c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
Gazing at a classic Currier and Ives Christmas card today, it is easy to fall in love with the scenes depicting old-time wagons full of people bundled up against the cold and dashing through the snows of yesteryear. We love the romance of yuletide days of long ago, when families gathered around warm fireplaces, children marveled at their full stockings hanging from the mantle, and warmly dressed folks merrily brought in the Christmas tree or arms full of presents. But while we may love celebrating our yuletide holidays with the old-fashioned trimmings complimented by scented candles from Walmart that are meant to recall a day long ago, Christmas in the raw, untamed West was quite different from what we imagine it to have been.
It is true that during the 1800s, the holidays were celebrated in style in eastern, more civilized, cities. But the west was still quite young back then. There were no large malls, stores or internet shops to call upon for our Christmas shopping. Planes did not yet exist, and only the lucky could find or afford railroad passage to visit relatives. In the high plains and even higher mountains, cowboys and miners might find themselves stranded in storms with no company. In the barren west where few large towns flourished, cruelly cold conditions in the high country could include blowing snow and blizzards, making it difficult for families to gather, let alone survive, in a bleak and barren land. As for the holiday itself, a good old fashioned Christmas in the west was often meager with simple presents, simple fare, and not a lot to celebrate. There was, however, always hope for prosperity in the new year.
It is interesting to look at how our Christmas celebrations evolved as a country. Surprisingly, historians have found that Christmas in America was not really celebrated until the mid-1840s. One of the earliest references to the holiday was recorded in 1846, when Virginia Reed of the ill-fated Donner Party recalled that her mother selflessly saved “a few dried apples, some beans, a bit of tripe, and a small piece of bacon” for Christmas dinner, telling her children “eat slowly for this one day you can have all you wish.” Catherine Haun, one of thousands of new pioneers who who resided in a tent community on California’s Sacramento River in 1849, remembered keeping Christmas. “I do not remember ever having had happier holiday times,” she wrote. Likewise another pioneer, William Kelly—formerly of Britain—spent the holiday at a different California mining camp, where he was delighted at having seconds of plum pudding.
While settlements along the Sacramento and other places in early California were doing quite well, other areas remained sparse and lacking in any real settlement. The southern Colorado plains were still quite unsettled in 1854, when Fort Pueblo was attacked on Christmas Day by angry Utes after failed negotiations and the accidental spread of smallpox from Governor David Meriwether’s men. In the fray, every man at the fort was killed. The only woman, Chepita Martin, and two children, Felix and Juan Isidro, were taken captive. In time, thankfully, Pueblo and Colorado would eventually evolve with the rest of the west.
As Christmas traditions began catching up with the far away west, pioneers learned to simply make do with what they had to celebrate the holiday. They were inspired by the traditions brought by others from their native countries. The traditional song “Deck the Halls,” for instance, was first translated in America from a sixteenth century Welsh song in 1862. The popularity of the tune inspired people to decorate their homes with “boughs of holly” and other native fauna that included berry branches, evergreens, nuts and pinecones. And the tradition of placing mistletoe where couples could share kisses underneath its leaves is actually an ancient Greek tradition. Especially at the end of the Civil War, people were looking more than ever for cohesion in a difficult time. Celebrating Christmas meant the reintroduction of the comforting, celebratory traditions that immigrants to America brought with them from their home countries.
Christmas traditions became more and more important to pioneers as a sign of hopeful prosperity, warmth, love, and yes, status. Much like certain households today, Victorians in general went largely overboard when decorating. In many instances, not a fireplace mantel, banister, table, sideboard or doorway escaped garlands of evergreens peppered with cheerful red berries and jaunty homemade bows. Traditionally, making sure the decorations were up was the responsibility of the lady of the house; one 1896 magazine decreed that women who failed to go all out on the decorations was “a disgrace to her family.” Outside, the Christmas cheer spread with the introduction of the Yule Log, a Nordic tradition that entailed the men hiding a large, identifiable log in the woods, embarking on the chilly business of finding it with the rest of the family, and burning it (traditionally, a piece of the log was saved to being the following year’s Yule Log hunt).
After Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870, folks in the west began really getting in the spirit of the season. Larger cities were forming, and with them came the kind of civilization many people yearned for. Now, folks could subscribe to St. Nicholas magazine, a highly popular periodical that was the brainchild of Roswell Smith in 1873. And slowly but surely, certain large chain stores like Sears & Roebuck and a smattering of others began publishing catalogs from which settlers in the west could order gifts, if they could afford them. It would be about a decade, according to most historians, before the tradition of bringing in and decorating a Christmas tree came along (on Christmas Eve, not the day after Thanksgiving). One of the reasons the tree made such a late debut was, not every household could spare an extra tree from their meager firewood stack, nor room in which to put it in their small cabins and homes.
Notable is that the Christmas tree decorations we know today were largely absent in the wild west. Rather, most decorations were of the homemade variety, fashioned out of colorful ribbon and yarn. Dried fruit, popcorn, homemade candy, cookies and nuts sufficed to make strings of garland, and it could be consumed after the holiday – waste not, want not. A star for the top might be fashioned from a piece of tin. Only those with money could afford the manufactured glass baubles that are highly collectible today. The most dangerous decoration of all? Christmas tree candles, which could easily light the tree on fire. San Francisco’s Morning Call reported on the death of one “Grandmother Fitzsimmons” in 1891, whose carefully decorated tree became a “sheet of flame” when one of the candles fell. Granny tried to save some of the trinkets, accidentally setting herself on fire.
In the west, a lot of thought went into giving practical, thoughtful and almost always handmade gifts by using what was on hand. Most pioneers were not wealthy by any means, meaning that they spent much of their time working to produce and make their own food, clothing, bedding, furniture, tools and other necessary items to survive. California pioneer Elizabeth Gunn wrote of filling the family stockings (literally stockings that were normally worn) with such practical items as “wafers, pens, toothbrushes, potatoes, and gingerbread, and a little medicine.” Other gifts included cake, candies, nuts, raisins and even “a few pieces of gold and a little money.” Lacking books to give, Gunn and her husband wrote their children letters to put in their stockings as well.
Other homemade gifts could include clothing, dolls made from cornhusks, embroidered handkerchiefs, hand-carved wooden toys, pillows and sachets. Lucky indeed was any family wealthy enough to order an item from a real catalogue, which had to be sent for many months before it was actually delivered. Remember that episode of “Little House on the Prairie” where little Laura Ingalls and her family are secretly shopping for each other for Christmas? And at the forefront is a new stove for her mother?? Yeah, that didn’t happen. In reality, the real Laura Ingalls Wilder’s gifts on one Christmas consisted merely of “a shiny new tin cup, a peppermint candy, a heart-shaped cake, and a brand new penny.”
Another misnomer about Christmas in the west is how families were able to gather each holiday season. That certainly was not always the case. In the case of Army wife Frances Roe, the lady tried her best to be merry with the other military wives around her who “sent pretty little gifts to me.” But Frances admitted she was homesick, and said she was sad that a Christmas box from her home, wherever that was, did not make it to her in time for the holiday. Men fared worse than women like Frances. In the Rocky Mountains during the 1840’s, for instance, the hills were alive with men from all walks of life. Married or single, very few of these hardy gentlemen had their family with them, unless their wives were sturdy Natives who knew how to live in the wilderness.
Mountain men, government explorers and trappers were just some of the men wandering around the west. The lucky managed to make it to a central meeting place for a small Christmas gathering. Natives, some of whom attended as well, called it “The Big Eating.” Writer and adventurer Bret Harte once old of a night of Christmas merriment among some cowboys holed up together in a bunkhouse. Will Ferril of Denver, Colorado, remembered spending the holiday during 1888 with “two or three” miners up in the high country. One cowpuncher was lucky enough to share a box of presents with his coworker. The gifts in that case were from the “camp tender” and included such luxuries as Arctic sleeping bags, candy, fruitcake, tobacco, wool socks, even books. To these men, finding a kindred spirit to spend Christmas with was essential to keeping their spirits up.
Those lucky enough to make it to a town in time for a holiday might find another kind of kindred spirit in the form of a shady lady. Most women of the night tended to celebrate Christmas day, and night, with men who needed their company. And many madams, including Lil Douglas of Bisbee, Arizona, Madam Millie of Silver City, New Mexico, and Rachel Urban of Park City, Utah (just to name a few) were fondly remembered for their annual Christmas parties for their gentlemen friends. Shortly before her death in 1909, Colorado madam Blanche Burton purchased a ton of coal for needy families at Christmas.
Stay tuned for A Christmas Past: The Wild West, Part II