Monday, December 28, 2020

Christmas on the Prairies in the 1860s-1880s – by Donna Schlachter


Christmas, 1876

Many of the images we conjure regarding Christmas have been around for a long time, including Christmas trees, Christmas pudding, fruitcake, and Santa Claus. Some are strictly American in origin, including the notion of Santa as a jolly, old elf. Most were brought to this country by immigrants from primarily Europe, including Germany, England, and France.

Cattle in snow storm


And while much of the more civilized parts of America were enjoying many of these traditions, life was much harder on the prairies, where a single winter storm or a poor crop due to insects or drought could mean the difference between life and death.

Farming and ranching still require attention to fields and stock every single day of the year, leaving no room for the week-long festivities we often enjoy today. Neglecting chores could mean no food tomorrow—or even today.

Plenty of food, with enough to share

Still, many families, particularly those with children, endeavored to set apart the day and celebrate Jesus’ birth. Laura Ingalls Wilder, who famously catalogued life on the prairies in her series, Little House on the Prairie, says that her mother cooked all day long, baking bread, beans, and pies.

In the forts, soldiers caroled while venison roasted over an open hearth. Depending on their country of origin, a family might bring in a Christmas tree, although perhaps they’d have hung it by the trunk from a beam. Children gathered at the kitchen table to make homemade decorations, including miniature corn husk dolls or yarn angels. If there was a little extra cookie dough available, they cut out gingerbread men and punched a hole in the raw dough, stringing a piece of ribbon or yarn through after it was baked before hanging it on the tree.

Preserved fruit and vegetables were enjoyed, with the women often beginning the process weeks in advance.

Yarn doll

Gifts were simple, usually homemade, and most often something the person needed. Knitted and sewn items such as caps, mitts, and scarves were favorites, as well as occasionally socks or a sweater. Knit or carved toys for the little ones were also enjoyed, and if the family enjoyed a good year financially, perhaps a few candies, fresh fruit, or a small gift from the mercantile in town would appear in their stockings, which were hung on Christmas Eve, often after church service or a time of family singing in their own home.

Carved toys


Following is a recipe used by Mrs. Isabel Beeton, a native of England:

Victoria Sandwiches

4 eggs (weigh them in their shells)

Caster sugar, equal to the weight of the eggs

Butter, equal to the weight of the eggs

Flour, equal to the weight of the eggs

¼ teaspoon salt

Jam or marmalade, of any kind

Cream the butter for about five minutes then add the sugar and beat for about two-three minutes. Add the eggs and beat for three minutes. Add the flour and salt and beat for an additional five minutes.

Butter a 9”x9” baking tin and pour in the batter. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes. Use a toothpick to test for doneness. Allow to cool on a cake rack.

Cut the cake in half and spread the jam over the bottom of the cake. Place the other half of the cake on top and gently press the pieces together. Cut them into long finger pieces. Pile them in crossbars on a glass dish and serve.


Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery and Household Management, Isabella Beeton,
1874, London.


However you celebrate your Christmas this year, despite the changing world we live in and restrictions on numbers permitted in a group, I pray you’ll find the true meaning and joy of the season—Jesus becoming Emmanuel, God with us—and carry that with you all year through.






About Donna:

Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and they have been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, devotional books, and books on the writing craft. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.


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  1. Very interesting, Donna! Thanks for posting.

  2. I have a reproduction of an old cookbook, Housekeeping in Old Virginia, that I got 50 years ago. It's filled with recipes like that. They're fun to try to make.

    1. Thanks. I have one from my grandmother, where it talks about scalding the milk :)

  3. Thanks for posting. Oh for simpler times where people didn't go into debt for "perfect" gifts. We certainly don't do that but so many do.

    1. I agree. The availability of consumer credit changed our culture a lot.

  4. Welcome. Great post today. Thanks for sharing. Sometimes I wish that the world would go back to those times and people of all ages would know what it really means to work daily.

  5. Hi Lori, I know. However, I'm not big on bathing just once a week or using an outhouse :)