Christmas in Shaktoolik (circa 1950s)
There are Christmas memories that are unforgettable and all of them are from my little village of Shaktoolik, Alaska, just north of Unalakleet a little ways, and about 100 miles south of Nome. There were only 130 people there in the 1950s, and we all lived off the land, the sea, and the rivers. We had a school and a small store that always ran out of stuff in the middle of winter.
But there was always a lot of hard candy during the season. Christmas trees weren’t the staple of decorations because our area was mostly tundra and trees were hard to come by. Red, green, and white paper did the trick though. Wrapping wasn’t the norm, so brown paper bags served to cover Christmas presents.
Our house was a two-story home with a cement block chimney that also heated the upper floor. When the wood stove ran out of fire, it was always time to wake up and see your breath’s vapor in the cold.
Shaktoolik is set between the sea and a river in the back, all flat land with no hills or high ground. Tundra served as our highway across land, and the river and the sea was our travel route to hunting grounds, and summer and fishing camps. If we didn’t travel by boat, we walked.
I don’t remember anyone having an oil stove so we all burned wood for heat and hauled water from the river nearby once we got a hole chopped through the ice. December and January were always the coldest months of the year, where you can hear your feet making a chirping sound in the snow. And when the snow banks covered every house to its roof. Coal oil lamps lit every house, just like the old West.
The Christmas I never have forgotten is when Dad made a tricycle out of wood to give to some child, and as we did every year, gifts were homemade and every kid got something. That year, I could see that trike up near the Christmas tree at church, and my little mind said: I wish I had that. The church wasn’t a big one, just a village affair with about a dozen pews. A wood-burning barrel stove near the front door heated it.
I can’t recall which one of the village kids got the trike and I never saw it again. It had a nice round front wheel, two back wheels, a seat, and a pair of foot pedals. All I know is that it was a beauty. I think about it almost every Christmas.
But I know what us boys would get – homemade shirts made out of flannel cloth, a new pair of Montgomery Wards overalls, and Grandma’s shirts made from Gold Medal Flour sacks, with the emblem blazing on the front. They fit just right. Once in a while, new mukluks would appear.
The village was the only world we knew but the ever-present Christmas catalog was always being opened with every one of us gawking at things we had never before seen, like shiny cowboy toy six-shooters, toy cars, toy trucks, railroad train sets, shoes, boots, and BB guns. Learning how to read English from Dick and Jane books left a lot to the imagination because we had no cars, streets, farms, cows, pigs, and chickens. We couldn’t connect with those images.
Christmas caroling was always a Christmas Eve event on a cold winter night. Village people would gather together and walk from house-to-house singing Christmas songs. On a moonlit midnight hour, a clear sky, stars shining above, that was a scene one never forgot. Because the village was a small one, singing voices carried across the snow banks.
A nice warm church packed with people, kids excited about opening gifts, food to eat, songs to sing, and happy sounds – that was Shaktoolik for me. Merry Christmas everybody.
John Tetpon, Inupiaq, is a longtime Alaska journalist, musician and artist. His email: email@example.com