- The Magazine
- Current Issue
- Events & Shows
- Web Extras
- Yellow Pages
The holidays are a magical time in the historic small town of Virginia City.
Christmas is special on the Comstock. The crisp mountain air sets the stage for a perfect holiday. Two decades ago, as a student intern pastor at First Presbyterian Church, I had the privilege to experience holiday magic in Virginia City.
I stepped out of St. Mary’s in the Mountains early on Christmas morning. Sometime during the Midnight Mass the raging storm had blown itself out. Clear skies, with winter constellations so bright they seemed to be within my grasp, greeted me. Crisp cold air billowed from my mouth like a chimney. I zipped my coat tight, bid my friends a merry Christmas and headed home, walking up the hill toward the lighted V, high on Mount Davidson. Snow squeaked under my feet. The scent of pinion burning in woodstoves filled the air. C Street was nearly deserted.
Climbing higher toward home, I quickly surveyed the town. Some lights were still on in a few houses and they stood as cheery refuges from the cold. But most were dark. Folks had settled in for a long winter’s nap. I was tired and ready to do the same.
Christmas Eve was busy. I’d awoken to a zephyr blowing in from the Sierras, bringing the first major snowfall of the season. By midday, there was enough snow to ski. A few friends and I skied the railroad grade to Gold Hill. I came back early to prepare for the evening’s candlelight worship at church. We’d planned a service of lessons and carols and had recruited a number of readers for the Scripture passage. But the snow kept coming, and soon the calls poured in from those who lived in the valley and were unable to make it into town. Hearing that the road to Carson City had been closed, I began to worry.
I headed to church early that evening and was relieved to find Howard practicing on the organ. “At least we’ll have carols,” I thought. Howard was scheduled to play for our service and St. Mary’s later in the evening. As I grumbled about the snow and people not making it in for the service, Howard assured me we’d get through it.
Everything fell into place. We recruited new readers as people gathered. Despite the weather, the church was packed. We huddled close as the storm blew hard enough to cause the candles on the communion table to flicker. After the benediction, a group of us gathered at the Mark Twain Saloon for a drink and headed down to St. Mary’s. Despite the storm and uncertainties of the day, it was a delightful evening.
Christmas has always been special on the Comstock. It was only a few years before the discovery of the Lode that Protestant churches in America started celebrating the holiday. It’s hard to fathom today, but most American Protestants in the early 19th century shunned the holiday, and the Puritans of New England even outlawed the celebration.
But in the midcentury, with an increase of Lutheran immigrants, churches began to rethink the holiday. From the early years of the Comstock, Protestant and Catholic churches held special Christmas programs. By the late 1860s, Christmas trees were appearing and were used to draw children to the services. An 1869 report from the Presbyterian church noted that the children enjoyed an “impartial and liberal distribution of gifts” as the adults enjoyed “the smiling faces of the young people.”
Santa also began to appear. In 1871, Santa made a visit to the Presbyterian church in Carson City. Mr. Moody, the principal of the public schools, played the part and told the children the Nativity story. In 1876, a Santa who “looked like the twin brother of Wesley Baker” showed up at the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Christmas celebrations often included concerts. A few weeks before Christmas 1888, a concert to raise money for Christmas gifts featured “the best talent in Virginia City, Carson City, and Sacramento,” and included piano, harp, guitar, violin, and cornets with solos, trios, and quartets singing.
In the 19th century, the mines and mills closed on Christmas. Early in the Comstock’s history, with a large number of single men, many spent the day drinking and fighting. However, over time, the Comstock became more settled. By 1883, the community had matured enough that an editorial in the Territorial Enterprise boasted that the day had passed peacefully. “The police had nothing to do, and Sheriff Brown did not even get a lodger.”
Christmas was a time for generosity. In the 1880s, as the mines on the Comstock began to wane and unemployment rose, churches and saloons gave out lunches so no one would go hungry. As late as 1890, John Mackay sent a $500 check to his superintendent on the Comstock, with the instruction that he call together all clergy, Protestant and Catholic, to make the distributions without discrimination to those in need.
Christmas is still special on the Comstock. It’s the perfect season to visit. Although tourists from the warmer months have thinned out, many businesses remain open. Without the crowds, it is easier to shop for gifts. It’s also an ideal place to get away from the hectic pace of the season. You can walk down the boardwalk, breathe the crisp mountain air, and enjoy lunch or a drink in one of the saloons—just like the old days.