Christmas Eve, 1962. In the high Arctic, the Soviets detonated an approximately 20 megaton "A-bomb," just one of an "intensive barrage" of nuclear explosions that winter at the Novaya Zemlya Test Site.
It was the height of the Cold War. More nuclear tests were conducted in 1962 than in any other year on record, and atmospheric testing, which released deadly fallout, had yet to be banned. Two months previously, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 had pushed the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon.
That Christmas, the Vancouver Province of Dec. 22 bore headlines of the "freedom airlifts" that were bringing back to Miami the first 400 survivors of the Bay of Pigs, a botched, U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba. The paper reported that Cuba's Fidel Castro had agreed to let Pan-American World Airways DC-6 planes airlift more than a thousand former captives, in exchange for "$53 million worth of food and drugs."
The odds for "peace on Earth" looked slim indeed that holiday season. The newspaper editorialized about the "continued jungle war in South Vietnam, conflict between Monarchists and Republicans in the deserts of Yemen, the perennial prospect of trouble in the Congo, [and] the Communist wall in Berlin."
Even outer space was contested territory; in his Christmas message over Vatican Radio, Pope John XXIII appealed for international collaboration in space exploration and research. Earlier that month, Mariner 2 had done a flyby of Venus, recording high surface temperatures. The planet was "thought to have no life."
Despite the world's turmoil, in Vancouver, Christmas of 1962 was peaceful. It was a green Christmas that year, with highs around five degrees Celsius and lows down to -6 C. Europe might be "snowbound" with holiday travelers "tied up in a vast railroad bottleneck," but for Vancouverites heading elsewhere for the holidays via ferry, Greyhound bus and CPR or CNR trains, the only delays were caused by the high volume of passengers.
Some flew off to Honolulu or Mexico for the holidays, but overseas flights had yet to become popular. The business section of the Province reported that most of the 18 airlines offering trans-Atlantic service had lost money in the past year. "Most of them maintained their service only with the help of generous government subsidies."
The unseasonably warm weather meant lousy skiing conditions. Up on Mount Seymour, drizzle had turned the runs to "solid ice."
On Grouse Mountain, at the base of the ski lift, prisoners from Oakalla had erected a 60-foot-high cross to commemorate Christmas. Strapped to a tree, the cross was illuminated by 250 light bulbs.
This was an era of rotary-dial phones, telephone operators who handled the Christmas long distance calls, "party lines" (kids could pick up the phone and listen in on the neighbour's conversations) and six-digit telephone numbers that started with two letters. The phone number for Highlands Realty, which was listing a North Vancouver home for $24,900, was YU 5-4151; locals would recite the YU portion of the phone number as "Yukon."
For many families, a highlight of Christmas Day was listening to the Queen's Christmas message. Although television was making inroads, radio was still going strong. Wosk's advertised an Admiral "super stereophonic high fidelity" cabinet that combined an AM radio and record player with stereo speakers for $198. An even more high-tech item was the transistor tape recorder (featuring reel-to-reel tapes) for $24.88. Long before telephone answering machines were a household staple, kids got a real kick out of recording and listening to their own voices.
Televisions of the day had modest-sized screens and big tube, and were mounted in wood-veneer cabinets. Colour might be a big part of the draw for Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, a popular evening show to park the "kids table" in front of during family dinners, but most TV sets were black and white. Locally, there were only seven channels.
Christmas gift suggestions for men that year included an Omega watch from Millers on Granville for $79.50, or a Ronson varaflame table lighter (cigarette smoking was still popular). Eaton's offered a Truline golf cart for $14, or that old standby, slippers, for $4.95.
For women, Eaton's suggested gifts that ranged from a "luxurious stole of precious mink" for $199, to a more budget-minded rhinestone earrings and necklace set for $2. Another suggestion was a five-piece silver plate tea set (teapot, coffee pot, creamer and sugar on a tray) for $19.95, "a gift she'll love and cherish for many Christmases to come."
Christmas fell on a Tuesday in 1962, and since stores were required to close on Sundays by the federal Lord's Day Act, last-minute Christmas shoppers who worked did the bulk of their shopping on Friday and Saturday nights.
Woodward's remained open until 9 p.m. those evenings. Back then, the department and grocery chain had stores downtown, at Oakridge, in New Westminster, and at Park Royal in North Vancouver, which just that year had added a roof, making it one of the first "covered" shopping centres.
Prices from 1962 sound unbelievably low; house prices on Vancouver's West Side were in the tens of thousands of dollars.
A seven-room "Kerrisdale modern" (looking a lot like the Vancouver specials of a later decade, with its rectangular footprint and low-pitch roof) at 2176 West 46th Avenue required just $4,000 down.
Yet salaries were equally modest. The newspaper's "help wanted, women" ads listed the salary of a bakery sales girl at $35 per week, and that of a hospital admitting clerk at $225 to $245 per month.
Men commanded better wages. A salesman at a financial institution could expect a salary of $350 to $450 per month, while an electrical engineer at BC Hydro made $523 to $665 month.
The "baby boom" that had begun after World War II was still in full swing. The front page of the Province of Dec. 27, 1962 featured a story about the 32 babies born in the city on Christmas Day. The first was Christine Anne Caverley, daughter of Denise and Ronald, who was born at 1:09 a.m. at Vancouver General.
The small town atmosphere that prevailed in 1962 didn't always mean security, however. Two families suffered Christmas Eve break ins. Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Roscoe of 614 East 19th Avenue came home to find that thieves had unlocked their front door with a screwdriver and stolen from under the tree all of the presents they'd hoped to give their seven children, aged one through 10. Thieves also struck the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Parker at 6160 Kitchener Street in Burnaby, but neighbours who learned of the crime stopped by from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. that Christmas Eve, dropping off presents for the couple's two sons.
Homes weren't the only places being robbed that Christmas. At Brentwood Center in Burnaby, "yeggs" (safe crackers) made off with $7,000 after a safe was left unlocked by mistake, while the Rex. B. Pharmacy on Nanaimo Street lost $1,000 in cash from its safe, as well as drugs. In Saanich, on Vancouver Island, bold thieves stole a 300-pound safe, as well as spray cans of artificial snow. The safe, which had held $6,500, was later found empty and abandoned, with "Merry Christmas" written on its side in fake snow.
The Sun of Dec. 22, featured an ad from the Milk Distributors of Vancouver Milk Sales Drivers and Dairy Employees Union Local No. 464, asking that those receiving home milk deliveries find a safe way to express goodwill to their milkmen. "For a safe, happy Christmas season, please don't offer your milkman an alcoholic drink while he's on duty."
After Christmas, the Province reported that police had stopped about 1,600 drivers on Christmas Eve, searching for drunk drivers. No arrests were made, "though one driver let his wife take the wheel, and another parked to rest before continuing." The paper reminded readers that driving while intoxicated was a "jail offense."
Those looking for entertainment over the Christmas holidays could catch a movie at one of the many neighbourhood theatres that dotted the city. The Longest Day, a blockbuster tribute to D-Day, was playing at the Ridge, Mutiny on the Bounty was at the Stanley, and Barabbas, starring Anthony Quinn, was at the Vogue, New West Odeon, Dunbar, West Van Odeon and Fraser theatres. For families, there was Swiss Family Robinson, a Disney flick, at the Varsity and the Circle (at Kingsway and Knight streets), and for adults only ("no admittance to persons under 18"), The Sky Above, The Mud Below, a documentary on the inhabitants of Dutch New Guinea, was at the Studio. An ad for the film promised "actual fertility rites never before photographed" and offered a glimpse into a place where "men of the space age meet the men of the stone age."
Back in 1962, the Vancouver Canucks were with the Western Hockey League, whose northern division also included the Seattle Totems, Spokane Comets, Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Flyers. A Boxing Day game at the Forum before 3,545 fans saw the Canucks lose 6-3, after the Los Angeles Blades scored three goals in the last five minutes of play.
Other items in the Sun and Province newspapers that Christmas season included yet another trial of Teamster president James Hoffa, an ad for a pen pal from a teenage boy in Ghana who enjoyed stamp collecting, news out of Calgary that the Alberta government had given approval to extract oil from the Athabasca oil sands, and the story of British plans to build a squadron of Polaris submarines capable of firing ballistic missiles.
Perhaps the most poignant Christmas tale was the story of two couples from East Germany who had fitted a bus with "homemade [steel plate] armor" and a snow plow to cut through barbed wire, then crashed through three wooden barriers at police checkpoints near Berlin on Christmas Day. Although East German border guards fired at the bus, the only injury to the four adults and four children on board was a cut on the driver's thumb, caused by a splinter of bullet-shattered glass.
In the decades ahead, the "iron curtain" would fall, the nuclear threat would ease, Cuba would become a tourist destination, women would demand and receive equal pay for equal work, and cell phones with more functionality than the room-sized computers of the 1960s would help us convey our holiday greetings.
But one thing seems likely to remain the same as the Christmas of 1962. In an era of increasing global warming, the Christmas of 2012 will probably be green, not white.