Christmas 1881 in Astoria



In Evergreen Boughs and Mince Meat Pie, Polly McKean Bell tells a grand story of her family’s 1881 Christmas celebration in Astoria, Oregon. The port city at the mouth of the Columbia River was newly incorporated (1876) with a population of nearly 2,000.  The memoir details decorating Christmas trees at the church and the family home, baking sweets, hand-crafting gifts for and by all members of the family, and dressing in fancy new dresses and button boots to perform at the main social event, a program led by children at the church on Christmas Eve.

The climax of the holiday was the family visit on Christmas day to Aunt Eliza and Uncle H. (Hustler), a sea captain, whose life you can read about in this 1928 interview with his widow at age 94.  The couple and their Chinese cook, Wat Sen, served a Christmas feast of shoal-water bay oysters with lemon and cayenne pepper, roast duck, apple sauce and cranberry sauce, small oval mince pies, oranges, hot-house grapes, and a gift box of litchi nuts and preserved ginger. The celebration culminated with presents of exotic toys and gadgets from faraway places.  The girls received dolls, a miniature lacquer chest of drawers with metal pulls, a tiny lacquer work box with small compartments for a child size thimble and scissors. Her mother and father received a stereoscope with views from cities around the world and a barometer.  Above is Polly’s older brother on his new velocipede – the very first in town.

title page

photo of children

Polly McKean Bell (center) was born in Astoria 1876, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Terry McKean Jr. Her grandfather, Samuel T. McKean Sr., had come to Oregon across the plains in 1848, when Polly’s father was 8 years old.  She became widely known regionally for her writings and keen interest in historical affairs the area.  Her article entitled “A Pioneer Woman’s Reminiscences of Christmas in the Eighties” was published in the Oregon Historical Society Quarterly in 1948.  A decade later, she republished it as a small monograph shown here.  Our copy came to us by way of the Stewart Holbrook papers.  Polly inscribed the copy to Stewart – the two were likely well acquainted, as both were Pacific Northwest history authors in the Portland area.  She died in 1964 in Astoria and is buried at Clatsop Plains Pioneer Cemetery in Clatsop County.  The family papers are held by the Clatsop County Historical Society.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s