Have you ever considered cutting out the turkey in your Christmas dinner and instead opting for grizzly bear? Or maybe refusing to buy presents, electing to personally make your loved ones’ gifts? If you have, that’d make you a true pioneer of the Wild West. Christmastime was a different affair throughout the American frontier, even if some of its traditions have survived to the present. So let’s take a look at how they did the holidays in the Old West.
20. Deck the Halls
It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the Old West wasn’t decorated for Christmas in quite the same manner as we see today. It’s not like you could just visit a store to pick up some tinsel and baubles, after all. But when the Christmas song “Deck the Halls” became popular out west, people realized they could use “boughs of holly” to adorn their homes.
“Deck the Halls” is a translation of an old song from Wales, supposedly dating back to the 16th century. And folk in the Old West took inspiration from the tune, deciding to dress up their abodes with plants and fruits. They used things like holly, berries and pinecones – all things that we’d recognize as Christmas decorations today.
19. A visit from Santa
Nobody represents a contemporary Christmas better than Santa Claus. And as it happens, he was an important fellow for people in the Old West, too. Because German and English folk brought their tales of old Saint Nick with them to the frontier where they settled. Back then he was also known as the bringer of gifts.
Across the Old West, grown-ups and kids were aware of Santa Claus. And many of the legends surrounding the jolly man were quite similar to what we hear today. Plus he may have even looked the same, as the contemporary image of Santa that we’d recognize nowadays emerged in the 19th century.
18. A mixed bag of “traditions”
During the frontier days, America was inhabited by a mishmash of different peoples, each of whom had their own traditions. So Christmas meant different things to different groups. While the Puritans, for instance, opposed the holiday, the Virginian planter class marked the day with food, dancing, hunting and other excesses.
But as time went by, the Old West started to change. More diverse populations emerged, and technology began to alter older ways of life. And traditional definitions of community were challenged, as new transport and communication infrastructure meant that faraway groups were aware of each other like never before. So it was necessary to find some common ground – and Christmas was the perfect event for this. Cue more common seasonal celebrations.
17. The lady of the house
Christmas could be a stressful period for the lady of a given household. They were expected to do all the hard work for the occasion, like preparing the food and decorating the home. Such was the pressure, in fact, that one publication from 1896 described ladies that didn’t embellish their houses sufficiently as “a disgrace to her family.”
Having grown up in the Old West, Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder provided a glimpse of her own mother’s Christmas. She wrote, “Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread… and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies and filled a big jar with cookies.” That’s a lotta cookin!
16. Merry, merry Christmas
It seems that people used the holidays to get a little wild out West, if the stories are to be believed. One tale revolves around one Richens “Uncle Dick” Wootton, who used to appear in Denver each year to provide people with alcohol in tin cups. There’s also a record of Union soldiers during the Civil War spending Christmas guzzling vast amounts of low quality whiskey.
It’s said that saloons were in full swing at Christmas, too, with some celebrations spilling over for days at a time. In a place called Ruby Hill in Nevada, for example, people are said to have stayed in a saloon for three whole nights in 1879, dancing and drinking. That’s quite the party.
15. Simple presents
The Old West wasn’t the easiest of places to live, with simple provisions often proving difficult to acquire. Food could be scarce at times, while some folk even found it difficult to get their hands on adequate clothing. So people could hardly expect to receive an abundance of wondrous Christmas presents.
Yup, gifts were much more modest for a Wild West Christmas, as we can see from the writings of Californian settler Elizabeth Le Breton Gunn. She described stockings stuffed with “wafers, pens, toothbrushes, potatoes, and gingerbread, and a little medicine.” If people were lucky, they might also get sweets or perhaps even gold. One wonders if they had gun fights over the gold…
14. Creepy toys
If toys were to be gifted to kids in the Old West, they’d naturally be simple objects. People would’ve fashioned the things themselves – and the results could sometimes be quite creepy. Little dolls made from old corn husks were a common present, even in spite of their nightmarish appearance.
And acclaimed author Mark Twain was once the recipient of a terrifying present on Christmas Day. A person known only as Miss. Chase sent him the gift in 1863, which the writer later described in a newspaper called the Territorial Enterprise. Twain remarked, “The diabolical box had nothing in it but a ghastly, naked, porcelain doll baby.” Yikes!
13. No Christmas trees
What’s Christmas without a well-decorated tree? Nowadays it just wouldn’t feel right to celebrate the holiday at home without an evergreen adorned in baubles, lights and tinsel. But back in the early days of the American frontier, lots of people negatively associated Christmas trees with paganism.
So families initially just wouldn’t have a Christmas tree inside their homes. But over time the practice caught on. This may have been helped by President Benjamin Harrison allowing for one inside the White House in 1889. Even after the practice caught on, things were still different because people waited until Christmas Eve to bedeck the trees.
12. A Christmassy magazine
Before 1870 Christmas wasn’t actually considered to be an official holiday across America. But once that decision had been made, the occasion really took on a greater significance for people. And in 1873 a new publication aimed at kids called St. Nicholas Magazine was published – and it embodied the Christmas spirit.
St. Nicholas Magazine lasted for almost 70 years, before finishing up for good in 1940. But during its heyday, the Christmassy mag presented children with articles, pictures and games. It even brought in esteemed guest writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain. Classic works like Kipling’s The Jungle Book had their beginnings in St. Nicholas Magazine.
11. A good day for a hunt
The Old West was a vast, open space without much in the way of infrastructure. And when winter hit, survival could prove challenging. Some people, then, simply didn’t have the luxury of celebrating Christmas. Because, in fact, it was just another day to look for food.
At the beginning of the 19th century, an explorer named David Thompson wrote of his Christmas in the Old West. He noted, “Christmas and New Year’s 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.” So not even time for a mince pie…
10. Roast bear anyone?
Perhaps the most important aspect of Christmas day is the meal we get to enjoy. Typically in America, people enjoy potatoes, gravy and a range of vegetables, accompanied, of course, by a meaty serving of turkey and ham. But back in the Old West, it wasn’t always so easy to get your hands on meat like this.
Writing in the middle of the 19th century, a settler named Catherine Haun noted the meats that her household enjoyed at Christmas. She wrote, “For Christmas, we had grizzly bear steak for which we paid $2.50.” People enjoyed other unorthodox meats such as buffalo tongue and pigeon.
9. Christmassy competition
Here’s a Christmas tradition from the Old West that we’d all recognize today. The playing of games was a big part of the festive period in the frontier lands, much like it is nowadays. And there’s even evidence that settlers and Native Americans came together to participate in contests with one another.
Author Washington Irving described such a situation when writing about a real army captain’s adventures. Irving explained, “Kowsoter [the local chief]… invited the whole company to a feast… His invitation was gladly accepted. A Christmas dinner in the wigwam of [a Native American] chief! There was novelty in the idea. Not one failed to be present… after which various games of strength and agility by both white men and [Native Americans] closed the Christmas festivities.”
8. Lighting the way
If you were in a New Mexico town on Christmas Eve in the 16th century, you might’ve noticed something dazzling. A series of bonfires would’ve been glowing in the dark, a line of them leading towards the local Catholic church. This was actually a tradition imported from Spain by Franciscan monks that had come to the New World.
A few centuries later, in the Old West, and this tradition could still be seen, albeit in a slightly different form. Instead of burning bonfires, people now used paper lanterns to light the way through a town. The tradition can still be observed today, with all electrical lighting in an area being shut off for the occasion.
7. Generous folk
Times were tough for many people in the Old West, so charity was an important aspect of the holiday season. In more eastern parts of America, people were generally better off and could afford to be more giving. But even so, a tradition of generosity was nonetheless espoused out west.
Kids were also encouraged to get into the spirit of generosity, as can be seen from an 1895 report from newspaper the San Francisco Call. The piece explained that children were told to donate a potato and some wood to the underprivileged. The youngsters did just that, but they also managed to give away canned food and clothes.
6. A lonely affair
The Wild West was filled with folk all looking to make their living. Whether they were fur trappers, explorers, miners or soldiers, men could be found in the territory far away from their families. Christmas, then, could be a lonely time, so these men would sometimes come together to celebrate in company.
How these groups of men marked the occasion differed. There are reports of soldiers in 1804 celebrating by guzzling brandy and firing their weapons underneath the American flag. In Colorado in 1888, respectively, a miner named Will C. Ferril wrote of his Christmas experience, “I spent up on the mountainside with two or three others. There we had our holiday dinner. It was a wholesome meal, but wanted in those delicacies that a mother or a wife can best prepare.”
5. Plenty of singing
Much like today, singing was a central part of Christmastime in the Old West. Throughout the 19th century Christmas carols such as “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” became popular. These would have soundtracked a Christmas throughout the frontier, just as they do in the present.
Towards the end of the 19th century, song books containing these carols were printed. This allowed the tunes to spread, with more and more people being able to learn them. Then by the early 20th century, the phonograph was an emerging technology, meaning some people could listen to carols from the comfort of their houses.
4. A cowboys – and indians’ – Christmas
Towards the end of the Old West era, it seems that certain Christmas traditions were even picked up by some Native American tribes. Who’d have thought it? There were reports, for example, of American Indians in Arizona putting up Christmas trees. And it seems that the figure of Santa Claus was even acknowledged by some groups, too.
In New Mexico, meanwhile, reports have painted a picture of Native American traditions in some way blending with Christian customs. Christmas feasts are said to have occurred, followed by ceremonial dances. And apparently traditions such as this have endured amongst some tribes in the region to the present day.
3. Fruity treats
Following a serving of some unorthodox meats, Christmas dinner in the Old West was followed by dessert. And it seems that some fruity concoctions were really the only way to go. Watermelons, apple pies and plum pudding were all good choices to bring the big meal to an end. So actually not a million miles away from what we eat today!
Yup, plum puddings were a common dessert to eat on Christmas day in the Old West, but many people opted instead for fruitcake. Nowadays such a bake can prove divisive. But back then it was a thing to be savored, a special treat for important occasions such as Christmas or New Year’s Eve. So forget the plum, and expand the tum.
2. Don’t eat the (hot) Yule log
These days we tend to think of the Yule log simply as a chocolatey Christmas treat. But this cake is actually based on a literal log that people used to set alight at Christmas. The tradition originated from Europe, but it was carried over to the Old West by travelers seeking a life in the New World.
And the Yule log was selected for its large size so it could stay lit throughout an entire Christmas night. Why? Well, apparently it was lucky for the given household. As it burnt, families might gather around to sing songs or even recite the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” This piece is still spoken today, but it’s now more commonly referred to as “The Night Before Christmas.”
1. Well-off families could eat out – if they dared
If you were somewhat affluent in the Old West, you and your family may have dined out on Christmas day. But this was something of a risky move, given the menus that were on offer. An example comes from California in 1855, with one restaurant offering mock turtle soup, oyster pie, boiled mutton and tongue. Delicious!
In El Paso, meanwhile, diners at the Cafe Francis in 1898 could expect to gorge on a green turtle consommé, fricassee of brain and calf tongue, among other culinary delights. More well-to-do folk, on the other hand, might have treated themselves to more conventional meals and wines. But even so, staying at home probably would’ve been the wisest move.