Have you ever wondered how people celebrated the Christmas holidays during the days of the Old West?
Of course, depending on the time frame and location you look at, there was no certain way of celebrating Christmas, much like there’s no universally accepted Christmas celebration today — although there were common cultural patterns that cowboys, cavalry troopers, early fur traders and explorers, sod busters, and town folks all seemed to share when they celebrated Christmas.
1. Giving and receiving presents always played an important role in Christmas celebrations throughout 19th Century America, even that time and location we think of around these parts as “the Old West.” One account I have, “Army Letters From an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888” by Frances M.A. Roe, wife of Army Lieutenant Colonel Fayette Washington Roe, recounts the first Christmas she and her husband spent in Colorado Territory in 1871. She suggests that one of the real hardships the frontier soldiers and their spouses faced was the lack of presents to exchange. She writes poignantly of their Christmas celebration:
Our first Christmas on the frontier was ever so pleasant, but it certainly was most vexatious not to have that box from home … however, … a number of things came from the girls, and several women of the garrison sent pretty little gifts to me. It was so kind and thoughtful of them to remember that I might be a bit homesick just now. All the little presents were spread out on a table, and in a way to make them present as fine an appearance as possible.
2. Feasting, games, and all sorts of social gatherings were important in the West at Christmas time. Writer Washington Irving, in recounting the Western explorations of Army Captain Benjamin Bonneville, tells of the explorer/trader/soldier’s 1832-34 adventures into Oregon Territory and a Christmas the explorers
spent with Indian tribes in and around Fort Bonneville in present day Wyoming. In Bonneville’s words, as told by Irving, Christmas included a feast, followed by a time of friendly competition and games with the Indians:
“Kowsoter [the local chief] … invited the whole company to a feast on the following day. His invitation was gladly accepted. A Christmas dinner in the wigwam of an Indian 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 Indians closed the Christmas festivities.”
It would be difficult to find a Christmas among explorers, settlers, cowboys, townsfolk, or any group living in the Old West where Christmas was not acknowledged or celebrated in some fashion, generally in keeping with the customs a particular group brought westward with them from their native European countries or lives back East.
3. Perhaps surprisingly, Santa Claus was a known figure in the Old West, thanks primarily to English and German Christmas traditions carried westward by settlers and soldiers alike. Indeed, Elizabeth Custer, wife of George Armstrong Custer, in her book “Tenting on the Plains” (published in 1887), makes passing reference to a Christmas celebration involving Santa and passing out presents:
“We had a lovely Christmas … We had a large Christmas-tree, and Autie was Santa Claus, and handed down the presents, making side-splitting remarks as each person walked up to receive his gift. The tree was well lighted. I don’t know how so many tapers were gotten together.”
The earliest Santa Claus images that resemble modern-day Santas were created by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1880s, but certainly illustrations of “Father Christmas” done for various editions of Dickens’ and Irving’s works are very similar to the Santa Claus we know today. Children and adults alike throughout the Old West would have been quite at home with many modern Santa traditions and stories.
How did they celebrate Christmas in the Old West? Much the same as we do in modern America and Europe, although probably with less commercialism and perhaps even a bit more family time and the warm joy of community. Certainly if they had had modern day shopping malls and catalog stores — even the Internet shopping options we have worldwide today! — people of the Old West would have taken advantage of them. I suspect, too, that the wide open spaces of the West and the adventuresome isolation imposed on many made the joy of Christmas spent with family and friends even greater and richer for it all.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, from Old Hoppy and his family — and may the New Year bring you the best ever!