Christmas was not vastly different in nineteenth century America from what it is today. Gifts were exchanged, time was spent with family, there was feasting, games and other social events, there were decorations – Christmas trees from the 1830’s onwards, Christmas cards from the 1850’s onwards, and there was even a modern-style Santa Claus from the 1860’s onwards.
All of these luxuries belonged to a settled society. On the frontiers it could be very different. For starters the weather could have a major influence. There were sometimes terrible blizzards and savage winds on the prairies, coupled with swollen creeks that forced isolation and independence. But the settlers made every effort within their means, often reflecting the traditions of their country of origin. They would bring out foods they’d laid up for storage such as preserved fruit and vegetables, and they would hunt or trap fresh game. Cakes and other goodies would probably be made weeks ahead, the plum pudding being left to age in the pot.
Pioneer families would almost always make some effort at decoration. If they couldn’t spare a tree because it was too useful as firewood, or there weren’t any trees, or their home was too small, they would scour the landscape for evergreen twigs and berries to make the place look festive.
Gifts were not expensive store-bought ones as a general rule. If they came from town, they would be either a single piece of candy or something useful like a tin mug, as described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in ‘Little house on the prairie’. Family members usually made the gifts they gave to each other: mittens, socks, pot-holders, rag dolls, carved wooden toys. They would have been working on them for months, hiding them so as to keep them a surprise.
There would usually be music – even if it was just singing carols. But more often than not someone could play an instrument to accompany the singing. Carols of course would be sung in church if the family were not too far away to attend.
One characteristic of celebrations in the Old West was noise. It was cheap and easy to make, and it created a festive atmosphere. The Christmas Serenade in San Augustine in 1853, for example, set off from the square blowing tin horns and beating tin pans. They went round all the houses, kicking in doors and pulling down fences. No-one took exception because it was Christmas. Then later gunpowder became readily available so pranksters poured it into tree stumps or holes in the ground, lit the fuse and scarpered. The ‘anvil shoot’ was a variation on this. Gunpowder was packed between two anvils and ignited with the idea of seeing how loud an explosion could be made. These home-made devices were replaced by the advent of fireworks.
Parties were of course a feature of the Christmas festivities – a famous one in Anson in 1885 inspired Larry Chittenden to write his poem ‘The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball’ – and so was alcohol. Soldiers were renowned for absconding at Christmas and seeking out whiskey to get drunk. White mule, a particularly vicious kind of moonshine, was used for making a very special (and some thought unpleasant) kind of eggnog.
Owing to their proximity, Texans in particular borrowed certain Mexican traditions. Among these were making ‘piňatas’, little star-shaped packages filled with sweets, and lining porches and walkways with ‘luminarias’, sand-filled bags holding a lighted candle.
Doubtless the inhabitants of the Old West would have embraced our modern shopping malls, catalogue stores and online shopping. They were nothing if not adventurous and expansive. Christmas was the most important festivity of the year and it was celebrated with gusto, even if with more difficulty some times than others. We would probably not feel out of place among them at Christmas if we were transported back in time.