If you’re like me, you’ve probably had your full of Christmas cheer and gift wrappings about now, and are longing for a little bit of that “peace on earth” we keep hearing about.
Still, no matter how hectic our lives might seem at the moment, nothing compares to Christmas in the old west. Instead of forging their way through crowded malls and reams of wrapping paper, early pioneers living in canvas homes, soddies and log cabins battled blizzards, bitter cold and driving winds. In 1849, Catherine Haun wrote in her diary that her family’s Christmas present was the rising of the Sacramento River that flooded the whole town.
Those of you planning to travel this holiday season might empathize with the passengers who spent the Christmas of 1870 on Kansas-Pacific trains stuck in snow. Fortunately soldiers from a nearby fort provided fresh buffalo meat, which is a whole lot more than you get if you’re stuck at the airport.
We don’t generally associate fireworks with Christmas, but for some early settlers it was the only way to celebrate. In 1895, a riot broke out in Austin on Christmas Day when revelers shot off Roman candles. Animals stampeded, but law and order was soon restored. Other parts of Texas didn’t have it so lucky. The Fort Worth Gazette reported several incidences of people being shot and stabbed on Christmas Day over the use of Roman candles. In some places, fire crackers were encouraged as this piece in a 1880s newspaper attests: “Firecrackers are in evidence creating the genuine Christmas atmosphere of gunpowder smoke.”
While most pioneers decorated their Christmas trees with strung popcorn, berries and pictures from Arbuckle’s coffee, McCade Texas takes the prize for the most unusual ornaments. On Christmas morning in 1883, three men were found hanging from a tree. If that wasn’t festive enough, the shootout that followed provided “genuine atmosphere” a-plenty.
What is Christmas without a feast? Even the poorest of families managed to splurge a little. Oysters were considered a luxury and one bride in Montana proudly served them to her guests on Christmas Day, unaware that the oysters had spoiled during transport. Her guests fared better than the man named Avery who, on Christmas day in 1850 set out to bag a deer for his dinner and was killed by Indians.
Crime never takes a holiday and that was as true back then as it is now. On Christmas day in 1873, a group of Indians stole five army horses near the Concho River resulting in a shootout. In 1877 Sam Bass robbed a Fort Worth stagecoach of $11.25, and in 1889 Butch Cassidy pulled his first bank holdup on Christmas Eve at a Telluride, Colorado bank. That same year, Christmas day proved to be unlucky for a couple of cattle-rustling brothers who were tracked down and shot by the Texas Rangers.
In the early days of the west, Christmas gifts were modest if not altogether non-existent. Not so for Johnny Wesley Hardin who got an unexpected gift after he won a duel following a disputed card game. The good citizens of Towash, Texas spread the word that he was the “fastest gun in the west,” which probably did wonders for his card game. He was also the meanest gun in the west, though he claimed he never killed anyone who didn’t need killing.
In case you were wondering, Christmas wasn’t all gunfire and fireworks. In 1881, Tombstone in Arizona Territory made news for having a “quiet” holiday. Not to worry, they made up for it the following year.
Come to think of it, maybe those crowded malls aren’t so bad, after all, even without the “genuine Christmas atmosphere.”
A Lady Like Sarah is available now. He’s a preacher; she’s an outlaw. Both are in need of a miracle. Ride on over to my homestead and say howdy: