Christmas on the Frontier


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. woodenhorse.jpg

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.

doll.jpgFamily 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.  

dancing-dan.jpgA 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? 

207634_ginger_bread_men__baking.jpgOften, 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. cowboyclog.jpg

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?

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33 thoughts on “Christmas on the Frontier”

  1. It would be wonderful to return to at least the emotional joy of that past. I’ll admit I’d hate to give up shopping on line, but it sure would be nice if children especially could be happy with simple gifts rather than the whole Bratz collection. I will be finding time to make many of my gifts (and finish at least one that was started for last year’s celebration )

    Here’s an early wish for everyone for a simply happy holiday season!

  2. What a great article. I agree with ya Lizzie. My fondest memory as a child is when we would go to my grandparents on Christmas Morning. Talk about chaos! Usually around 50 of us. (My mom is the oldest of 13 kids)Grandma and Grandpa didn’t have a lot, but they insisted that they get everyone something. It was usually a pair of footies or gloves, but it came with all the love in their hearts. I think thats why I like the little surprises and homemade gifts the best. I would give anything to get just one more pair of soft footies from them again. When it comes down to it, christmas is about celebrating Jesus’ birth and being with those you love.

  3. Cheryl,
    I agree totally! We have two grandsons, Maverick & Beau, and a couple of years ago we realized that we were way overboard with gifts.
    So, we started scaling back, and focusing on just being with them. Last Christmas, they both received three gifts each. One was homemade, the other two was chosen from a list of items they really wanted. They both loved the homemade gifts the best! I asked them why they chose the homemade! I think it was the best Christmas we’ve ever had with them. We laughed, played, and honored Jesus with the day.

  4. Every year my husband shops on Christmas Eve and every year I say, “Did they move Christmas this year? Was it a surprise for you?” It’s a running joke with us.

    I try to plan ahead as much as possible. I have a child with a Dec 23rd b-day and one with a Dec 30th b-day. I have to start saving in July!

    Last year, I was so stressed out, I lost my keys in Shopko. I found them. In the car. In the ignition. I left the car running in the parking lot! The truly sad part, I have such an old car, nobody even bothered to steal it.

  5. We’re just excited to be back home for Christmas this year. Usually we have to travel so I’m looking forward to simply being at home on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. It really is the little things that matter most!

  6. I have to agree with everyone. It seems like the kids enjoy the simple things. (Even though they don’t know it.) One year, they got so many presents I put some in a closet and pulled them out one at a time. It was Christmas through July. They seemed to appreciate the gifts more. When they get so many on Christmas Day, it’s overwhelming. I’m lucky to still have small children. My friends tell me as they get older the presents get smaller and yet much more expensive. At this age you can still dazzle with quantity!

  7. Most Christmases, I make the gifts I give sibling families and last year I made stuffed lions for my grandchildren. This year, I’m running out of time and not sure what I’m going to do! I usually have most of the things done by now or at least know what I’m doing, but some how it is sneaking up on me this year.

    The only thing that seems to have become a family tradition (and I didn’t know it, but my kids all say so) is the watching of the Muppets “A Christmas Carol”. I didn’t realize until the kids all said they had to get the dvd that they consider that a tradition because we always watched it Christmas Eve. What they don’t know is it was a way to keep them busy while I did last minute things! LOL

    Interesting blog!

  8. Cheryl, I wished the hoiday’s were simple like they should be and not so commerical. I try and get all the things the kids want because I didn’t get that stuff when I was a kid there was NO money so I want it to be nice for my kids. Trying to get to all the family is very hard too. I would love to just be able to take it easy this year it has been so stressful. I want to put up my christmas tree I love looking at all the lights that is why I am sad MrC’s is closed because I would love to go there and just dream staring at all the lights.

  9. Good morning, *lizzie, Barb and Karen. *lizzie, how you manage to keep up with kids at your job is amazing. Barb, I understand your love of warm sockies now.

    We all agree on those simple pleasures, don’t we? Karen, I love your grandsons’ names. Julie, where are your ruby slippers? There’s no place like home. 🙂

    Sherri, your story would be humorous if not for the fact that you were so stressed! Holy cow! At least you didn’t leave the kids in the car!

    Paty, many families have a favorite Christmas movie they watch together, don’t they? You’re in good company, I think your favorite is Victoria Alexander’s too. I remember her talking about how she loved that movie.

    Brenda, someone told me (maybe it was Sherri?) that they are putting the Italy scene from Mr. C’s at the Heritage Museum. Cool, huh?

  10. we like to bake cookies and decorate them. the kids all help and make a mess, it’s the best part of the season besides chrsitmas eve when their all tucked in and my dh and i have time alone with the lights and the dogs,. we do thanksgiving baking, too, my kids are pretty good at it don’t ya know.

  11. I used to bake like a maniac starting the day after Thanksgiving we’d have some kind of Christmas candy or treat nearly every day. I barely bake at all now. I just eat it. What’s the point of that?
    I also learned, if you’re taking treats to a Christmas party of elderly people…just forget the peanut brittle, you don’t want to see what peanut brittle does to a houseful of senior citizens with dentures…it’s hard to recover from the memory.
    I usually am a cold blooded gift giver. By that I mean, I refuse to become emotionally invested in the gifts I buy. I refuse to hunt and hunt for the favorite beloved gift for one and all. Instead, I try to get a handle on favorite stores, with my girls it’s usually clothes, then go in and just point to something in the price range I want and say, “I guarantee this is coming back so make sure I have the receipt.”
    I adopted this after having my gifts returned about one zillion times. Since it’s going to happen anyway, why not just go with the flow and give myself a break.
    Also, one ‘heartwarming’ Christmas memory was the time I…on one of my cold blooded shopping forays…decided to do it all in one day. Which isn’t that hard if you don’t care.
    The next day…I got a phone call from the credit card company checking to see if my card had been stolen…because of the high usage.
    Kind of comforting though, to know they’d check.

  12. Cheryl, I always cry on the Waltons Christmas episode because those kids were so humble. They didn’t ask for or get much. John Boy got a pencil and a Big Chief tablet in addition to some fruit and nuts and he was so overjoyed. I long for those simple times when the holidays meant more about who I was with than gifts I received. I happen to prefer homemade gifts over bought. Getting something homemade to me really shows a person’s heart. Anyone can rush out and buy a ton of presents. But, it takes real caring to sit down and devote a little time to making something.

    When I grew up we didn’t have any money to buy a lot of gifts. Sometimes I might’ve gotten a doll and some hard candy and sometimes not. One Christmas there was no money at all. My mother knitted us some socks and somehow or another my dad brought us each an orange. We counted ourselves very lucky. And I think some charity organization brought a little food over. We just loved being together and celebrating the day. What’s really important is being with the ones you love.

    Great post, Cheryl! You stirred up some wonderful memories. I can’t wait to read your story in A Western Winter Wonderland. I know it’s a heart-warmer.

  13. Let’s start that again — I got a few phone calls and hit the button by mistake! Anyway, great pictures of those handmade Christmas gifts. Not being crafty at all, I can’t imagine trying to come up with a home craft idea for critique partners. I admire those hard-working women of the west, who did their daily chores and worked into the night to provide gifts for their loved ones. Makes me tired just thinking about it!!

  14. Mizkaye, I remember those Christmas Eve’s after the kids had FINALLY fallen asleep. Seems like we always had something to assemble, but doing it together while anticipating the morning excitement was fun.

    I am just the opposite, Mary. Even if it’s small or from a fleamarket, it has to be the “perfect” gift for that person. I know it takes me far longer because of that.

    Loved your post, Linda and hearing about the treasure of family. Thanks for that reminder about John Boy. I have always loved the Waltons. I once wrote a whole book with that narrator’s voice in my head.

    One of our favorite things to do always was and still is — only now we’re taking the grandkids in shifts — was to spend a couple evenings driving around and looking at decorated houses. I remember waking up my granddaughter (who is now 18) and pointing out the lights to her. She always fell asleep early and never lasted until the hot chocolate. We’ve considered renting a van so we can take the whole family at once.

  15. Cheryl,
    Love your insight into a ‘simple’ holiday. Starting last year, we decided one way to help our children with thankfulness was to only do one gift between the adults (of course, the kids still had plenty) and the rest of the money we would normally spend was given to charity. We picked for our parents/siblings/etc. based on their interests. (ie: Paid to have a fishing pond put into a 3rd world country for my dad who loves fishing, etc.)
    My kids were so excited about the charitable gifts that they have asked to do that this year, too. (They even said fewer presents would be ok–as long as they still got SOME.) So we’re already looking at charities and picking the ‘best’ ones for our family members.
    And a bonus to me was that it did simplify things for all of us while giving back to the community and the world.

  16. Cheryl,
    Thanks for providing such interesting info on the holidays. Now I have to share what my family did a few years back. Our children are grown and some of us of are probably still paying for gifts we charged on our Visas ten years ago *smile*. So, we decided rather than spend money on each other for things we probably didn’t need, we would do something more special. We pooled our resources and went to the local Dollar Tree store. We got gift bigs, soap, toothpaste, brushes, combs, wash clothes, Christmas candies, small bottles of aftershave and cologne, lighters, candles, and more, but my memory is shot and I can’t remember everything at the moment. We spent an evening making up the bags and decorating them with ribbon, of course, while we listened to Christmas Carols, then on Christmas Day we drove around a park and neighborhood where homeless frequented and handed out our gifts. The looks on the recipient’s faces were worth any joy I could have received in opening a present of my own. I highly recommend it. I truly felt like Santa Claus… now if I just didn’t look like him. *lol*

  17. Or, by the way, since I came to your blogging day, you can come to mine…October 10-11. *VBG* It’s a new venture for me and I have twenty-six authors signed up to participate in my official step into the blogging world. It should be fun.


  18. Brenda & Cheryl: Mr. C’s closed??? How sad. We went there for our wedding anniversary every year until we moved away. I can’t believe no one told us it closed. Anyway, I totally agree about Christmas. I always try to make at least one gift for everyone on my list. And we try to limit the number of gifts too. Now that the grandkids are here though…Grandpa gets carried away.

  19. Cheryl, I filled 7 small notepad sheets with memories your article provoked b4 I read great stories from rest of you.
    Barb, hear, hear on the reason for the season.
    We had baby Jesus bday cake (like sweet roll/coffee cake) for breakfast B4 opening presents; Nana’s oyster stew on Xmas eve (easy to make b4 going to evening service?) Nana’s house had card table full of sweets: frosted sugar cookies (Mom, 2 sisters & I baked), Mom made peanut brittle for Gramp, divinity & aunt made Swedish Kringla-like sweet, soft pretzel. Mom made fudge as gifts for Dad’s 15 employees for 30 Xmases (& popcorn balls/candy apples for neigbor kids for 10 Halloweens.)
    Karen, a friend gives her kids 3 gifts (1 big, 1 educational, 1 fun) AFTER they cull their toys/clothes to make room & donate to charity.
    Sherri, my car was backed up to snowbank in parking lot at work; found it still running at lunch time. How I didn’t run out of gas, I’ll never know (1990 B4 HIGH gas prices, thank God and B4 I was 40 & MORE forgetful!)
    David got more Joy from running cars down a long
    box than whatever came in it.
    I made gifts like eyeglass cases & yarn dolls when I was 10 b4 I started earning $ babysitting.
    Lizzie, I started embroidery saying when my sister got engaged,75% done; tried to finish it when they were celebrating 25th anniversary. ROFL!!!
    My aunt made 5 girl cousins curler containers out of bleach bottles, put faces on them, & sewed mob caps for us to wear over rollers to bed, then store on top of bottle as if it was ‘their’ hat. Cousin cross-stitched family surnames with embroidery hoops as frame. I made ceramic Xmas orns for newly weds & holiday napkin rings for aunts who hosted Tgiving & Xmas dinners (maiden name is Pilgrim so BIG celebration in our family!)
    Male cousin made anise hard candy several yrs & dressed as Santa- FUNNY as he was SO skinny. His brother developed pine tree allergy so had an artificial one in 1950’s.
    We opened gifts carefully to save Xmas wrap & bows in boxes for reuse (the original recycling! LOL)
    After we sisters were adults but no grandkids, we didn’t want to give up Stockings so we put them on the couch & covered with a blanket so all could put little gifts in.
    Gramp grew popcorn & had walnut trees so we enjoyed those as treats. Mom made gingerbread houses with my niece and paid a lady to make them when she no longer felt up to making them herself. Mom always got a barber pole size candy cane in her stocking until she developed diabetes.
    Find it hard to imagine baking without eggs or sugar, even as recent as Depression & WW II days.

  20. As part of a gift exchange, my friends get together and help with a cookie/candy fundraiser for a church. Our gift to each other is spending time with one another, baking, sneaking a few of the cookies :), and sharing lots of stories and laughs. Those moments are priceless!

  21. Cheryl, which book did you write with the Walton’s narrator’s voice in mind? Remember, I love the behind-the-scenes Why. Must be the reporter/interviewer in me. BTW, I LOVE the Walton’s and Little House!
    Betsy, when I moved to Omaha/Council Bluffs area in ’74, Mr C’s is one of first restaurants my boyfriend took me to. White or blue Xmas lights are still my favorite. They are selling mementos of it; I’ll see if I can find the details. My husband still gets carried away for our 20 & 25 yr old; I hate to think what he’ll do with grandkids!! (none in sight. LOL)
    Robyn, my relatives will appreciate hearing your idea-the older ones don’t need “things” and it will teach the younger ones charity. THANKS!
    Cheryl, Clinton IA had a display including live sheep, a mechanical cow & donkey that nodded, a Nativity with lit halos; Santa, sleigh & reindeer on the roof, PLUS Mighty Mouse, Gulliver pulling the Lilliputin’s ships, and so much I can’t remember. They were originally exhibited on the hill of a wealthy family’s mansion, but electric bill got expensive so donated to the town. Now I wonder if the nativity is permitted (Politically incorrect?) A close friend has a similar spectacular display; you’ll have to wander down to Ptown this season! She offers cocoa, too.

  22. Kathleen, our Millard church did that too; we made 2 dz for the Xmas program, exchanged 5 dz and sampled a dz or so. Since I developed diabetes, I join them for fellowship & just taste a few, take none home as family doesn’t have my sweet tooth, avoiding temptation! LOL.
    Funny story: a pregnant friend sampled the chocolate rum balls as she was baking and got tipsy before thinking of the alcohol content’s affect on her changed body (she’s a nurse.) We still chuckle over that.

  23. Cheryl – you should rent a limo to look at Christmas lights. They usually have specials running around the holidays. I’ve done it with other couples in the past and really enjoyed it! I think your family would love that tradition – the holiday limo ride.

  24. Cheryl just met my friend Cyndy Salzmann who wrote: Beyond Groundhogs and Gobblers: Putting Meaning into Your Holidays, Christian Publications, Inc. ISBN: 0875099920

    Put the “holy” back into your holidays with this family-friendly 12-month guide! Each month offers the spiritual history, fun activities, questions to spark table talk!– even scrumptious recipes!

    I may attend her workshop this Fri & Sat; have 1 of her 2 novels and her other 2 non-fiction works.

  25. Just unearthed my mom’s copy of The Alternate Celebrations Catalogue by Milo Shannon-Thornberry 1982 Pilgrim Press (that name keeps coming up. LOL) It promotes Voluntary Simplification, gives ideas for all Jewish & Christian holidays with extended, blended, & ethnic families, quotes Mr Rogers, mentions Gma/Gpa Walton, suggests planting a tree (our family does), ideas for making gifts, and, of course, BOOKS for kids of all ages. It’s a God-incident that I found it this weekend- happens to me alot.

  26. Next recommendation for simplification is ANOTHER favorite Christian author since 1987. Emilie Barnes wrote The Complete Holiday Organizer for “those who want a stressless Xmas, Ecstatic Easter, Heartfelt Valentine’s, Thankful Thaksgiving, Beautiful Birthdays. Commercialism of holidays reduced joy & real meaning of many… Our great-grandparents knew what to do with little or nothing. With creative suggestions & organization, you too can turn a hectic holiday into a treasured memory.”

  27. My final (?) suggestion is “The Christmas Book” by Alice Slaikeu Lawhead 1985 She talks about What is Xmas; Advent, Epiphany (“a coup for procrastinators, for sidetracked organizers, & exhausted celebrators…” like me), a time for…Kids,… family,… friends,… community, …churches,… to be alone, and how to cope with the Singular unexpected Xmas, plus Logistics: checklists for What I want for Xmas (happenings) & old/new traditions; budget form, calendar.
    The TWO God-incidents are 1) it references the book above!
    2) suggested reading is Laura I. Wilder’s 5 books: Little house in the Big Woods; by the shores of Silver Lake, the Long Winter, On the Banks of Plum Creek & Farmer Boy for “specific accounts of Christmas celebrations” as it “beautifully describes life on the American frontier.” shades of CSJ!
    also has a resource section, bibliography & MORE recommended reading. CHECK it OUT!

  28. Cheryl, my grandfather, a carpenter, made some “limber Jacks” for us kids one Christmas. They were fun, but now long gone. I only wish we’d saved them. They’d be treasures today.

  29. Lou, What great mememories and fun ideas you have. I’ll have to look for some of those books at our library. I would love to get “back to the basics” of Christmas and not all the “stuff” that it’s become. I loved all of these posts.

  30. Wow, I have such admiration for all that my ancestors did. I’ve never stopped to think about this before, thanks!

  31. Besty yes Mr C’s closed on Sept 30th it is so sad because like you we have spent the last 23 years there I am not sure what we are going to do that is the only place we have ever went. On Our 10th year we had one whole side just for my honey and me. He had a limo and a violin player and a huge vase of flowers on the table for me. It was so nice I guess we are going to have to try and make some new memories some where else. When I came home from work today I seen they have taken down the fence around it. It breaks my heart…

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