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Wrestling Day unique to city of Williams Lake

The day’s origin began one morning in the early 1940s
Mackenzie Avenue in the 1930s. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin)

Massimo Calabrese

Special to the Tribune

Ah, Wrestling Day. The one day a year when residents of Williams Lake, past and present, can finally celebrate by saying, “Oh right, it’s Wrestling Day,” before continuing on with their day. City employees get the day off, and some businesses might close, but how exactly does one celebrate our one-of-a-kind holiday? Perhaps by exploring its history we can come to a solution.

One brisk January 2 morning in the late 1930s or early 1940s, two of Williams Lake’s most well-known businessmen, William Sidney “Sid” Western and Alistair “Al” Mackenzie met for coffee at the Lakeview Café alongside a few other businessmen in the town of 600 people. Sid was working as the manager of the T.A. Moore store, owned by his wife Dilly’s brother Tommy. Sid and Dilly also ran the Oliver Theatre, showing movies two nights a week. Al was the manager of his father Roderick’s store, Mackenzie’s, the first one in town. Both men served on the Village Commission and were members of the Masonic Lodge.

It was a quiet morning with few people out and about. Given the circumstances, Western suggested they all close up shop and enjoy the day off. He then joked that “if the day after Christmas is Boxing Day, why don’t we call the day after New Year’s Wrestling Day?” Mackenzie liked the idea, adding that “well, everybody will probably be wrestling with a hangover anyway.” Perhaps that was another reason why the two were so eager to take the day off.

It was an easy sell, especially given that there were only about a dozen merchants in town, all of whom heartily agreed with the proposal. I like to think that Lakeview Hotel owner Jack Chow would have jokingly told the men gathered in his café that he was kicking them out into the cold, as he would therefore be closing for the day.

For the next few years, Wrestling Day was an unspoken tradition happily followed by the town’s residents. Western and Mackenzie once told historian Irene Stangoe that not much was supposed to happen on Wrestling Day, aside from stores closing and people enjoying an extra day off.

Interviewed by the Vancouver Sun in December 1991, Western said that “everyone was in on it,” and that he and Mackenzie “thought it was a hell of a good idea.” When interviewed, Western was recovering from a stroke, and died just four days before the article was released.

“Oh, that crazy day,” Western said at 94. “I must have been half cut.”

The first official record of a January 2 civic holiday in Williams Lake came in December 1942:

“Be it resolved that as it is the wish of all places of business to close on January 2, 1943, We the Board of Commissioners of the Village of Williams Lake, hereby declare Saturday, January 2, 1943, be a Civic Holiday.” Signed, W. Western.

With Sid having served as chair of the Village Commission (the Village equivalent of Mayor) since 1930, it is fitting that he was the one to sign Wrestling Day into municipal law. He remained village chair until 1946, the longest-serving head of Williams Lake’s local government to date. Al Mackenzie would later serve one term as chair from 1952 to 1954, during which he secured land for the old airport located in today’s “airport subdivision” – the residential neighbourhood near present-day TRU and Columneetza.

Between 1943 and 1959, Wrestling Day carried on as a well-loved tradition. A bylaw was eventually signed in 1959, finally declaring it a holiday. Wrestling Day would remain alive and well until 1977, when Mayor Tom Mason cast the tie-breaking vote to abolish it as a civic holiday. Mason remarked that “Wrestling Day was a cute thing, but as time moves along cute things are no longer cute.”

A year later, after major backlash from the community, city council reinstated the holiday. When asked why it had returned, Mason answered, “I don’t know. There’s really no reason why. If people want Wrestling Day, then I say God bless them.”

Throughout the years, no major official community event has ever been held to celebrate Wrestling Day. In 1968, local playwright Gwen Ringwood hosted a walk attended by herself, Clive and Irene Stangoe, Dyne and Olive Kyall, and Cathie Kerley. When the Ringwoods moved to Chimney Lake in 1970, so did the walk, which lasted until 1986, two years after Ringwood’s death. As many as 40 people had shown up each year.

In 2015 and 2016, instructor Sonia Conrod and the Williams Lake Wrestling Club hosted a well-attended “Wrestling Day Fun Day” for kids, with wrestling matches, prizes, and a cake cut by former Mayor Walt Cobb. That may be the closest Williams Lake has ever come to an official community celebration of Wrestling Day.

Looking back at over 80 years of Wrestling Day in Williams Lake, I think it’s safe to say that the spirit of the holiday has remained the same.

If we honour its creators, Sid Western and Alistair Mackenzie, Wrestling Day is meant to be enjoyed by doing whatever we like, as long as it’s not working. Of course, not all of us have that option. Regardless, I think every Williams Laker can admire the uniqueness of having our very own holiday, and can appreciate that January 2 is in fact Wrestling Day, whatever that means to us.

Happy Wrestling Day, Williams Lake!

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Alistair Mackenzie. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin)
William Sidney Western. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin))