We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

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.

presents.jpgAs 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?presents-3.jpg

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! 

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Pam has written 30 romances, most of them historical westerns. Her newest sweet historical romance, HARRIETT, was the launch book for the popular Cupids & Cowboys series, More books are coming! Stay up on the latest at www.pamcrooks.com

25 thoughts on “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”

  1. Good morning Pam. We surely have come a long way from the simplicity of our ancestors. They made do with what they had and still made it special.

    I love all the Christmas lights and the presents are wonderful, but what tugs at my heart is that I know that I’ll get to spend Christmas Day with my parents, my only living grandmother and my sister, along with my husband and children. And maybe even a few of my in-laws.

    I would love a simple Christmas though. One where my children only got a few gifts (total) and were happy with that.

    My dad always went overboard into debt for me and my sister and now as a parent myself, I fight the urge to do that. I try to explain to the grandparents that 12 gifts, each, ISN’T necessary (I think “spoiling” becomes a grandparent’s middle name! LOL)

    I still enjoy it though because, as you said, time is all but non-existent. It goes by so fast and I’m not sure I’d trade the special time with my family, even in all the rush and insanity the holiday has become. It’s the one time of the year I can almost be assured that I get one more Christmas with my parents and my grandmother, one more time to make memories with my family.

    One more year to watch my children’s eyes twinkle with innocence and belief. It won’t take long for the time to get away from us and before long some of those special family members will be gone from our lives and the kids will grow up and mature and let go of childish things. So no matter how busy and crazy and overboard this time of year is now, I still try to hang on to what it’s really all about. And to me it’s about love of family and togetherness.
    (Even if all the grandparents load the kids down with so many things their rooms are bursting at the seams! LOL)

  2. I get this weird, almost uncontrollable spending mania that kicks in. I can feel it right now. I have controlled it pretty well this year. Not completely but I’m doing okay.
    I keep thinking, “Run to the city one more time.”
    I’m fighting it. 🙂 It’s especially weird because I’m a cheapskate the rest of the year with no trouble pinching pennies. My husband doesn’t help because when it comes to Christmas, he’s very generous.
    It helps that the girls are older and pretty good at concealing their devastating disappointment in my gifts.

  3. Taryn, my early bird. What a lovely, insightful comment. Twelve gifts each for grandkids–wow! Even if you’re exaggerating a bit, that’s a bunch. But clearly, your parents enjoy it, and there’s something to be said for that, too.

  4. Tanya, our granddaughter is 2 1/2 years old, and she’s just starting to string sentences together. Her face is so expressive, and we always make a big deal of turning on the Christmas tree lights for the day. She squeals and gasps and gets as excited as if it were the first time she saw lights.

    A precious memory, even that.

  5. Mary, I have to rein in my spending, too. I have this attitude that Christmas is the one time of year we’re entitled to splurge, because the rest of the year, the family tends to be much more practical.

    But don’t you think as the kids get older, they get harder to buy for–and the things they want are *much* more expensive?

  6. We have always been penny pinchers. My husband would give me this amount of money and it had to purchase all the Christmas gifts. NOw with grandkids- I’d love to spend more, but I know more isn’t always better. It’s the love that goes into the present they do get. That’s what we taught our children and that’s what we do with the grandchildren.

    I wish we were having company for Christmas but this year it is just my husband and my MIL. But next Christmas I’ll deck the halls! It sounds like all my military kids will be home for that one!

    Great blog, Pam! I enjoyed the information.

  7. Pam that’s so true. I used to have mountains of presents under the tree. I mean a stuffed Winnie the Pooh that’s four feet tell looks like a LOT. This year…well, we’re into the whole, ‘good things come in little packages’ phase of our lives, I guess. I’ve got one really small box that’s worth $150, and several slightly larger ones worth about $100. So it doesn’t look like much but it IS. I hope they know that!!!

  8. Paty, there’s nothing wrong with not spending a pile of money. Do you make your gifts? We’ve done that in years past, and I loved it. I only wish I had more time–as a seamstress in my younger days, I really, really miss not making clothes and toys for my grandchildren.

  9. Lovely post, Pam. I remember my years as a single, working mom, buying one nice present for each of my children, then wrapping a lot of silly little things just so they’d have more to open. The climax of the morning would be putting all the wrapping paper in one big pile and throwing our cats into it (they loved it).
    Merry Christmas and long-distance hugs to all of you.

  10. Elizabeth that’s so funny. Hello Christmas Traditions.
    I remember a friend, years ago when she had one almost year old son and I had no kids. I asked her what she was giving him for Christmas and she said, “I’m going to let him eat a Reader’s Digest. He loves that above all things.”
    LOL

  11. Thanks Pam. Thing is…I’m not sure I’m exaggerating on the 12 gifts each for my two kids. I don’t know how many things my parents got for them or in the case of my husband’s dad and his wife, but I’d SWEAR my husband’s mom said, about a week ago when she called, that she needed more ideas for my stepson to even it out because she had 12 things for our daughter! ACK! I hope the majority of that is clothing! haha!

    My husband’s mom is very extravagant when it comes to getting the kids’ Christmas presents…there will be clothes though, so that to me is good and practical, but then she also gets them several toys, movies and such. (She lived in Wisconsin until last year at this time, so I think she’s still trying to make up for time lost.)

  12. Pam, I’m so envious of you! “The Army Frontier Christmas” was a great find. I loved your recount of Christmas in the forts and how they celebrated. Every item must’ve been so precious. But they did well with what they had and I think we do that today also. Living and celebrating have evolved with the times. Just because we have more today than our ancestors did doesn’t make the holiday any less cherished. Sure we buy way too much for our kids and loved ones, but it’s not a bad thing as long as we know when to stop spending. I just wish someone would tell me when that is!! Yikes, I hate to see those bills roll in.

    Merry Christmas, Pam! Keep writing those special stories that touch our hearts.

  13. We went through the expensive Christmases, too, and still do to a certain extent. The funny thing is it’s the homemade gifts we give that always make the biggest impact. A couple of years ago, with my granddaughter’s help, I made a quilted wall hanging for their mother. The hanging included the girls’ newborn pictures and current Christmas snapshots (iron on transfers) along with the date and Merry Christmas. When my daughter saw it she cried, so did the girls, and I tried hard not to. I guarantee it’s a gift she will always keep and treasure.

    But how many of us can afford to spend the time and effort it takes to make something special for those we love no matter how much we’d like to? It’s so much easier to purchase something and know we aren’t going to mess it up or not get it finished in time. I know, I had planned to make special quilts for my children this year. They’ll have to be content with store bought.

  14. Elizabeth, you had a good plan back in those days. I think a lot of the specialness of Christmas is just opening the gifts. Small isn’t a factor–just that there’s a gift.

    I can just see the cat in the wrapping paper. And you know – your kids probably remembered that more than the gifts they got those years.

  15. Estella, you’re right. It’s all about the little ones, isn’t it?

    Since Santa doesn’t come to our house in the morning anymore–he just leaves the presents under the tree as he gets them–I don’t have those priceless wee-hours-in-the-morning looks anymore.

    Now I’m getting wistful . . .

  16. Mildred, wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our gifts had a homemade touch? Only someone who has spent hours lovingly making a gift can appreciate fully when someone has done the same for them.

    But ah, well. I fear today’s society has changed that.

  17. Yes my dear we have come a long way, but I not sure it’s a good thing. We give our kids to much because we wanted them to have what we didn’t have. But is this a good thing. I don’t think so. They need to earn what they have just like we had to.

    Santa still comes to my house and my son is 18 now. And yes he is spoiled and its my fault

  18. Pam- it’s a mad ripping frenzy. They each get a gift and then both tear in at the same time. It’s a mad house around here. I just keep my distance, take pics or videotape and pray I have the patience to deal with the massive amounts of things they get once it’s all said and done…oh, and speaking of my MIL- She called this evening just as we were putting the kids to bed to ask about ANOTHER thing for my darling little monster…I mean…daughter. LOL

  19. What a great blog. I’m hurrying to Amazon to find a copy of that book. What a treasure. I love the guy who carried the eggs next to his chest.

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