American Christmas traditions in the mid to late nineteenth century were very similar to what we enjoy today. Obviously, technology has advanced our gift giving and decorating traditions, but the concepts are the same.
Larger cities and warmer climates made for Christmas seasons full of cheer. Traditions were easier to follow and people were more mobile because the weather wasn’t quite so harsh, even in the northern cities. Goods were more plentiful – for gift giving and for cooking.
Pioneers and those who lived off the land in the Old West, had more difficulty during the winter months. Blizzards and icy cold winds were just part of a regular winter on the plains and in the mountains. Celebrating the Christmas season wasn’t necessarily without joy. Difficult, yes, but not impossible as there were many ways the pioneers found to be festive and happy.
Much of society in the Old West revolved around church and community. Sleigh rides and snowball fights. Decorating a tree and draping the mantle with evergreen boughs. Greeting cards and warm holiday wishes. Stockings hanging on the fireplace and gifts. Feasting with family and friends.
The holiday traditions from the more civilized areas of the country and the pioneer regions of the west were similar, indeed. Though the pioneer way of life with limitations and more hazards was simpler.
Pioneers were strong people. They made it through nearly impossible weather conditions – blizzards, droughts, wind and rain storms. But no matter how difficult life was for them, they found ways to celebrate the happiest time of the year. The Christmas holiday represented hope and love for mankind in those days, just as it does today.
Bringing in an evergreen from the woods was a joyful event for the entire family. They’d gather to decorate with ribbons, yarn, berries, or whatever they had. Carved toys and dolls were often hung on the tree as those were prized possessions of the children and worthy of a special place on the tree. Even a small home would accommodate a tree, though it might look more like an evergreen bouquet rather than the grand trees we normally think of.
Even if the family didn’t do much to decorate their home, the holiday feast was a vital part of the celebration. Preserves and pickles were saved for this special meal. The best meats were brought home to be roasted in the open hearth for the celebration feast. The women started baking early to be sure to have all the pies, cakes, puddings, and cookies ready for the family and visitors they would host. The children were often treated to small hard candies if parents could afford such luxuries. Of course, only the good little boys and girls were given these much wished for treats.
Gift giving was modest according to the standards of the larger cities. Most gifts were home made. Family members would start working on special surprises for parents, children, and siblings months in advance of the season. Knitted items, embroidered delicates, dolls made of corn husks or rags, carved toys, or even furniture were special items that would be cherished and treasured.
And finally, Christmas Eve would arrive. Most families would sing carols together and read the Christmas story in their well-worn Bible. Maybe they’d tell some fairy tales. They may enjoy visits from neighbors who were welcomed to join their family traditions.
On Christmas morning, most of the community would be present for the Christmas service where the children would be absolutely wild with wonder and happiness. Praising God for His most perfect gift, each family would return home to enjoy a traditional holiday meal. A feast that had been prepared with care and love for all who would join around the table on that day.
Yes, the spirit of Christmas was alive and well in the Old West. Simple. Humble. Sincere. Filled with love.
Remember Cutter's Creek, Montana? Christmas in Cutter's Creek was a joyful time. If you want to find out what happened at the annual Christmas festival in 1882, here's the best place to read all about it. Christmas Spirit is available on Amazon.
Annie Boone writes sweet western historical romance with a happy ending guaranteed in every single story. Inspiration comes in many forms and Annie finds more than one way to make her stories entertain and inspire.
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