• Notes From The Frontier

Pioneer Christmas Diaries


American pioneers of lore would no doubt be shocked at what Christmas has become in our modern consumer world today. Their Christmas holidays were the opposite of exorbitant, marked nearly always by hardship and often by poverty and great want. Yet they made merry with what little they had and children were thrilled to find a piece of hard candy, or small wooden toy, or a homemade ragdoll in their stocking.

The pioneer Christmas is part of American romanticism. The thought gives us a warm feeling of deep meaning and sacrifice and simple pleasures, of raw-hewn wood, the savory smell of a roasting goose or homemade bread, of a family gathered around the hearth, roasting chestnuts over a roaring fire.


Despite sometimes crushing challenges, pioneers and immigrants looked forward to Christmas and created their own joy: exchanging small gifts, singing, baking and preparing a meal, sharing food and sometimes spirits (of the liquid kind) were their usual holiday festivities.


Lewis and Clark’s journals illustrate the importance of Christmas even out in the wilderness in the most primitive of conditions. Their entourage was all men, except for Sacagawea, so they created joy with their limited resources—usually celebratory gunfire, drinking, singing, and eating. Here are the journal entries for their Christmases on the trail in the years 1803, 1804 and 1805:


1803 - December 25 -William Clark’s Journal at Camp Dubois

(Near what is today Wood River in southern Illinois on the Mississippi)

I was wakened by a Christmas discharge, found that Some of the party had got Drunk (2 fought,) the men frolicked and hunted all day, Snow this morning, Ice run all day, Several Turkey Killed.  Shields returned with a cheese & 4 lb butter, Three Indians Come to day to take Christmas with us, I gave them a bottle of whiskey and they went off after informing me that a great talk had been held and that all the nations were going to war against the Osage in 3 months, one informed me that a English man 16 ms. from here told him that the Americans had the Countrey and no one was allowed to trade &c. I explained the Intention of Govmt to him, and the Caus of the possession, Drewyear Says he will go with us, at the rate ofd [offered?] and will go to Massac to Settle his matters. 


1804 - December 25 -William Clark’s Journal at Fort Mandan

(Near present-day Washburn in west-central North Dakota on the Missouri)

On Christmas Eve, 1804, while the men put the finishing touches on Fort Mandan, "Flour, dried apples, pepper and other articles were distributed in the different messes to enable them to celebrate Christmas in a proper and social manner."

Snow fell on Christmas morning. The temperature was 15 degrees above zero Fahrenheit at sunrise, and topped out just five degrees higher in the late afternoon. At daybreak the men, "merrily Disposed," wakened the captains with "salutes" of gunfire. "I gave them all a little Taffia [rum mixed with water]," wrote Clark, "and permited 3 Cannon fired, at raising Our flag. Some men went out to hunt & the Others to Dancing." Sergeant Ordway added: “We had the Best to eat that could be had, & continued firing dancing & frolicking dureing the whole day . . . We enjoyed a merry cristmas dureing the day & evening untill nine oClock—all in peace & quietness.”


The weather warmed up considerably by January 1, when the men welcomed the New Year with several rounds of gunfire and a couple of glasses of "good old whiskey." At midday half of the Corps traipsed off to one of the Mandan Indian villages, carrying "a fiddle & a Tambereen& a Sounden horn." After several rounds of celebratory gunfire they commenced dancing. "A frenchman danced on his head," Ordway reported, "and all danced round him for a Short time then went in to a lodge & danced a while, which pleased them verry much." Clark ordered York, his black "Servent", to dance, which Some what astonished them, that So large a man Should be active.

So we danced in different lodges untill late in the afternoon," wrote Ordway.

They were breakin' up Christmas!


1805 - December 25 -William Clark’s Journal at Fort Clatsop

(Near present-day Astoria in the Seattle area of Oregon on the Columbia)

At day light this morning we we[re] awoke by the discharge of the fire arm of all our party & a Selute, Shoute and a Song which the whole party joined in under our windows, after which they retired to their rooms were Chearfull all the morning—after brackfast we divided our tobacco, ... we gave a Handkerchief as a present, The day proved Showery all day, the Inds. left us this evening—our party moved [snugly] into their huts. we dried Some of our wet goods. I rcved a present of a Fleeshe Hosery vest draws & Socks of Capt Lewis, pr. Mockerson of Whitehouse, a Small Indian basket of Guterich, & two dozen weazil tales of the Indian woman (Sacagawea, Squar of Shabono,) & Some black roots of the Indians...Our Diner to day Consisted of pore Elk boiled, spoiled fish & Some roots, a bad Christmass diner--worm Day.


Susan Fennimore Cooper, the daughter of the famous writer, James Fennimore Cooper, the author of “The Last of the Mohicans,” kept meticulous journals. Her diary entries from Christmas 1848 in rural upstate New York near Otsego, recount her childhood growing up in the land of the Mohawk Indians on Lake Ontario. Her journals were eventually published in a popular book called “Rural Hours,” and her Christmas entries were favorites of readers:


December 21, 1848: "It is snowing a little, we may yet have sleighing for Christmas.”...."It is a very busy time within doors... A variety of important labors connected with Christmas cheer are going on.  Cake jars are filling up with crullers; with dough-nuts; and raisined olecokes.  Waffles, soft and hard, make their appearance on the tea tables; mince-pies, with their heavy freight of rich materials, are getting underway; and cranberries are preparing for tarts.  Calves' head soup and calves'-foot jellies are under consideration; turkeys and ducks are fattening in the poultry yard while inquiries are made after game birds and fish from the lake..... There is a dawn of the kindliness and good-will belonging to Christmas perceptible in the kitchen and pantry; the eggs are beaten more briskly, the sugar and butter are stirred more readily, and the mince-meat chopped more heartily than on any other occasion during the year".


She continues: "Christmas tasks: Greens are put up in some houses. And, of course, Santa Claus must also be looked after. Santa's pouch and pack must be well filled for the little people, with a nursery-book, sugar-plums and candies, puppets and toys. Home-made dolls, babies of cotton and linen with pretty painted faces. The rag-babies or, more properly, Moppets, are always pets with little mammas, for no other dolls are loved so dearly as these. But it is not just adult women who make Christmas presents; many little slips of womankind are now busily engaged upon some nice piece of work, with bags, purses, slippers, mittens, what-nots.”

December 22, 1848: "We shall doubtless have sleighing for the holidays".


December 23, 1848: "Winter is out in its true colors at last. Merry bells are jingling through the village streets.  There are cutters and sleighs with gay parties dashing rapidly about.  It is well for Santa Clause that we have snow, if we may believe Mr. Clement Clark Moore, who has seen him nearer than most people, he travels in a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer".  


December 25, 1848:  "Christmas must always be a happy, cheerful day, the bright fires, the fresh and fragrant greens, the friendly gifts, and words of good-will, the 'Merry Christmas' smiles, create a warm glow and humble backdrop celebrated in solemn, public worship, and kept by the hearts of believing Christians, of Peace in pious devotion and with deeds of charity to the poor and afflicted". She continues: "Other religions have scarcely heeded children. Christianity bestows on them an especial blessing. The unfeigned, unalloyed gayety of children makes Christmas merry.”


Perhaps no journal writings have been more responsible for romanticizing pioneer Christmas than Laura Ingalls Wilder. She grew up on the Wisconsin and Kansas frontiers and her fond childhood memories of life in a log cabin have been forever immortalized in American literature.

She wrote of 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 let us lick the cake spoon."


That Christmas as a little girl, she was delighted to find a shiny new tin cup, a peppermint candy, a heart shaped cake, and a brand new penny in her stocking and she felt lucky beyond her dreams.


She wrote of the house being decorated with green branches and homemade decorations: Pine cones, nuts, berries and popcorn chains were hung on the tree. Figures or dolls out of straw or yarn. Cookie dough ornaments and gingerbread men. The Christmas dinner was planned, the Christmas goose fattened up and the plum pudding left to age in the pot until Christmas day.


Family members began making handmade gifts like corn husk dolls, sachets, carved wooden toys, pillows, footstools and embroidered hankies. Scarves, hats, mitts and socks were knitted. Girls were able to knit and boys learned woodworking very young.


Cookies and fruit were left in the stockings. Christmas Eve was a night for singing carols and telling stories around the fireplace. Christmas Day the whole family attended church and returned home to a Christmas meal. Then it was time to visit friends and neighbors. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder first submitted an article to the Missouri Ruralistin 1911 and she then became a columnist and editor for that publication until the stock market crash of 1929. The Crash wiped out her family and they lost their farm. Laura also lost her mother and her sister in the 1920s, and those traumas seemed to have prompted her to write about her childhood on the frontier. She preserve those memories in a story called ”Pioneer Girl.” She also hoped to make some income from her writing. The story sold and then she published “Little House in the Big Woods” in 1932. That was the beginning of "Little House" series. Her writing ended up not only supporting her family, but became wildly successful all over the world and her books would be printed in more than 40 languages.


Because her stories of hardship also recalled happiness and warm memories of frontier life, her writing resonated deeply with those suffering during the Depression. They found comfort in her tales of pioneers, who found value in simple things, helped each other, and were grateful for what little they had. And isn’t that the meaning of Christmas, as well?


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER


Posted December 23, 2019

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