Each year, Jacksonville’s Victorian Christmas recalls the town’s earliest holiday celebrations.

Christmas in the county barn

Christmas night had finally come and raindrops turned to snow.

There was no room left in the "county barn," but still they came, squeezing through the door until they could squeeze no more. On the steps, they patiently shivered, listening to a prayer and singing Christmas songs with the choir.

Inside, curtains were drawn over the windows, and the flame of 100 candles on a tree turned the darkness into a hall of flickering light. Glowing fruits hung heavy from the pine, while fragile glass ornaments sparkled in the night.

"The effect was striking," and children in restless anticipation clapped hands and danced on parents' feet.

As the choir sang "O, Christmas Tree," a door opened and a shadow moved into the light. His beard was white and his ruffled red suit a bit too loose, but every child instantly knew who that jolly old man was.

Somehow, in 1871, Kris Kringle had once again found his way to Jacksonville's Courthouse and the town's Christmas festival.

This was the original courthouse — not the brick building we see today. A simple, two-story wood structure built in 1859, it was already too small and beginning to fall apart.

Although newspaper editor Charles Nickell was calling it "dilapidated" and "a disgrace to the county," others preferred to call it "the county barn." It would remain home for the next 11 Christmas festivals.

"A genuine Old Santa Claus advanced," but before he distributed gifts, he spoke to the children, urging them to love their parents and to be good for the coming year.

A committee had been formed a week before the festival, tasked with finding out how many students attended Jacksonville School and how many of those were likely too poor to receive any Christmas presents.

With $257 in donations in hand, the committee carefully bought gifts for the needy children, making sure that each had equal value and was appropriate for the child's age.

Parents who could afford to buy presents for their own children were asked to wrap and carefully tag them, and to deliver them to the courthouse before noon on Christmas Day.

That evening, the children were still in a frenzy as Santa began handing out a few humorous gifts to several prominent residents — "more appropriate than useful."

Then he began to call the children's names.

"We watched the distribution of gifts closely," said William Turner, editor of the Oregon Sentinel newspaper, "and observed that the poor children, generally, went away laden with substantial presents — clothing, etc."

Then, hundreds of dollars worth of gifts bought by parents and friends were given out to the more fortunate children, and yet some youngsters still received nothing at all. Turner blamed their parents.

"These were the children of rich or well-to-do parents," he said. "Did anyone suppose that the committee would collect money for the poor and then distribute it among the rich?"

Back out into the snow they went.

"Christmas has come," said Turner. "We have it from the best of authority that the citizens, old and young, have had a general good time. Hoping that all may be made doubly happy, we wish you all a Merry Christmas."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

Share This Story