was opened as it had only been completed a few months earlier that spring. The butchers were a major component of the market and, judging by the amount of ink they received in local newspapers, of great importance to the community. While we may today think of retailers decorating storefront windows in anticipation of Christmas, the butchers in 1877 were regarded by local newspapers as the most holiday-spirited of local businesses.
“The butchers have united in decorating their stalls,” reported the Free Press, “and the elaborate ornamentations present a handsome appearance. Flags are shown, streamers of red, white and blue are festooned, the usual mottoes ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ are displayed, while huge joints of meats are decorated with flowers, etc. — the whole having a very fine effect.”
To meet the demand for traditional Christmas poultry, McNee & Co. in stall No. 9 declared “war on turkeys.” The result of the war was that “customers have commenced the siege, and partly captured the stores.”
As 1877 came to an end, Winnipeggers proudly acknowledged the progress made in their community since “those who knew the little frontier settlement, the Fort Garry of a few years ago, (and) would hardly recognize it today ... (December 22, 1877, Free Press. The newspaper reported that aided by the unseasonable weather building was ongoing in December. The buildings were claimed to “be creditable to cities in any of the older and more wealthy countries ...” At the time, Winnipeg had a population estimated at only 6,000 people.
While Christmas Day 1877 witnessed some unusual events and a multitude of celebrations, New Year’s Day was apparently more sedate due to the toll the weather took on roads. “The custom of making complimentary calls was not so generally observed Tuesday as usual on New Year’s Day,” reported the Free Press on January 5, 1878.
The winter of 1877-78 was uniquely balmy due to an extraordinary weather phenomenon. Climatologists researching past El Niños (warming of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America) have ranked the 1877-78 event as one of the strongest in the last 500 years.
But for today’s purists, a white Christmas is vastly superior to one without snow.