Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Pioneer Christmas

By Miralee Ferrell

Christmas was much the same in the mid-to-late 1800s as today, in many areas of the U.S. Presents were exchanged, cards were often sent, homes were decorated, stockings hung by the fire for the children and churches gathered to celebrate the birth of Christ. 

Harper's Weekly showing an 1876 Christmas--Photo courtesy of
Legends of America.

However, it was a little different in the more rugged areas of the old west--for the miners, the teamsters, the cowboy in the bunkhouse or out on the range, or the mountain men huddled over their fire trying to stay dry and warm in their humble cabin. Severe winters, driving winds, poor crops from the previous growing season, mines shut down due to pass being closed from heavy snows, all made life difficult for these intrepid souls who called the West their home.

Miners led a rugged life, living in cramped quarters

However, Christmas was not forgotten, even in the most rugged of areas. The spirit of Christmas was alive on the American frontier. Soldiers could be heard caroling at their remote outposts, venison roasted over an open hearth, and 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.

In the West, probably one of the first Christmas celebrations was held by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery in the winter of 1805. The expedition had reached the Oregon Coast and was waiting for the warmer spring weather in a small fort they had built. The men celebrated the holiday by firing their rifles and singing. Later, Lewis and Clark gave presents to their men out of the few supplies they had left, handkerchiefs and tobacco.
Lewis and Clark's Discovery--1805

The tradition of Santa Claus was popular among children on the frontier as well
and a journal called “St. Nicholas” was available for children out West. This journal was published from around the early 1800’s to the 1940’s. It was designed for children in isolated areas and included 500 pages of stories, poetry, contests, games, and crafts. It was particularly helpful in keeping children entertained during the long winter months on the frontier.

Miralee Ferrell is a best-selling, award-winning author with 21 books in print. She lives in the Pacific NW with her husband and loves to hike, ride horses and
spend time with her family and pets. Her newest book, Rebel Horse Rescue, is book 5 in the Horses and Friends series for kids ages 8-13.

Summer is winding down for Kate and her friends when a surprise visitor appears at her family’s stable—a beautiful bay horse wearing a halter and a bad attitude. Dubbing the horse “Rebel,” the friends set out to find the horse’s owner. Where did he come from, and why are horses all over the area disappearing from their pastures and paddocks? It’s a mystery that even the sheriff can’t figure out, so Kate decides to head up the investigation. When Kate’s autistic brother, Pete, develops a strong connection to the new arrival, Kate wonders—did God bring Rebel to them for a bigger purpose? A perfect book for kids ages 9-13, containing mystery, adventure, family values, friendships, and lots of horses! Each of the books in the Horses and Friends books can be read alone, but each one builds on the other as to character development and story line.


  1. More interesting information on this great blog. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Thank you for sharing thoughts about past Christmases during the pioneer era. Love Laura Ingalls Wilder's Christmas stories in her book and the TV reproduction of Little House on the Prairie--especially the Christmas ones. I truly believe each one found a way to give honor to the Savior who's birthday was being celebrated as they were not tied to commercialism as Americans are today--but to the real meaning of Christmas no matter how small. Young children will be happy to have another great book to read. Merry Christmas!

  3. Thank you for sharing your great post! I hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas!