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21 Dec
2015

Imagining a Pioneering Christmas on the Prairie

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This is the third in a series of explorations of the holiday traditions at the time of my grandparents, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Last time we looked at the Christmas traditions that emerged and become popular in the nineteenth century. 

The holiday season is upon us. Like many others, I feel the hustle and bustle to decorate, send greetings to friends and family and find the ideal gifts for my grandsons and other significant members of my family. In the midst this full and active time, I wondered how my grandmother would be preparing for Christmas on the prairie over 100 years ago. I am curious about life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the setting of my novel based on the lives of my grandparents. I know nothing personally about how they celebrated Christmas nor is there much written about what homesteading families on the American plains did to recognize the popular holiday season. In my last post, I described the practices and activities that became popular by the end of the nineteenth century.

I am guessing that many of those practices were more common in Eastern and more urban areas of the United States. It is hard to imagine an evergreen tree decorated with popcorn, dried fruit and burning candles inside an earthen dugout. Depending on where and when they homesteaded, dugouts served as the home of many homesteaders in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. I envision similar decorations on a bough or a sprig from a tree or bush that grew in the area instead. Perhaps there was a lone candle lit near a religious picture of Mary and Joseph and baby, Jesus. Because resources were so limited and many homesteading families struggled to survive, I doubt if gifts from Santa Claus were a major tradition. Perhaps stockings were hung in “hopes that St Nicholas” might leave a special treat of fruit or cookies.

Old-Fashioned-Christmas-Pictures-3Generosity and Sharing

Understanding the values of generosity and sharing that were common among homesteading families, including my grandparents, I am sure giving to those most needy and delivering meals and homemade dishes to neighbors would have been a frequent practice. Homesteaders often lived miles from their nearest neighbors, yet Christmas was a time to gather in community. I imagine my grandparents may have dressed in their “Sunday best” and traveled by horse and wagon or by sleigh to visit with neighbors. They may have gathered at the small community church to meet for religious services, share potluck meals and perhaps sing Christmas carols around a piano or accompanied by a guitar or banjo.

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Homesteaders had often traveled long distances from family to find the free land available to claim, then occupy for five years and to make it their own. I am sure that purchasing and sending Christmas cards was rare at the end of the nineteenth century among homesteaders on the American plains. Yet maintaining ties with family left behind, telling stories of life on the frontier and hearing the news of loved ones back home was priceless. Receiving letters was anticipated with growing excitement, especially at holiday time. I know that my grandmother, a former schoolteacher, wrote many letters from Oklahoma and New Mexico to her cherished family in Nebraska. I also imagine that she probably offered to read precious letters received by her grateful neighbors who could not read.

I have focused on those Christian and secular holiday traditions that might have been practiced by homesteaders like my grandparents. Communities with other ethnic or religious identities contributed their own practices and holiday traditions. Although the commercial and urban traditions of Christmas may not have been as common among homesteaders on the prairie, the belief in hope, community and sharing, shaped the holiday celebrations that many of us practice today.

What holiday traditions were practiced in your family when you were growing up? Do you observed different practices or traditions today? Do you know what your grandmother or great-grandmother did to prepare for Christmas?

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