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History

Christmas in Riverside 150 years ago

Exploring Riverside's past.

Dr. James Greves, with his white beard he must have played a wonderful Santa Clause – Courtesy Local History Archives, Main Library, Riverside

Riverside was a far different city 150 years ago than it is today. The small town was only two years old.  In the two years since John W. North, Dr. James Greves and others had founded Riverside, other families had settled in the new community along the Santa Ana River in the shadow of Mount Rubidoux. As the settlement slowly grew, families came to realize that many of the family ties and connections to which they were accustomed had been left behind in their former homes. As the third Christmas in Riverside approached in late 1872, some of the leading women assembled in the home of Mrs. George W. Garcelon to plan a community Christmas celebration.

Seventy-nine years later, George Rix of the Riverside Independent Enterprise interviewed Mrs. Gertrude Garcelon White, adopted daughter of George and Mary Garcelon, on her memories of that early Riverside event. Although she incorrectly gave the year as 1874, she did provide some interesting insights, many of which were probably passed on to her by her parents. 

According to Gertrude, after her parents received a shipment of cranberries for Thanksgiving from relatives back East, Mary Garcelon asked her husband about celebrating Christmas in a special way in Riverside that year. He told her to get her shawl and they would go over and discuss the idea with John W. North and his wife, Ann. From that visit plans began. Garcelon placed a notice at Lyons & Rosenthal’s Store which read:

WE WOULD LIKE TO HAVE A MEMBER FROM EVERY FAMILY MEET AT 2 P.M. SATURDAY AT OUR HOME TO FORM PLANS FOR A CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION IN THE SCHOOL HOUSE.

– G. W. GARCELON.

On the appointed Saturday a representative of almost every family came together to plan a community Christmas dinner and celebration to be held at the school house near Sixth and Lime Streets. Mrs. North stated she was going to Los Angeles to shop and would purchase Tarleton (a thin, stiffly starched muslin in open plain weave) for making mittens, bags and stockings which would be filled with candy and nuts. The Lyon & Rosenthal store provided the candy, nuts and popcorn. 

Mr. Garcelon and Mr. Cliff went door to door in Riverside and along the canal below the Colony, inviting every family and asking what they might bring. They even ventured out to what is now Arlington and invited the Basque shepherds who were herding large flocks of sheep in the fields of that area.  Two families gave young roasted pigs. Some brought chicken pies and roast chicken. Mrs. John Wilbur, who had ten children, brought ten mince pies. 

A few days before Christmas Mr. Jack Meyers, along with the older North boys, took a wagon up into the San Bernardino Mountains and cut a large beautiful pine tree along with plenty of cedar boughs to decorate the school house. 

An extra stove was brought to the school grounds and set up for making coffee and to cook the potatoes and vegetables. Large long pine boards were laid on saw horses and covered with sheets. Lyon & Rosenthal loaned tin plates and tin cups from their store. 

On the morning of Christmas Day wagons began arriving at the school site. There were wagons, horses, people and children everywhere as they frantically organized for this special community event.  At 11 a.m. Mr. Waite rang a bell to signal the start of the service. Judge Brown had brought his melodeon (a small reed organ similar to an accordion), which his daughter, Saddie, played while he led the singing of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”  Brown explained the reasoning behind the gathering which was followed by a prayer by Mr. Garcelon.  Judge Brown, Mrs. North and Mrs. Twogood sang an old Christmas carol and then everyone joined in the Lord’s Prayer.  The first Riverside Christmas service for the Colony was over.

After a short interval the dinner was served. Some of the Basque shepherds came, leaving some of their members to tend the flocks. They entertained the assembly with the horns that they used to call the sheep and also yodeled for the people. With ringing sleigh bells, Dr. Greves played Santa Claus and distributed the gifts of stockings, mittens and bags filled with the candy, nuts and popcorn, much to the delight of those attending. 

Dr. James Greves, with his white beard he must have played a wonderful Santa Clause – Courtesy Local History Archives, Main Library, Riverside

By 4 p. m. everyone was tired and darkness was approaching. People gathered their chairs and their families and started for home. All exclaimed that this was the best Christmas gathering ever. 

How big was Riverside at that time? James Roe in Notes on Early History of Riverside, California, reports that in September of 1873, just nine months after the first Christmas celebration, the village had about 300 inhabitants.  It is interesting that at the same time he reported that there were 300 acres cultivated, 10,000 shade and ornamental trees and 10,000 fruit trees in orchards and 200,000 more in nurseries.  Riverside was just emerging in its future growth with trees and groves for which the city would become famous.

In 1873 heavy rains prevented a large gathering and in 1874 many of the leading citizens who organized the first event were ill.  But in 1875 another community Christmas gathering was held. On the planning committee were George Garcelon, E. L. Lavis and Mr. Clift. They traveled over to the Old San Bernardino mission and obtained oranges for decorations on the tables. Riverside’s citrus industry was in its infancy and not yet bearing fruit for packing. 

View of Riverside looking southeast from Main and Sixth, about 1875 – Courtesy Local History Archives, Main Library, Riverside

This time the event was held in a large room of the newly constructed blacksmith shop of Petchner and Alder, near Sixth and Main.  The room was crowded as Riverside had grown in the three years since the first community event and now numbered about four hundred residents. 

The young men of the community found a Christmas tree much closer this time, bringing one up from the river bottom. One newer young resident, who had arrived the previous October in 1874 and attended this second community Christmas gathering, was Frank A. Miller – the future owner of the Glenwood Mission Inn. 

This was the last community Christmas gathering as Riverside had outgrown any one facility in which the whole town could gather. Meanwhile churches sprung up and offered their own Christmas services. Imagine today, when the city has grown from about 300 in 1872 to over 300,000 today.  Even one of the largest stadiums of today would not be large enough to hold such a crowd. These days we celebrate Christmas and other holidays of this season our smaller groups with our own customs and practices. We still enjoy gatherings with friends and family, only on a more intimate scale. 

Merry Christmas to all of you!