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The newspapers of Napa County during the Victorian era, 1837-1901, featured special sections devoted entirely to reporting every detail of the local Christmas observances and celebrations. These sections were filled with verbose articles and elaborate hand-drawn original art. The 1877 edition of the Napa County Reporter was no exception to this holiday tradition.

The main article of the Reporter’s 1877 Christmas review enveloped most of its special holiday section. This account was also typical in style and form for its era with grand Victorian flourish and prose. To provide a more accurate reflection of 1877 Napa and its Christmas activities, the majority of the article will be quoted verbatim throughout this two-part Christmas time series.

Just like its article, the headline—or title—also required ample space. It announced, “Christmas...How The Day Was Observed in this City...Christmas Trees, Balls, Theatricals, Etc., Etc., Etc.”

The 1877 Christmas review began with the details of the numerous celebrations hosted by local churches. In fact, the Reporter devoted considerable space to the unique and elaborate holiday extravaganza held at the Methodist Church. According to the Reporter, this very popular and well attended Christmas Eve production began at 8 P.M.

The article continued, “Long before the time for raising the curtain, there was scarcely standing room to be had. The entertainment began with songs by the Sunday School and recitations by a number of the little folks. The scene from fairy land, however, was the main attraction of the evening. And as a spectacle, it was simply gorgeous. It reminded one of some of the well-mounted scenes often witnessed in the presentation of the ‘Naiad Queen’ and other spectacular dramas.”

The Reporter added, “The scene represented a fairy grotto, where the pretty nymphs were disporting themselves and holding high carnival in the refreshing shade of their delightful seclusion. Judiciously ruled by their charming young Queen, Miss Ella Stansbury, who wielded the septre gracefully upon her fairy throne.”

While the fairy grotto play successfully entertained the audience, the anticipation of the next presentation—the “Christmas Ship”—was palpable and clearly evident. The Reporter continued, “After this (the fairy play), the ship came sailing in laden with presents for all the good little children and (even) some for those whose reputation for goodness was questionable. And (some of those gifts were) also for those of maturer years, whose affection found relief in shipping something valuable or pretty to the object of the aforesaid affection. Professor Damon acted as Santa Claus, and did it well. When the ship anchored, Santa Claus stepped on shore and presented the Superintendent of the Sunday School, Mr. Sawyer, with a pumpkin.”

This seemingly ordinary gift contained an unexpected and amusing surprise for all to see. The details continued, “The pumpkin top of which soon fell off and revealed a turkey. The fowl gazed placidly upon the boisterous scene of merriment his debut had caused and seemed perfectly resigned to his impending fate on the morrow.” The newspaper added, “A number of gentlemen acted as stevedores and soon discharged the cargo of the beautiful ship.”

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Sawyer, the Sunday School Superintendent and member of the Sawyer Tanning Company family, had more than a bewildered turkey and boisterous audience to contend with. More than likely he also had his hands full trying to manage all of his excited students. Granted discipline and social conduct of 1877 was far more strict than today, but children and their pre-Christmas hyperactivity has changed very little over the years!

The Reporter review continued with the details of the Baptist Church Christmas Eve program. It said, “The children of the Sunday School and members of the congregation were being regaled with an entertainment similar to that held at the Methodist. Theirs, however, was a tree instead of a ship which looked exceedingly pretty. The audience had an opportunity of admiring it while a number of recitations and songs were being rendered.”

It added, “The exercises were quite entertaining and when they were ended, the tree was divested of its load. Everyone departed happy with their presents. Mr. Rhees, the pastor, was kindly remembered by his congregation, by whom he was presented with a well-filled purse as a Christmas gift.”

It was customary among many faiths to house and support their clergy. As pointed out by the Reporter, parishioners often gave generous gifts, usually money, to their clergy as a token of their appreciation for his spiritual guidance during their high holidays.

Next week Memory Lane will continue, and conclude, this Christmas 1877 retrospective.

Rebecca Yerger is a writer and historian living in Napa. Reach her at