The first Okanagan Christmas was likely very dreary.
The holiday likely started in Kelowna with Father Charles Pandosy, when he arrived with his group of about 10 people in the winter of 1859.
Pandosy was a Catholic priest from France, credited with establishing the first non-native permanent settlement in the Okanagan, where Kelowna’s Mission is now located.
Pandosy, Father Pierre Richard and Brother Surel were tasked with opening a mission in the Okanagan Valley on behalf of their order, according to the Father Pandosy website. The aim was to spread the Catholic religion to local First Nations.
However, after arriving in the Valley in October, or November, they spent their first winter and Christmas at the south end of Ellison Lake (also known as Duck Lake).
“At that time there was no Kelowna, no Vernon, no Penticton. They had what they were able to bring in on horseback and it was a long cold winter,” said local historian Bob Hayes.
In a crude shelter, they must have been cold and lonely, he said. Some of their horses were slaughtered to allow the group to survive.
The Christmas celebration would have been a simple one, focusing on the religious celebration, rather than the gifts and decorations Okanagan residents are accustomed to seeing today.
Because of the group’s lack of resources, the celebration would have been minimal. Pandosy was also arthritic. They likely survived with the help of a few mysterious individuals, he said.
Letters sent by Pandosy explain the group was dying. In their humble, rustic shelter, the group endured.
The Okanagan’s first chapel was built the following year, where the first service was held.
Families lived upstairs in the small, cramped quarters.
“If you squeeze people in, you might get a dozen in there. It’s a very tiny log building,” said Hayes.
A trading post was not established until 1861, so there was no place to purchase gifts. Anything given would have had to be handmade, said Hayes.
Not like today when you go rushing out to the mall to buy things, he said.
Christmas trees were also not introduced into much later in the Okanagan. The Christmas tree originated from Germany and was a pagan ritual.
An alternate story to Pandosy’s suggests evidence of Spanish settlers long before Pandosy’s mission in the Okanagan. Remains of a log building were discovered in 1861 near Sexsmith and Hwy 97 and a Spanish firearm was later discovered in the bank of Mill Creek.
Hayes said the Spaniards would have been in the area in the 1700s, and they may have observed the holiday in the Okanagan.
“But we know nothing about them, other than obviously there was someone here,” he said.
Author Edmond Rivere wrote a book on Pandosy and settlers in the Okanagan, but said in Pandosy’s letters there was never any mention of Christmas or other traditional Catholic holidays.
Rivere’s theory is that the settlers were too busy focusing on survival, and Pandosy was a bit of a rebel when it came to performing certain rituals.
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