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Food and drink: The ghost of Whistler Christmas past

Into the snow globe with Florence Petersen

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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.

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