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Food and drink: The ghost of Whistler Christmas past

Into the snow globe with Florence Petersen

If ever there was a keeper of the flame of Whistler past, you would have to lay the glowing ember gently and respectfully at Florence Petersen's feet.

Before there was a road to Whistler, before there was a single ski lift or a single real bar - can you imagine? - Florence and her girlfriends, all teachers, bought a funky cottage on the west side of Alta Lake with no insulation, no electricity and no heat source other than burning wood.

It was 1955. Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock was No. 1 and maybe 10 people lived in the valley, all clustered around Alta Lake Road.

Given Christmas is nothing if not about tradition, Florence is the perfect person to guide us through Christmas past at Whistler.

Not just because she's been here so long, or because she founded the Whistler Museum, which last week opened in its new home. Nor because she acted for years as the sole marriage commissioner around here, marrying off more than a thousand couples. (Imagine what she's seen at so many ceremonies!)

No, Florence is the ideal choice because of her eye for detail, her ear for a good story and the fact that I could ask her for her mom's traditional shortbread recipe - a Scottish treasure worth gold if you're a shortbread lover like me.

So without any undue sentiment or too many satiny flourishes, here are some vignettes Florence remembers that crystallize Christmas past at Whistler.

Shake the snow globe and let's see what we have...

Skating around Alta Lake under a full moon, with the ice so smooth and clear it was like skating on a mirror. Tucking up round a bonfire with a thermos of hot buttered rum and roasted marshmallows. Charades and games for kids big and little. Potluck suppers around a big gaily-decorated tree freshly cut from under the power lines.

What the snow globe doesn't reveal is all the effort and hard work that went into just getting oneself up to Whistler to celebrate.

After spending Dec. 25 with friends and family in Vancouver, all the "summer people" or weekenders, as they later became known, would take the train up so they could have a taste of snow-white winter over the holidays.

Everyone would pop off the train on the lakeshore, loaded down with bundles, boxes, stuffed suitcases or maybe even a huge, overflowing backpack - everything they needed for a post-Christmas retreat. Cypress Lodge (now the hostel) became the centre for holiday activities.

"We loved it up here," recalls Florence.

"Kelly and Dick Fairhurst, who operated the lodge and lived here year-round, would bravely and gallantly let the lodge be used for our gatherings. It was like our community centre. We often couldn't stay in our own cottages because we had no heat, so we would rent one of theirs.

"They had a generator so they had heat and electricity to run the stoves and things, and we would all share and have a great gathering. Even the year when the lodge wasn't finished we used sawhorses with plywood sheets on top for tables and uncut logs and the base of planks for seats."

Florence and Kelly would cook the turkey, and everybody brought something - hors d'oeuvres, vegetables, potatoes, casseroles. Macaroni and cheese was big, especially with the kids. And there was always red Jell-o with fruit in it for dessert, topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

New Year's festivities were usually up at the old school, where there was a gas generator. The gramophone had to be wound up by hand when the gas ran out.

Everyone would dance - even the kids and there was at least a dozen of them running around and generally having a great time. The Fairhursts, the Gows, the Doves and the Burgesses (the latter no relation to Dr. Rob) all joined in the holiday fun.

"We'd do that old English dance and song - you put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, you put your right hand in, put your right hand out... Then you put your whole self in and you shake it all about." By this time Florence is singing as she remembers the tune.

"You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around. That's what it's all about!" And that's what it was all about - good friends, good food and good fun, hokey pokey or no. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Except you may not ever have had to phone around to find enough stoves to cook Christmas dinner on when the power went out like Jenny Busdon once did. And I doubt that you've ever watched a coyote trot off across the white expanse of a frozen lake with your leftover turkey with all the trimmings stuffed in its mouth. What a Christmas that coyote had!

But I'm sure you've all made your own fun in your own way, and now you can add a Whistler Christmas tradition as perfect as a snow globe to your holidays with Auntie Flo's shortbread.

No, Auntie Flo isn't Florence, it's her mom, Florence Strachan, a highland lass through and through, born in Aberdeen, Scotland.

This authentic recipe is hers, passed along to our Florence, who would whip up a batch and take it along to potluck dinners at the old lodge and beyond - always with rum and eggnog, Florence points out.

"Everybody loved it." And you will too.

Have yourselves a merry little Whistler Christmas.




1 cup butter (cold)

1/2 cup sugar

2 cups flour


Rub all ingredients in a large bowl. The magic ingredient for tender, flakey shortbread is all in the rub.

1. Cream the butter

2. Add sugar gradually. Blend well (Don't overwork it or let the butter become oily)

3. Gradually work in the flour by rubbing it in by hand

4. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured board

5. Firm into 2 rounds (circles) about 1/2 inch thick

6. Pinch the edges into a fluted edge like a pie crust's and prick all over with a fork

7. Place on baking sheet and bake at 300 F for 30 minutes

8. When done, shortbread should be golden but not browned at all

9. Cut into wedges while still warm


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who highly recommends stopping by the new Robson Square ice rink in Vancouver to take in the skaters and the million twinkling lights before you leave for Whistler.