By the mid-1800s, the American Christmas tradition included much of the same customs and festivities as it 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.
But, for those in the Old 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 Old West was a difficult time. Those on the prairies 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 holiday.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the preparations for Christmas on the Kansas Prairie: “Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and ‘Injun bread, Swedish crackers, and a 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. In those days, these four small gifts in her stocking were a wealth of gifts to the young girl.
Though 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.
For some, there might even be a Christmas tree, gaily decorated with bits of ribbon, yarn, berries, popcorn or paper strings, and homemade decorations. These homemade 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 too scarce to “waste” on a tree, if one could be found at all. Other pioneer homes were too small to make room for a tree.
At 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 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 stockings.
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.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2021.
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