Imagine Christmas in White Rock and the Semiahmoo Peninsula in a quieter time, before big box stores, packed parking lots and the endless bombardment of recipe and decor tips on social media.
Imagine Christmas when people marked the holidays with carols and hymns at local churches, rather than strictly secular entertainments – and one of the biggest seasonal thrills for youngsters was not a new video game, but tobogganing down the steep hill of Oxford.
Or simply imagine Christmas before COVID-19 was putting a crimp in celebration plans.
Fortunately for some long-time White Rock and Peninsula residents, Christmas past in the community is not the stuff of imagination but fondly-recalled memories.
Their recollections bring back a time when true Christmas spirit – and a little ingenuity – prevailed to make the season bright.
Barrister and Solicitor J. Lorne Ginther has operated the oldest continuing business – one with an unbroken chain of ownership and management – in White Rock.
It was 1967 when he first hung up his shingle, figuratively speaking, on Marine Drive. There have been a few moves in location since then, he acknowledges, but none since he settled into his current office at Russell Avenue and George Street some 25 years ago. But he first came to White Rock in 1963, with his then-wife Diane and infant son James, when he articled for the practice of Thompson, Wilson, Baker and Steel.
He recalls that it was a case of love at first sight when they laid eyes on the little town after driving out for a first meeting with the partners, particularly after catching their first glimpse of Semiahmoo Bay while travelling south on Johnston Road.
As newcomers to the area, and particularly after Ginther was elected to the Peace Arch Hospital board in 1968, they threw themselves into the life of the community – and that included its Christmas traditions.
The Ginthers became legendary among the White Rock Players – who had initiated their Christmas pantomimes in 1954 – not only for buying a block of some 40 tickets for one night during the run of each show, but also for inviting the cast and crew (“and their friends, and their friends’ friends,” Ginther said) back to their Victoria Avenue home following the performance.
These were the days, he noted that – under the leadership of director and frequent panto dame Franklin Johnson – the White Rock pantomime had become celebrated across Greater Vancouver, even travelling to Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Playhouse for a week’s run during the holiday season.
But it was the club’s hometown performances that held the most appeal for the Ginthers, he recalled, particularly since they’d become friends with club members and neighbours Scott and Carol Kennedy.
“We’d have a pantomime party – we’d invite all our family from Vancouver to our place, we’d have dinner and then we’d all go as a family to the panto,” he said.
“We still do it, by the way – or we did, up until COVID hit.”
The panto parties, with their infusion of actors, singers and dancers, were inevitably the stage of many impromptu performances, he remembered.
“People played the piano and sang until the early morning,” he said.
There was also a line-up for Irish Coffees – and other alcoholic beverages – with Ginther, ironically, the notable abstainer.
“I felt, as the host, that there had to be at least one responsible person around,” he said.
Imbibing was also, he recalled, a factor in the success of another holiday event he started in the 1960s, hiring a horse-drawn wagon and driver to tour the city on Christmas Day, picking up (and dropping off) merry-makers along its leisurely way.
He added that the event ultimately became too boozy to be continued.
“It’s probably fortunate that there were no regulations back then – there was a prohibition for drivers drinking, but no prohibition for passengers drinking,” he said.
“We did that for three years, but it was raining so hard the last year that I hired a bus instead.”
Ginther, who played in the Vancouver Kitsilano Boys Band as a youth and has been keenly involved in choral singing throughout most of his life, also organized carolling groups at Christmas time that sang for residents of the hospital’s Weatherby Pavilion extended care facility.
He was gladdened by the response from residents, for whom the music evoked memories of their own youth.
“There’s something about a joyous atmosphere that makes people smile,” he said.
Players Club member Roger Currie, who came to White Rock as a young child in the late 1940s, and graduated from Semiahmoo Secondary in 1962, also has a few memories of local Christmases in the 1950s.
Although the population was growing rapidly in the post-war era, Christmas was still very quiet compared to the consumerist frenzy of more recent years, he remembered.
“Christmas when I was young was quite different than it is today,” he said.
“We did all our Christmas shopping on Marine Drive. There used to be two hardware stores and the ‘five and dime’ store.”
He also remembers another store called ‘The Rose Jar’ – but for another reason.
“It had nice things in it – in fact, I think I was in love with the daughter of the owners!”
Community volunteer Stan Fryer – now 95 – has clear memories of coming to White Rock as a 10-year-old in 1936.
At that time, he said, people in the seaside village would have to travel a much further distance – usually New Westminster – to do their Christmas shopping.
It was a trip facilitated by the opening of the King George Highway in 1939 (formally opened in 1940) which connected with the Pattullo Bridge across the Fraser opened in 1937.
His father, a First World War veteran, had come to White Rock to manage the local Legion branch he remembered, and the family moved into one of the ‘mill houses’ on what was then Washington Avenue (Marine Drive) across from the Mill buildings (one of which is now Washington Avenue Grill).
Community Christmas decorations were not a common practice in the 1930s, he said, “but every home always placed their Christmas tree in the front window so you could see the lights there.”
In that era, electric tree lights were not common either, he noted. “I remember my mother having candles on our Christmas tree,” he said.
Most of the seasonal decorating was being done by Mother Nature – vintage photos suggest that white Christmases were a much more frequent occurrence at the time, something that Fryer readily bears out.
“There was much more snow in those days,” he said.
People from all over the area would travel to Fry’s Corner at Fraser Highway and 176 Street where flooded fields would freeze, creating a natural skating rink, he remembered.
“Christmas was much more of a religious occasion,” he said, “Much simpler, much more meaningful.”
He added that people would gather for services and events at local churches, which were hubs of the community at that time.
He remembers one year in his teens – around 1942 or 1943 – when he joined a carolling group from the Anglican Church that would sing along the waterfront each Christmas.
More secular entertainment and dancing would be available over Christmas at the hotels on Washington Avenue, he said.
“A lot of people that owned summer cottages in White Rock would come down from Vancouver and Burnaby and New Westminster at Christmas,” he said.
People loved taking walks on the pier, he added, but Christmas season movies were not a feature of the waterfront’s White Rock Theatre in the 1930s – it closed during the winter months, Fryer remembered. When the rival Park Theatre opened near Semiahmoo Park in 1940, movies were scheduled year-round until it closed in 1969.
For Fryer, one of the strongest Christmas memories goes back to when he was 15 or 16 and he and other youths would toboggan and sleigh at high velocity down Oxford Hill.
“We built a ramp that would take us right over to the other side of the (train) tracks,” he recalled.
“People had no idea what we were doing. There weren’t any of the parking lots there and very few houses around. There was nobody to prevent us doing it.
“We never thought anything of it, but we were taking our lives in our hands,” he said.
“But that’s what you do when you’re young.”