By the mid 1800s the
American Christmas tradition included much of the same customs and
festivities as is does today, including tree decorating, gift-giving,
Santa Claus, greeting cards, stockings by the fire, church activities
and family-oriented days of feasting and fun.
those in the
West, far away from the more civilized life of the east, pioneers,
cowboys, explorers, and mountain men, usually celebrated Christmas
with homemade gifts and humble fare.
Christmas for many in the
West was a difficult time. For those on the prairies, they
were often barraged with terrible blizzards and savage December winds. For mountain men, forced away from their mining activities long before
Christmas, in fear of the blinding winter storms and freezing cold,
the holidays were often meager. But, to these strong pioneers,
Christmas would not be forgotten, be it ever so humble.
Determined to bring the spirit of Christmas alive on the American
frontier, soldiers could be heard caroling at their remote outposts,
the smell of venison roasting over an open hearth wafted upon the
winds of the open prairie, and these hardy pioneers looked forward to
the chance to forget their hard everyday lives to focus on the
Ingalls Wilder wrote of the preparations for Christmas on the
Prairie: "Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for
Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and r'n'Injun bread, and
Swedish crackers, and huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and
molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a
big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon.
"That very Christmas, Laura Ingalls was delighted to find a shiny new
tin cup, a peppermint candy, a heart shaped cake, and a brand new
penny in her stocking. For in those days, these four small gifts
in her stocking were a wealth of gifts to the young girl.
perhaps modest, these hardy pioneers made every attempt to decorate
their homes for the holidays with whatever natural materials looked
attractive at the bleakest time of year, such as evergreens,
pinecones, holly, nuts, and berries.
some, there might even be a Christmas tree, gaily decorated with bits of
ribbon, yarn, berries, popcorn or paper strings, and homemade decorations. Some of these home made decorations were often figures or dolls made of
straw or yarn. Cookie dough ornaments and gingerbread men were also
popular. In other places, wood was simply to scarce to "waste” on a tree,
if one could be found at all. Other pioneer homes were simply too
small to make room for a tree.
the very least, almost every home would make the holiday a time of
feasting -- bringing out preserved fruits and vegetables, fresh game if
possible, and for those that could afford it, maybe even beef or a ham. Many women began to bake for the holiday weeks ahead of time, leaving the
plum pudding to age in the pot until Christmas dinner.
Many of the
homemade gifts, including corn husk dolls, sachets, carved wooden toys,
pillows, footstools and embroidered hankies, might have had the family
members working on for months ahead of Christmas. Others knitted
scarves, hats, mitts and socks. If the family had had a good year,
the children might find candies, small gifts, cookies and fruit in their
Christmas Eve would generally find most
families singing carols around the Christmas tree or fireplace. On
Christmas Day, most would attend church, return home for the traditional
Christmas meal, and spend the day visiting with friends and neighbors.
Then, as it is
today, Christmas would also find many a mountain man, explorer, or lone
cowboy, spending a solitary evening without the benefit of festivities.
The more things change; some things inevitably remain the same.
of America, updated June, 2010.
Under the mistletoe in 1898.
A little girl hangs her stocking in
anticipation of Santa's arrival, 1901.