Christmas on the Frontier

In 1849, California pioneer Catherine Haun wrote, “Although very tired of tent life many of us spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in our canvas houses. I do not remember ever having had happier holiday times. For Christmas we had grizzly bear steak for which we paid $2.50, one cabbage for $1.00 and oh horrors, some more dried apples! And for a Christmas present the Sacramento River rose very high and flooded the whole town!”

Now that’s a holiday to remember!

Celebrating Christmas wasn’t easy for those making their way in new territories, but upholding traditions was an important way of making these places feel like home. Often resources were limited and decorations consisted of whatever was handy—evergreen trimmings, berries, pictures clipped from magazines, popcorn garlands—and presents were often handmade, or ordered from catalogs, if mail service of that kind was available.

In Boise, Idaho, the community shared a tree in the 1860s and residents were invited to “communicate through it with their friends,” according to the Idaho Statesman. People could exchange gifts and there was a Christmas Eve party at the tree.

But what about those people who were truly in the wilderness on Christmas Day? Well, some of them couldn’t take time off from the important business of staying alive as this journal quote from fur trapper David Thompson attests:  “Christmas and News Years day came and passed. We could not honor them, the occupations of every day demanded our attentions; and time passed on, employed in hunting for a livelihood.”

Fort Clatsop

Lewis and Clark and spent several Christmases on the trail during their famous expedition. Christmas of 1804 was spent in Fort Mandan, North Dakota where the men were issued flour, dried apples and pepper to help celebrate the holiday. Clark wrote of this Christmas: “I was awakened before Day by a discharge of 3 platoons from the Party and the french, the men merrily Disposed, I give them all a little Taffia and permited 3 Cannon fired, at raising Our flag, Some men went out to hunt & the Others to Danceing and Continued untill 9 oClock P, M, when the frolick ended.”

In 1806, the expedition was stranded at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific Coast. This was more of a gift giving occasion, according to Clark: “Our Diner to day Consisted of pore Elk boiled, Spoilt fish & Some roots, a bad Christmass diner. I recved a presnt of Capt L. of a fleece hosrie Shirt Draws and Socks—, a pr. mockersons of Whitehouse a Small Indian basket of Gutherich, two Dozen white weazils tails of the Indian woman, & Some black root of the Indians before their departure.”

That “Indian Woman” was Sacagawea.

If you’re interested in learning more about Christmas in the Old West, check out Christmas in the Old West: A Historical Scrapbook, by Sam Travers. The information in this blog was adapted from that book.

Have a Wonderful Holiday Season and a Very Merry Christmas! I’ve loved spending 2017 with you, and look forward to 2018!


A Down Home Christmas

One of the things I love about Christmas is traditions. I’m a farm girl, and I have a lot of “country” based traditions that I remember fondly. Some of them have gone by the wayside as I bring up my own family, but I remember them with a special sense of nostalgia, and one of the things I love about writing Christmas stories – in particular westerns – is that I can bring those traditions back to life.

Sometimes I think those traditions are part of what’s missing these days, too. Our lives get so busy that it’s a challenge to take the time to put in extra effort-  it’s easier to go into a store and buy it. But there really is nothing like a down home holiday and I think readers like them too – it provides a connection that they might not experience, or it may bring back fond memories too.

So what makes a down home Christmas?

Do you all know the scene in Christmas Vacation where they go out looking for the Griswold Family Christmas Tree? It’s a little extreme, but there’s nothing like going out in the back 40, finding the perfect – or not so perfect – tree and cutting it down for Christmas. Then freezing your feet off when you haul it back on a toboggan, and then put it in a Christmas tree stand and turn it to hide the “bad” side.

For our family, it’s also Christmas carols and movies. We have our favourites and make a point of watching them curled up on the sofa, or playing the carols as we work around the house. When I was a girl, I adored The Sound of Music. And I lived for Christmas specials on television. DVDs have kind of made that a little more “unspecial” because you can watch it when you want, however many times you want.

How about a candlelight Christmas Eve service at church?

When I was a girl we also used to gather at my brother’s house after church on Christmas Eve and have a potluck. My fond memory of that time is my sister in law’s chocolate bundt cake with peanut butter frosting. MMMM!

And speaking of food – how many traditions revolve around food? I’m guessing more than any other. There’s the Christmas dinner, of course, complete with turkey and stuffing and potatoes and vegetables and any number of desserts. My mom used to make a steamed pudding with sauce, and she always had pie for anyone who wasn’t into pudding. But beyond the meal there’s so much more to enjoy. For me, it’s the making of it that is as special as the eating. I have carried a lot of traditions forward to my girls. Some we’ve changed to suit our tastes – making shortbread is a big one, and fancy iced cookies, and my daughter makes a gumdrop cake each year and her younger sister is the master of Chocolate Peanut Butter Clusters. I remember being in the kitchen and making mocha cakes with my mom – what a mess! My mom did so much Christmas baking she could feed an army – and often did. We had a lot of drop in company in December, or she’d go to a church or community function with a big tray of goodies. Peanut Butter Balls, Scotch Cakes, Mocha Cakes, Doughnut Holes, Squares of every variety….

And there was always time to put on a kettle.

When the baking was done and the mess cleaned up, it was pretty normal to find my mom sitting with her latest knitting project in her hands, too. That’s how you’ll find me a good portion of the winter – especially Sunday afternoons, curled up with my girls and a movie.

It’s those sorts of things that make me really happy to be writing a holiday story right now. Not just drawing on the experiences but the warm, happy feelings that the memories bring. I can’t wait to bring this story to readers next November!