By Jacqueline Kimball
It’s December, 1850, in a small pioneer settlement in Oregon. A yearling boy’s dream is a hunt with his father, and he hopes to be the one to kill a beautiful turkey for Christmas dinner. Mama will be thrilled, and everyone will say it was the biggest turkey ever caught in these here parts.
But wait! (Cue the sound of a record scratching on a turn table…) Ahem…did I say turkey? I did, didn’t I? Did you know that there were no turkeys in Oregon in 1850? Neither did I, and when I found out, I had major revisions to do on my manuscript for CHRISTMAS IN BEAVER CREEK. My character, Jimmy, couldn’t shoot a turkey. No wonder Mama wanted to kill his goose. Well, Jimmy couldn’t have that, now could he? So Jimmy then went after a coveted deer, so that Mama could have a beautiful venison roast.
After I realized that I didn’t know an 1850 pioneer Christmas if it hit me over the head, I dug deep into researching, and I was quite surprised. Take Christmas trees, for instance. Despite what you see on television, it is doubtful that there were Christmas trees in most pioneer homes in 1850, even if trees were available.
I discovered that the Christmas tree was a German tradition, and rarely was seen in America except in German homes. This slowly changed when a picture was published in a London magazine in 1848, showing German-born Prince Albert and Queen Victoria with their Christmas tree. The Christmas tree was at first mostly seen in upper-class homes in America.
Pioneers decorated their homes with what they could find. On the prairie, this might have been corn husks, bits of ribbon, and painted wooden items on the mantle. Oregon was abundant with trees. The home would have been decorated with greenery, berries, pine cones, wooden carvings, and, perhaps, festive fabric.
Wreaths were made of greenery, pine cones, nuts, berries and even colorful bird feathers. Socks were often hung by the fireplace, and excited children might find a few items in the stocking, usually a piece or two of candy, and homemade treats such as cookies.
Santa Claus was alive and well long before 1850. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas, for his children, and it was published anonymously in 1823. There is controversy over his authorship, though he publicly acknowledged that it was his work in 1837. Regardless, the book is hugely responsible for the Santa Claus that children love to this day. The story spread quickly. Jolly Santa Claus, and yes, even his reindeer, became part of Christmas traditions in America.
But gifts in Santa’s sack have certainly changed from the simple gifts of the nineteenth century. Back then, most were handcrafted, and the family worked on them for weeks or even months ahead.
Pa might build a doll house for his daughters, while mama made dolls from old rags. Pa might pass down a knife or gun to an older son, or build a rocking horse for a younger child. Mother often knitted woolen scarves, and made warm clothing as gifts.
Oranges and candy were expensive, and a child who got an orange in their stocking might scream with excitement. Children often made a pincushion, painted a pine cone, or gathered a bucket of nuts for gifts to their parents. Older children made carvings, stools, aprons, handkerchiefs and such for their parents and siblings.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her Christmas on the Kansas prairie. “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.”
Pioneer meals for the special day were not nearly as elaborate as today’s heavily laden table of main dishes, sides, and desserts. Since there was no refrigeration, women used seasonal items and preserved foods. Sugar was expensive, so there would have been only a few sweet items.
Men took to the woods and brought back fresh meat for the table. Some families had smoke houses, and cured their own hams. Though the fare was simple, cooking the holiday meal involved hours of preparation and cooking. Cook stoves, if the lady of the house even owned one, were primitive, and food was easily burned. Much care had to be taken to ensure a fine feast.
Consider this menu from The Lady’s Receipt Book by Eliza Leslie, published in 1847: Roast turkey, (not that my Jimmy could find one ) cranberry sauce, boiled ham, turnips, beets, winter squash, bread, and mince meat pies. Not very interesting, is it? Other popular items were baked potatoes lavish with butter, candied sweet potatoes, baked beans, fish, and pickles.
The real Christmas story, the birth of Jesus, was a huge part of Christmas traditions in most pioneer homes. Almost every home had a Bible, or knew the story of the Lord’s birth by heart. Usually the Christmas story would be read or told on Christmas Eve. Some homes even had carved nativity scenes.
**All pics are from Pixabay free images.
WRITING PROMPT: Study the picture below of a modern family Christmas. Think about how Christmas today is much different in some ways, and the same in others. If you could go back in time, and sit beside a person your own age, what would you tell them about Christmas today? Do you think that a long ago Christmas, or today’s Christmas is the most satisfying? Why?
Jacqueline Kimball is a writer and Louisiana native who received her degree in elementary education from Northeast Louisiana University (now named University of Louisiana at Monroe), graduating magna cum laude. In 2006, she was honored Teacher of the Year at her school, Rayville Elementary. She retired from teaching in 2010, and though she misses her time in the classroom, she is happy to finally have time to pursue her passion for writing.
Jacqueline (Jackie) is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, and her local group, Alabama Mountain Writers. She loves history, and is particularly drawn to the mid 1800s. She enjoys writing historical fiction, and four of her five books are historical. Her newest book, book one of her Beaver Creek Series (Love Comes to Beaver Creek) was just released on Dec 4th. She also write children’s stories, including the book Houston the Cleft Palate Puppy, her personal favorite. Additionally, she has written for church publications, Hub Pages, Infobarrel, MSNBC, and various publications. She is currently writing a Christmas novella, A Very Doggie Christmas.
She is the mother of three grown children; Lisa, Kimberli, and Michael, and a proud nana to eight beautiful grandchildren and one great grandchild. She currently lives in Northeastern Alabama, near her younger daughter Kimberli and family. She shares her home with her older daughter Lisa, and two spoiled little house dogs who don’t know that they are…ahem…canines.
Love Comes to Beaver Creek
Summer 1851, Beaver Creek, Oregon. Lindy Sanders is in love with her childhood friend, Jack Matthews. But she, and she alone, was at the creek when his sister drowned, and she feels that he blames her. When another person drowns, the community realizes that this is no coincidence. Who killed Sissy Matthews, and why? Can Lindy and Jack find true love despite the tragic events, or will a love from the past change everything?
Ben Dorsey’s wife died, leaving him with two babies under a year old. Ben vows never to love again, but he needs a wife, and quick. Mary Grace vows that she will marry a complete stranger, rather than live with her father and step mother any longer.
And finally, Carlton has returned from California with enough money to take a wife. But the one he loves, loves another.
This is book one of The Beaver Creek Series. Each book is a stand-alone book, with familiar characters from The Oregon Series, and new ones as well.