While writing my Christmas novella, McCord’s Destiny, in Western Winter Wonderland, I had to research how the military used homing pigeons to communicate on the frontier. And since this was a Christmas story, I needed to know how the military–and civilians–celebrated the holiday as well.
That digging for information led me to a fascinating little book which I managed to snag off Amazon (a used copy that, lo and behold, was being sold by a library right here in my hometown. Who knew? But I digress.) A Frontier Army Christmas quickly became one of my favorite research books of all time.
The book gives a very real glimpse into the lives of the men and women who tried hard to celebrate Christmas not only for themselves, but for their children. Hundreds of miles away from home and families, stationed in forts out in the middle of nowhere, these hardy souls turned touchingly creative and fashioned special memories never to be forgotten.
Perhaps Elizabeth Custer, her husband the ill-fated general, said it best:
“Sometimes I think our Christmas on the frontier was a greater event to us than to anyone in the states. We all had to do so much to make it a success.”
One officer’s wife described her Christmas meal, which proved to be a success due to the efforts of her mailman at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory:
“The refreshments would be sandwiches, cake and candy, lemonade made from the usual citric acid crystals, and of course, ice cream evolved from condensed milk, whipped-up gelatine and the whites of eggs. The eggs, by the way, wrapped in cotton were brought from Bismarck by the mailman, who, to keep such precious articles from freezing, always carried them inside his buckskin shirt, against his bare breast.”
What a guy, eh?
Faced with frigid temperatures that would freeze thermometers, a lack of trees for decorating, an absence of shops to buy holiday goods, and being miles from a railroad or even a semblance of civilization, commanding officers–and their wives–saw to it the holiday was celebrated, even in the simplest of fashion. Unused toys were recycled and given to other children to enjoy. In one instance, a tree was built of spliced tree branches and wire, then plunked upright into a soap box. Songs were song; treats found; music played.
In other forts, however, more amenities could be found. Each child was treated the same–from the offspring of the laundress to the lowly soldier on up to the top garrison officer. A collection would be taken up, and the ladies would see to the details. On Christmas Eve, even Santa came, and every child thrilled to his gifts–a store-bought toy, an apple and orange, a few pieces of candy, popcorn.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
As I make list after list and check them twice–yeesh, the gifts seem never-ending, far too complicated. And expensive! The grocery bill is staggering. Time is all but non-existent.Have we created a holiday that has gone way overboard? Has the commercialism squelched the true meaning of Christmas? Have we been so immersed in buy, buy, buy and do, do, do that we’ve forgotten the simplicity of Christmases past?
No doubt about it.
Yet it remains my favorite time of year. The lights, the garlands, the music are a delight to behold. I’m looking forward to those special cookies, festive drinks, and yummy hors d’oevres that I eat only at this time of year. It’ll be great fun to see my family together yet again–all 44 of us–the one time of year when we can manage it. We’ll have five straight nights of family get-togethers–dinners, holiday walks, games and laughter. Then everyone heads home and life returns to normal.
Yep, we’ve come a long way from those starkly simple Christmases. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, after all.
Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts and experiences. Merry Christmas, dear friends!