Tales from the Tread: Pioneer Christmas memories
Mary Crawford King left a written record of the first Christmas gathering in Steamboat Springs in 1877. Those who attended were Mr. and Mrs. James H. Crawford, their children and Mr. and Mrs. S.D.N. Bennett.
On this occasion, there was a small tree strung with ropes of popcorn and paper cornucopias, which Mrs. Bennett had made and decorated with pictures and pink ribbons. The cornucopias were filled with Mrs. Crawford’s homemade candies and raisins.
The Bennetts arrived at the Crawford house in the morning to enjoy the tree and stayed for dinner. The two families ate trout, venison roasts, mince pie and cottage cheese. They ate in the one room of the cabin that was completed at this time.
Early pioneers only received mail about once per month and it was carried by snowshoe from Hahn’s Peak. This particular year, a few days before Christmas, a package of popcorn and books arrived from Crawford relatives in Sedalia, Missouri.
The second Crawford family Christmas in Steamboat Springs was in 1880. Between 1877 and 1880, Mr. Crawford had served in the legislature in Denver, and, because of the incidents with the Ute Indians in 1879, it had been deemed unsafe to remain in Steamboat Springs during that winter.
For Christmas 1880, Ed Coburn, the mail carrier, came from Hayden to eat dinner with the Crawford family. After dinner, Mr. Coburn set out for a cabin on Morrison Creek, where he usually exchanged mail with the carrier from Hot Sulphur Springs.
However, a hard snow storm engulfed the poor man, and he became lost for five days. He had lost all his matches but one. With this one match, he miraculously started a fire and cooked a porcupine he had killed. A wolverine had followed him for many hours until Coburn found safety at the cabin. There, a rescue party found him and trail-sledded him back to the Crawford home, where he stayed until spring. He had been badly frozen and lost most of his toes to frostbite. What a Christmas!
William Leahy remembered his first Christmas in Routt County in 1877 on the Snake River, at the home of Alfred McCargar: “There was four or five feet of snow, and we started on snowshoes on the night of Dec. 23, making the distance during the night and arriving early for Christmas Eve, when the celebration was to occur.
“There were about 30 (people) at McCargar’s for Christmas, and there was a fine time with a big dinner and a dance, but I never went in for dancing much. Two of the McCargar girls were there, and I can truthfully say they were the most beautiful girls in Routt County, so far as I knew, as at that time, I hadn’t seen any other women in the county.
The Christmas celebration at McCargar’s broke up when the liquid refreshments gave out, which was some time Christmas day, and a large portion of the crowd went to Dixon for a good time. All of us had plenty of gold dust, and it was surely a good time we had.”
Pioneer banker and merchant, F.E. Milner remembered his first Christmas in Routt County in 1884: “I enjoyed a turkey dinner as a guest of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Crawford at their home near the Iron Spring. … In 1884, there were but three families here, those besides the Crawfords being those of Henry Woolery and Horace Suttle. Mr. Woolery was postmaster, and his wife kept a roadhouse, a stopping place for those en route to Hahns Peak, Hayden and other points in the county.”
Milner later bought Woolery’s roadhouse, then a log building on the corner of 10th and Lincoln, and opened the first store in the valley.
The Christmas tree was the most important holiday decoration in Victorian times. It was set up Christmas Eve, and taken down January 6, the 12th day of Christmas. The early Victorian Christmas trees were decorated with fruits, nuts, pine cones, candles and small homemade gifts. Trees were often strung with popcorn and berries. A star ornament was placed on top to remind everyone of the star that led the three Wise Men to Jesus. Later, Victorian trees were much more elaborate, with ornaments that were miniatures of furniture, musical instruments, toys, fans and books.
On Christmas Eve, families decorated the tree, played games and music, sang songs and told stories. In the country, families went on hay rides while sipping hot apple cider and singing Christmas carols. Like today, many families attended Christmas Eve church services.
The custom of hanging stockings became popular during the Victorian era. Pantomimes were special plays for children, often staged during the Christmas season. Christmas crackers were invented during the Victorian era. Crackers were rolled pieces of paper tied at each end. When tugged apart, they made a loud bang. Inside were treats such as cookies, puzzles or toys. Throughout the years, Christmas has been a special time for family, fun and unique holiday traditions.
Old West traditions
By the mid 1800s, the American Christmas tradition included many of the same customs and festivities as today, including tree decorating, gift giving, Santa Claus, greeting cards, stockings by the fire, church activities and family-oriented days of feasting and fun.
But, for those in the Old West, far from the more civilized life of the east, pioneers, cowboys, explorers, and mountain men usually celebrated Christmas with homemade gifts and humble fare.
Christmas for many in the Old West was a difficult time. Those on the prairies were often barraged with terrible blizzards and savage December winds. For mountain men, forced away from their mining activities long before Christmas, in fear of the blinding winter storms and freezing cold, the holidays were often meager. But, to these strong pioneers, Christmas would not be forgotten, be it ever so humble.
Determined to bring the spirit of Christmas alive on the American frontier, soldiers could be heard caroling at their remote outposts, the smell of venison roasting over an open hearth wafted upon the winds of the open prairie, and these hardy pioneers looked forward to the chance to forget their hard everyday lives to focus on the holiday.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the preparations for Christmas on the Kansas prairie: “Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and r’n’Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and 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, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon.”
That very Christmas, Laura Ingalls was delighted to find a shiny new tin cup, a peppermint candy, a heart shaped cake, and a brand new penny in her stocking. For in those days, these four small gifts in her stocking were a wealth of gifts to the young girl.
Though perhaps modest, these hardy pioneers made every attempt to decorate their homes for the holidays with whatever natural materials looked attractive at the bleakest time of year, such as evergreens, pinecones, holly, nuts, and berries.
For some, there might even be a Christmas tree, gaily decorated with bits of ribbon, yarn, berries, popcorn or paper strings, and homemade decorations. Some of these home made decorations were often figures or dolls made of straw or yarn. Cookie dough ornaments and gingerbread men were also popular. In other places, wood was simply to scarce to “waste” on a tree, if one could be found at all. Other pioneer homes were simply too small to make room for a tree.
Candice Bannister is executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
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