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Taffy pull, grizzly bear steaks marked Auburn’s first Christmas

Young bachelor 49er miners ‘ate, drank and were merry’
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Much has changed since the first recorded celebration of Christmas in Auburn, 163 years ago.

A day off to eat, drink and be merry in the company of others is one cultural aspect that has stayed the same. Like a majority the modern workforce, Auburn miners of 1849 are also believed to have taken the day off to observe the holiday.

With a spell of fair weather, one group of miners marked the day with a few special treats, according to a journal entry by John Markel, a miner near the North Fork Dry Diggins camp.

“To-day being Christmas, we did not work,” read Markel’s diary excerpt, on display at the Gold Country Museum. “O! Glorious Christmas! Hall, Robbins and I got a quarter of venison and a bottle of old Monongahela (rye whiskey), and retired to the cabin.

“We then made a pot-pie. After it was cooked, we ate, drank, and were merry until evening; we then topped off with taffy-pulling, which was quite amusing when we got our fingers mixed among the sticky molasses.”

Auburn miners seemed to hold Christmas in higher regard, as according to Leonard Davis’ “Dry Diggins on the North Fork,” it was the only holiday that regularly was observed – the others seldom were celebrated.

“It would have been just a very brief, minor respite from the hard work of mining,” said Ralph Gibson, program director for Placer County Museums.

Another group like Markel’s held a small party at a store, where the dinner menu consisted of grizzly bear steaks, according to “Dry Diggins on the North Fork.”

They toasted to “absent dear ones,” with their cups filled to the brim with cider, the book said.

“There wouldn’t have been many women, so you wouldn’t have had a dance, that kind of thing,” Gibson said. “But you would certainly have little touches here and there.”

Families had yet to populate the camp – there were 55 men for every one woman in the Auburn area in 1850, according to “Dry Diggins on the North Fork” – and the average miner was 20 years old, some away from home for the first time, Gibson said.

“You’re talking about very young miners,” he said. “We have this image of a gold miner being a gray-haired guy with a beard, and the simple fact was most these guys were around 20, some younger, some a little older.”

Most would have been Christian, as a majority of them were of European descent, protestant or Catholic, coming from the eastern United States, as well as those from South America like the Chileans, Gibson said. Chinese miners would have been the exception, but they didn’t arrive in larger numbers until 1850, he said.

“A lot of (miners) didn’t mine on Sunday, some did, some didn’t but I would think Christmas they would have taken a break,” Gibson said. “Again, these miners in the cabin, they took the time to have a special treat.”

Not all of them would have been able to afford a special celebration, as small as it may have seemed, because “not everyone was finding enough to really do more than just barely eke out a living,” he said.

The availability of goods also would have been a challenge to any celebration, he added.

There is no account of a Christmas tree in 1849 in Auburn, Gibson said.

“I bet somebody may have had something,” he said. “They may have gone as far as to hang some dried fruit or candies on one of the trees outside their cabin or their tent, but whether that happened, I don’t know.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they decorated a tree that was still standing outside.”

If only they could see the tree decorated in Downtown Auburn’s Central Square.

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews