Last updated on December 28, 2019
Rain and Portland go together like direct trade coffee and artisanal donuts. You just cannot have one without the other. Many transplants move to Portland, expecting a mild climate, only to find the rain starts at the end of September and lasts until about the 4th of July. That’s a lot of rain. Those who stay in Portland, be it transplants or natives, learn to deal with the insane amount of wetness that comes from the sky. So if the rain becomes a problem to those used to Portland rain, it must be a lot of rain! That abnormal amount happened in 1882, and the rain almost ruined Christmas!
December, 1882, was the rainiest month in Downtown Portland’s recorded history, bringing over 20 inches of rain! By comparison, the wettest December in recent years, 2015, had about 13 inches. The roads in the Pearl District became rivers, in 2015, so one can only imagine what might have happened with an additional foot of rain! Especially considering 1882 was lacking in the technology we had in 2015.
For weeks, schools and businesses closed due to flooding, and people huddled in their houses, hoping for the floods to recede. The most affluent in the city, those who lived downtown, got hit the worst. Why, the Jakobs brothers, with their twin mansions on Montgomery and Park, could not even get out of their house for two weeks! Part of the hazard of living Downtown, with its elevation of only 7 feet above sea level, at the lowest elevation in the city, means flooding will happen!
Still, while the financially affluent suffered, the lower classes had it much worse. Sure, their homes didn’t get flooded, but so many were injured, even killed, just trying to get to work. Servants of the wealthy had a choice: take a rowboat to work, or, if they’re lucky, maybe stay in a spare room of their employer’s mansion. All this happened with the Holiday just around the corner. All this destruction, all this hell, Would Christmas even happen? Would families gather together over a great feast, or would they feast on the little provisions they could muster up?
Come the 20th, the rains had finally stopped, but the floods….they continued and did not see any sign of receding. People were depressed. Christmas was certainly ruined. There was talk about “postponing” Christmas for a month – celebrating the holiday on the 25th of January, 1883 would have two Christmases….but at least Christmas would come. Most people, however, hated the idea of celebrating Christmas in January. It just wouldn’t be Christmas a month later. It just wouldn’t be the same. So Christmas would not be postponed, come as it may.
Finally, at about 2 AM on the 23rd, the waters started to recede. By noon, most of the stranded people could safely traverse the city streets. The servants who holed up at their employers could go home, and those who took rowboats to work could travel by normal means. Oh, but there was so much to do in so little time. There were gifts and food to be bought – with what little money they had at least. So many people who could not get to work lost wages. Then there’s the matter of repairs. The floods and rains had caused a lot of damage to property. What little time and money was available would probably be spent repairing their homes. Christmas was certainly ruined, so thought the majority of people.
Still, some traditions could be kept. Christmas Eve services were packed throughout all the city. The preachers, the parsons, the priests, the ministers, the vicars, and the pastors all knew their job. They knew the people were sad and downtrotended. The people were worried about their finances, and even their homes.
The sermons preached revolved around giving, about charity of course. Mostly, though, the sermons talked about how Christmas is not about gifts, not about turkeys or feasts, not about material wants, or even needs. Sure, Christmas was about the birth of Christ, but Christmas was also about being together. Christmas was about helping those around you.
The people, both rich and poor, left their churches, temples, and cathedrals with a new perspective. The next morning, Christmas happened despite what families had, or rather had not. Neighbors pooled their resources, and even the wealthy gave to those who needed help. Houses were fixed, holes were repaired, and walls were mended. Why, even those who received no help from anyone realized Christmas needed to happen with what little they had. They celebrated over crackers, over bread, and over normal, everyday provisions. Sure, Santa and his Sleigh may not have brought their children gifts….but the people knew it didn’t matter. Even the kids knew this did not matter. The families, the neighbors, and most everyone in the city, had eachother. That’s all that really mattered.
Next time Christmas seems ruined, be it by weather, financial hardship, or any other circumstances, just think about Christmas in 1882. The flooding and the rain almost ruined Christmas, but some wise and sage advice made Christmas 1882 just as special as any other Christmas.