Since we learned a little about Victorian Christmas traditions last week, I thought it would be fun to explore a little about historical American Christmas traditions. And what better way to learn than with my favorite childhood author, Laura Ingalls Wilder?
As you've probably noticed by now, I love the Little House on the Prairie series. I read it over and over growing up, and then re-discovered the books through an adult lens and experienced her stories on a whole new level. Laura Ingalls Wilder did such a good job painting a picture of life on the American frontier, and her way of writing makes you feel as if you are traveling with her in the covered wagon or working alongside her and her sisters in the claim shanty. Her books have had a huge influence on me--from family/life lessons learned to helping me vicariously experience the day-to-day life of my American heritage and gain an appreciation for all the sacrifice, valor, and spirit of pioneers in that era. I love learning about and reading stories set in the 1800s American frontier.
Some of my favorite moments in the Little House stories are the Christmas celebrations Laura and her family enjoyed throughout the years. Those stories remind me that you don't need to have material wealth to enjoy what matters during Christmastime. The gifts were small and homemade, decorations were few, but there was always a sense of anticipation, gratitude for health, home, and family, and selflessness--making sure that each family member and neighbor was thought of and served in some way.
Let's take a walk in Laura's shoes and explore some Christmas traditions from frontier America in the mid 1800s through her stories:
**Farmer Boy, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and The First Four Years not included in this review.
Little House in the Big Woods
Laura's age: ~4-5 years old.
Setting: Big Woods of Wisconsin
This book takes place in Laura's early childhood in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. One of the main Christmas traditions in the American frontier was preparing a feast with whatever special foods were available. That year for Christmas, Ma baked lots of goodies: "Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and rye'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 spoon." Ma also helped Laura and Mary make syrup candy on pans of fresh snow.
Another common way to celebrate Christmas was visiting family and friends. The
Ingalls hosted Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter's family. The children played outside in the snow and hung their stockings on Christmas Eve. Santa brought each child red mittens and a peppermint candy stick. Laura also received a rag doll, and Aunt Eliza made Ma a clove apple.
Little House on the Prairie
Laura's age: ~5 years old
Setting: Kansas, near Indian Territory (now Oklahoma)
A couple years later, Laura and her family were living in a small log cabin far away from any family or towns, near Indian Territory. Though supplies were limited, Ma made a delicious meal with stewed dried blackberries, sweet potatoes, and salt-rising bread, and Pa hunted and provided fresh game for the main course. Even when food was limited or scare, pioneers out on the frontier tried to make the Christmas meal special with whatever they had. This article talks about soliders caroling at their remote outposts and roasting venison over an open hearth on the prairie.
The Ingalls were sociable and had invited their bachelor neighbor, Mr. Edwards, to join them for Christmas day, but were worried he wouldn't make it across the swollen creek in the stormy weather. But Mr. Edwards arrived and brought with him presents from Santa for Mary and Laura. He told them a wonderful tale about how he had met Santa in Independence, Kansas and Santa wanted to make sure the good little girls received their Christmas presents, so he
sent their presents with Mr. Edwards. Their beloved presents were shiny tin cups, sticks of peppermint candy, a penny apiece, and heart-shaped cakes. Often, frontier families didn't have much, but made sacrifices to give small gifts to their children, and these gifts were precious and treasured. This article tells a lovely story of some pioneer mothers who went to great lengths to secure some molasses and make small candies for their children so they would have something in their stockings on Christmas morning.
On the Banks of Plum Creek
Laura's age: ~7-9 years old
Setting: Western Minnesota near Walnut Grove
On the first Christmas in Minnesota near Plum Creek, Ma asked Laura and Mary if they could wish for horses for Pa for Christmas and forego presents of their own. They also made a special gift for their baby sister Carrie- a button string necklace. One of things I love most about Laura's Christmas stories is how she draws out the selfless, giving spirit of Christmas. But Pa also encouraged them to hang their stockings on Christmas Eve and hold out hope for Santa, and on Christmas morning, they found candy in their stockings, and horses in the stable for Pa.
Santa Claus has been a long-standing tradition in America, largely influenced by two writers in the mid 1800s, even among frontier families (source). Santa played a large part in Laura's Christmas memories. " 'The older you are, the more you know about Santa Claus . . . You know he can't be just one man, do you? You know he is everywhere on Christmas Eve' said Ma . . . 'I guess he is like angels,' Mary said. . . Then Ma told them something else about Santa Claus. He was everywhere, and besides that, he was all the time. Whenever anyone was unselfish, that was Santa Claus."
The Christmas tree, originating in Germany, has also been a part of American Christmases since the 1800s (source). Laura saw her first Christmas tree in Walnut Grove-- a large tree at the town church, laden with gifts for the whole community:
"Laura's mouth fell open and her eyes stretched to look at what she saw. . . She had never before seen such a tree. Where leaves would be in summer, there were clusters and streamers of thin green paper. Thick among them hung little sacks of pink mosquito bar. Laura was almost sure that she could see candy in them. From the branches hung packages wrapped in colored paper, red packages and pink packages and yellow packages, all tied with colored string. Silk scarves were draped among them. Red mittens . . . a pair of new shoes . . . lavish strings of popcorn were looped over all this . . . Ma smiled down at her... 'That is a Christmas tree, girls. Do you think it is pretty?' "
By the Shores of Silver Lake
Laura's age: ~12-13 years old
Setting: Dakota territory, near De Smet, SD
The Ingalls family spent their first winter in Dakota Territory living in a surveyors' house and looking after the railroad equipment. The house was large, warm, and stocked with food and supplies. They enjoyed a cozy Christmas there with their new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Boast. Laura wrote about all the thoughtful homemade gifts the family had made for each other and were carefully keeping hidden until Christmas morning. Gift giving is another common American Christmas tradition, and on the frontier, where supplies were usually limited and stores far away, families often made homemade gifts for each other. I love Laura's description of the eager anticipation each family member felt as they carefully prepared their gifts for one another. Laura had sewn a necktie for Pa. Carrie and Laura sewed Ma a new apron. Ma, Laura, and Carrie made slippers for Mary. Mary and Laura knitted mittens for Carrie. And all four of them made a beautiful swan's-down coat for baby Grace.
The Christmas dinner table was set beautifully, filled with roast rabbit, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, Johnny cake, hot biscuits, canned peaches and pickles, coffee, tea, and apple pie. Then, after dinner and chores were done, the family, along with Mr. and Mrs. Boast, spent the evening around the warm cookstove, popping corn, talking, laughing, and sharing stories. This a great example of the simple, yet joyous family gatherings so common at Christmastime in frontier America.
These Happy Golden Years
Laura's age: ~15-18 years old
Setting: De Smet, SD
A few years later, after enduring difficult winters and slowly building up the homestead, Laura wrote about a Christmas Eve at the house on the homestead while she was engaged to Almanzo Wilder. The family was looking forward to a church service and Christmas tree in town, but then a storm started that prevented them from going anywhere. So, they prepared some last-minute treats: popcorn balls and candy wrapped in pink mosquito netting. Pa played his fiddle and they sang songs together. Then, Almanzo arrived in the middle of the storm, and surprised them all. They looked forward to stockings the next morning, Christmas dinner, and reminisced about Christmases past. " 'Oh, Laura!' Carrie said, as Laura blew out the lamp in the bedroom. 'Isn't this the nicest Christmas! Do Christmases get better all the time?' 'Yes,' said Laura. 'They do.' "
Whether you are an avid reader of American historical fiction or not, I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about early Christmas traditions in frontier America through Laura Ingalls Wilder's memories. Her stories are filled with heart and nostalgia of the simple and sweet joys of Christmas with family.
Check out this article for some authentic American pioneer Christmas recipes: www.shirleendavies.com
Check out this article for some fun ways to incorporate pioneer traditions into your Christmas: www.melissaknorris.com
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and as always, happy reading!