c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
Although the New York Tribune would comment on how charitable American cities were during “Christmastide,” in the late 1800’s, things in the west were obviously far more bleak. Cyrus Townsend Brady remembered having Christmas dinner during the 1880’s with a poor family who had no presents. Afterwards, Brady went to the local church and filled a basket with items from his own sewing kit, plus his penknife and a bit of candy for the two children at the house. Brady’s gifts aside, Christmas charity was largely relegated to the public in the east. One New York department store, Best & Company, placed an ad reminding Christmas shoppers to choose from their “marked-down goods” for gifts for the poor. That differed from the west, where in 1895 the San Francisco Call reported that local schoolchildren were asked to bring one potato and one stick of wood for Christmas baskets for the poor. The sympathetic kids brought not only these items, but also canned goods and clothing in large quantities.
Survey your friends as to whether they open their presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, and you’re likely to get an even mix of answers for each. But in the olden days, Christmas Eve was the time to give and receive gifts. One 1880 account told of a child in Nebraska who wrote of visiting a Christmas tree the night before Christmas, and receiving a red calico dress, and “strings of candy and raisins” for she and her sister. Other festivities included lighting bonfires. In New Mexico, the bonfires were eventually replaced by paper lanterns or sacks holding candles called luminarias, a tradition that is still carried on today.
Many Christmas Eve fires centered around the Yule log which was traditionally large enough to burn through the night to bring luck to the family. As the log warmed the house, loved ones would gather around the fireplace or the Christmas tree to sing carols. And then, as now in certain households, someone might read “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Better known today as “The Night Before Christmas,” the epic Christmas Eve poem was penned back in 1823 by Clement Clark Moore for his own children.
A typical Christmas in the west also included singing around the Christmas tree or fireplace. The tradition extended to various military forts around the country, where soldiers sang carols that, at the time, were relatively new to America. “Silent Night,” for instance, was written as recently as 1818. Even newer were “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” “Joy to the World,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” all published during the 1840’s. More songs would come during the wild west years beginning in the 1860’s, including “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Up on the Housetop,” and “What Child is This?”
Interestingly enough, the tradition of caroling was still rather young during the wild west era. Perhaps many houses were too far away from each other for groups to traipse along to each one. But by 1878, Oliver Ditson & Company of Boston was advertising their “Holiday Music Books” in western newspapers like The Canton Advocate in South Dakota, as well as other western periodicals. At Eureka, Nevada in 1879, the Society of the Methodist Church threw an “English Tea” which included Christmas carols. Indeed, by the mid-1800’s, Christmas carols had become a staple of the holiday all across America. And by the turn of 1900, folks lucky enough to have a phonograph could bring recordings of Christmas carols into their homes.
In the west, pioneers clearly celebrated Christmas in a variety of ways. But the one thing nearly everyone had in common was attending church on Christmas. As early as 1865, a Christmas midnight mass was held by Father Joseph Giorda in the wild boomtown of Virginia City, Montana. Families typically went to church on Christmas morning before going home for their Christmas meal, and visiting with their friends and folks in the neighborhood. Diehard church goers also spent time at church before the holiday, attending a Christmas pageant or some other program.
But churches offered more than religious services at Christmas. They also provided comfort, empathy, sympathy and help for those longing for their old homes or loved ones, and also those less fortunate. At the raucous mining town of Sonora, California in 1871, the Union Democrat announced that the St. James’ Episcopal Church’s Christmas tree could be used for “a means of conveying gifts” to the poor. Flagstaff, Arizona’s Christmas Eve issue of the Coconino Sun in 1898 reported that the Presbyterian Church would consist not only of entertainment but also “the usual treat for the little folks” and “the giving of gifts by the Sunday school and its friends.” In larger cities like Seattle, Washington, the Post-Intelligencer of 1899 devoted an entire page to where one could attend Christmas services and which churches were doing what.
Unlike most Christmas dinners of today, ham or turkey wasn’t the only meat at the Christmas tables in the west; sometimes there was also venison, or even grizzly bear steak! California pioneer Catherine Haun recalled paying $2.50 for grizzly steak for her Christmas dinner. Things were a bit fancier for William Kelly, whose mining camp provided bear meat, venison and bacon, but also apple pies, “fancy breads,” and plum pudding. When it came to Christmas dinner, folks gathered what they had on hand, too. In 1884 Mrs. George Wolffarth joined others in a “watermelon feast” in Texas, while Evelyn Hertslet of California and her party dined on meringues, mince pies, plum pudding, “tipsy cake” and “Victoria sandwiches.”
In preparation for the holidays, just about everyone traditionally stored away preserved fruits and dried vegetables throughout the year to be brought out at Christmas. The ladies of the house sometimes baked for weeks beforehand to have enough on the table, since guests were apt to pop in at any time. One recommended menu from the Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping of 1880 included clam soup, baked fish, turkey, quail and chicken, not to mention scads of fresh and canned vegetables, baked goods and plenty of desserts from peach pies to chocolate drops and ice cream. Woe to those who didn’t plan ahead: one account tells of one family in the wilderness being forced to dine on “boiled mule and snow.”
Those with enough money to eat out were lucky to find a restaurant serving Christmas dinner, let alone a palatable menu. In 1855, California’s Shasta Courier listed the Christmas menu at St. Charles’ restaurant as consisting of mostly homemade goods like mock turtle soup and oysters, a variety of meats including boiled mutton, tongue, stuffed pig and oyster pie, vegetables and simple cobblers and pies. By 1886 in Carson City, Nevada, however, eating out at Christmas was all the rage. The Morning Appeal reported that three different restaurants “will spread extra,” with a menu to make one’s eyes pop out, and each place vying for the best menu in town.
The elite La Veta Hotel in the gold country of Gunnison, Colorado, also had one of the best Christmas menus in the west during the 1889. The menu offered several wines, salads, nine meat dishes ranging from rabbit and trout to duck and antelope, a variety of vegetable and fruit dishes, and a slew of desserts. Simpler fare was served at Cafe Francis in El Paso, Texas in 1898. The El Paso Daily Herald printed the menu which included green turtle consomme, a choice of antelope, calf tongue, fricassee of brain, rock cod, suckling pig or turkey; relishes, a simple salad with mayonnaise dressing, standard vegetables and choice of desserts. Alas, newspapers are scant as to what proprietors of these places charged for the holiday meal.
Then as now, Christmas also was time to make merry with whiskey and other libations. Historians today still talk about Richens “Uncle Dick” Wootton, the trapper, scout, mountain man, toll road proprietor and all-around good guy showed up in young Denver at Christmas in 1858. Wootton brought his famous “Taos Lightening” with him, a specially-made whiskey that was all the rage in New Mexico and Colorado and is still heralded as the earliest brand of whiskey in America. Wootton handed out tin cups, and proceeded to get the whole camp drunk. One observer would remember that “the whole camp got hilarious.” Later during the Civil War, one group of Union solders drank a “full 15 gallons of bad whiskey all by themselves” one Christmas.
Indeed, saloons were big business during the holiday. In 1877, one Big Jim Donigan got into a Christmas scrap in a Prescott, Arizona tavern. And in Ruby Hill, Nevada, according to a Eureka Daily Sentinel issue in 1879, the Christmas party went on for a full three nights with parties, dances and crowds drinking cups of Christmas cheer in the saloons. Then there was James “Silver” Roberts, who threw some insults around in a Cripple Creek tavern on Christmas night in 1901. As he got up to leave, Roberts was whacked on the head with a gun by the barkeep. The unfortunate man fell, hit his head on the woodstove, and and suffered a third head injury as he hit floor. As he lay there dying, other bar patrons urged him to the bar for a drink for an hour before the authorities were called.
After the turn of 1900, musical revues and boxing matches became quite popular as well. The 1909 Grand Valley News in Colorado was just one of many newspapers reporting on a boxing match, between Young McFarlan and Gig Cree, which was scheduled to take place Christmas night. In fact, a Christmas night boxing match in Victor, Colorado sent famed boxer Jack Dempsey on his road to fame.
One thing for sure had changed very little since the days of Christmas past in the west: eggnog. Believed to have originated in a London tavern around 1775, Eggnog made its debut in America during the late 18th century. The recipe, consisting mostly of eggs, sugar and rum, has changed very little. Those who partake can verify that the beverage certainly warms the toes, if not the heart, and the combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and a dash of vanilla make it all the more delightful. So drink up, give a toast to the wild west, and enjoy your holiday season in style.