The holidays are fast approaching and many of us have already begun to make plans, buying gifts, making things, stocking up on flour and almond bark. Sometimes we get stressed out with all there is to do, what with addressing cards and baking cookies for school programs and stopping by all those open houses our friends are having. This year we’d all do well to take a few minutes and remember just how convenient our lives are in comparison to those of our ancestors. When you think about it, preparing for a holiday is often as simple as making an online purchase or stopping by the grocery store. But what did our great-great grandmothers do to get ready?
In the mid 1800s the festivities were much the same as they are today, with traditions from other countries having been adopted. Our pioneer fathers and mothers decorated trees, gave gifts, baked cookies, puddings and pies, hung stockings by the fire and attended church celebrations. On the frontier, away from stores and conveniences, soldiers, cowboys, mountain men and pioneers faced extreme difficulties while bringing Christmas to the plains and the mountains. They often weathered blizzards and many winters game was difficult to find. Fruits and vegetables dried or canned from the fall harvest were rationed sparingly.
The fortunate were able to bring heirlooms and ornaments west with them, but many more had to be resourceful and use whatever nature provided: evergreen boughs, pinecones, holly, nuts, popcorn and berries. Christmas trees were most often decorated with ribbon, yarn, cookie dough ornaments, gingerbread men, paper cutouts and popcorn strings.
These men and women didn’t make a run to Walmart for extra lights or unpack plastic totes from their basement storage. They braved the elements, often spending late night hours sewing and knitting to make meager gifts.
Family members had to work for months in order to create handmade items. Cornhusk dolls were popular. The beauty and durability of cloth dolls depended on the talent of the parents who made them. Some had attractive embroidered faces, while others had painted features. Wool or human hair was added, and the clothing was similar to that of the child.
A doll that was popular with boys as well as girls was the dancing doll, sometimes called Dancing Dan or Limber Jack. Its wooden body was jointed at the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and elbows, and had a hole in the back into which a stick was inserted to make the doll dance. It took skill to make the doll move in time with music or a song. This was a form of entertainment before the days of television. How long do you think something like that would entertain one of our kids today who are used to video games and computers?
Among other gifts were sachets, carved wooden toys, such as spinning tops, trains and horses. Pillows, footstools and embroidered handkerchiefs all took work. Knitted scarves, hats and socks were practical. Sometimes children received cookies and fruit. Remember how delighted Laura Ingalls was to find a tin cup, a peppermint candy and a shiny penny in her stocking on Christmas morning?
Often, the tree wasn’t cut and decorated until Christmas Eve. A family would sing carols, and if they were fortunate to have a musician and an instrument in the family, they could even have accompaniment. If there was a church nearby, there was a church service on Christmas Day, followed by a meal consisting of goose or turkey. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to pluck a turkey? If fortunate, unmarried men were invited to join a family for their festivities. People often spent the day visiting friends and neighbors.
We often think of those as simpler times, times when family and friends and the true meaning of Christmas were the focus, rather than the gifts and the commercial aspect.
Sometimes I think it would be refreshing to peel back all the busyness and glitz and simply celebrate the holiday quietly. This year my critique group has planned to exchange gifts we make ourselves. It should be fun to see what everyone comes up with. I’m still thinking on mine….the thought of fudge won’t leave me alone.
We can all be thankful that our forefathers kept the spirit of Christmas alive on the frontier, because many of their traditions are still an important part of our celebrations. What can you do this year to simplify your holiday and make more time for the things that are really important?