Christmas on the Frontier must have been a very special time. Daily life for the entire family was a grind and a struggle. Scarce resources meant that everyone was used to life without frills and pretty low expectations about material goods. Living off of the land meant that a strict routine must be followed day in and day out. A limited supply of food meant that people probably got used to a pretty basic menu from week to week. So when the holidays hit, it was a glorious break from the humdrum, and everyone probably appreciated it even more than today.
So, far from civilized life, how did families on the Frontier make Christmas special? Let’s look at a few traditions enjoyed back in the mid to late 1800s and how crafty women created memorable days for their families.
A Christmas feast would have consisted of the very best food that was available to a family, and this may have varied greatly depending on the region in which they were living. How things were prepared would also depend on where the family was from before migrating West. There were, however, some common dishes that are seen mentioned in journals, cookbooks, and other sources from the time.
Breakfast was kept simple (according to the standard of the time) so as to leave room for plenty of feasting later in the day. One example I saw suggested a breakfast of coffee, fruit, buckwheat cakes, baked potatoes, baked chops, maple syrup, and tomato sauce.
Dinner was a different story. Frontier women were resourceful and spent a great deal of time collecting items and ingredients for a great Christmas feast. Some dishes that I came upon again and again include:
Surprisingly, most of the sources I read mentioned oysters being served during the day, if not on multiple occasions. How so many people in Frontier communities sourced oysters is a research topic for another time, but apparently they were a common holiday dish (and one that I approve of).
Desserts would have been decadent and abundant. Sweets you may have found on the table in a Frontier home include:
Vinegar pie (if anyone has tried this, I would love to know, and to possibly write about)
Many readers will immediately think of Little House on the Prarie when the words “Frontier Christmas” are heard. You may also remember one of the most popular scenes from the book in which Ma prepares for the special day:
“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 a 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.”
Decorating the home for the holidays would have given the woman of the house a great opportunity to get creative, and they would have heavily involved the children. A lot of embellishments would have been gathered from outside, which is a tradition I think we should revive. Common adornments were evergreen, pinecones, berries, nuts, dried fruit, and the family’s best table cloths.
By the middle of the 1800s, Christmas trees began to make their way into American homes due to the influence of German immigrants. Some families on the Frontier would have had them, and others not. If a Christmas tree was in the home, it would have been dressed modestly with berries, ribbon, yarn, and my favorite: cookie dough ornaments.
Gift-giving wasn’t always a Christmas tradition, but by the 1830s it had caught on and had become one aspect of the holiday season. Christmas gifts on the Frontier were often handmade and were highly treasured. And while today, Christmas stockings serve as a precursor to larger gifts, the items in a stuffed stocking would have often been the main event on Christmas morning. Items in the stocking may have included:
If a family lived in a larger territory or had more money, mail-order items or even store-bought gifts may have been given. Some of these may have included:
In some ways, Christmas Day on the Frontier looked like it does today. If a family lived near others, visiting took place where adults would enjoy Christmas treats, some adult beverages, and relaxing conversation, while children played. It was known to everyone to be a well-deserved day off, and everyone would have sipped it up.
There were some extra traditions that we don’t see as much of today, however. During the day, families and friends would have stopped to enjoy sessions of Christmas carol singing, either acapella or accompanied by whatever instrument was available. The 1800s were a big time for carols, with several classics being released:
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Edmund Sears, 1849
“Jingle Bells” by James Lord Pierpont,
“We Three Kings of Orient Are” by John Henry Hopkins, 1857
“Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts, 1839
“Angels We Have Heard on High”, 1855
“Up On the Housetop” by Benjamin Hanby, 1864 (one of my top faves)
If you were a mountain man in the Frontier, singing carols and enjoying some whiskey may have been the crux of your celebrations, and you would have enjoyed every minute of it.
Another difference between a Frontier Christmas and today is that if you had a church in your community, you would have attended a brief service before heading out for visits. It seems like a lot to fit into one day, doesn’t it?
What aspects of the Frontier Christmas do you recognize, and what aspects would you love to see revived?