It was Dec. 25, 1863, in what is now Wyoming. Christmas dinner consisted of roast pig, roast beef and cold, boiled ham, accompanied by jellies, pickles, coffee and tea. For dessert, guests were served canned peaches, mince pie, ice cream and a “large cake, nicely iced and a basket of flowers on it with the inscription Co D 11 O.V.C. in large raised letters.” The dinner was hosted by Company D of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Calvary, headquartered at Fort Laramie. Partaking of this feast was a young clerk named Caspar Collins. His mother, Catherine Collins, described the dinner menu in a letter to her two daughters back home in Ohio, written while she was visiting her husband Colonel William Collins, the 11th O.V.C.’s regimental commander. More cakes, jellies and egg-nog greeted them at two more “entertainments” hosted by families stationed at the fort.
From diary entries and letters, we have many first-hand accounts of frontier Christmases, and they are as varied as the people who wrote them. They range from lavish masquerade balls and visits from Santa Claus, to starving soldiers marching through snow or huddled together for warmth, fearing imminent attack.
Perhaps the earliest Christmas celebrated in the West was described by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition who marked Dec. 25, 1804, with brandy and gunfire. In fact, many descriptions of Christmas day by those in the frontier army (c. 1860-1900) include firearm salutes, cannon discharges and the consumption of liberal amounts of alcohol—typically whiskey and beer—due to the suspension of strict drinking rules by commanding officers for the occasion. A day of heavy drinking was usually followed by a morning of rest or light duty. For soldiers living a life of monotonous rules and regulations far from civilization, churches and chaplains, Christmas was a welcome change as well as a bittersweet reminder of home.
It was the presence of women and children at military posts which brought the kind of traditional Christmas celebrations we would recognize today. Adults on the frontier, especially those who were parents, wanted to make sure all the children experienced the magic of Christmas, no matter how far away they were from stores selling holiday decorations and toys. The children of civilian workers and poor local families—even Indian children—were also included in Christmas celebrations. There were visits from Santa Claus and stockings hanging by the fireplace. Makeshift decorations consisted of any greenery they could find, ribbons, streamers, banners, flags, candles, old Christmas cards and—as early as the mid-1860s—Christmas trees.
At many remote locations, Christmas trees were fashioned out of whatever they could find: juniper, sage and cedar brush, cottonwood branches, sticks of wood covered with green paper and even elk antlers. “Sometimes I think our Christmas on the frontier was a greater event to us than to any one in the states,” recalled Libby Custer, wife of George Armstrong Custer, who joined her husband at forts in Texas, Kansas, and the Dakota Territory in the 1860s and ’70s. “We all had to do so much to make it a success.”
In the late 19th century, tree decorations often included small presents such as mittens, pin cushions and dolls. Paper cornucopias filled with candy, paper flowers, rock candy, strings of popcorn and cranberries, and paper chains were also common. Small candles were placed on the trees which would have been lit just one or two times—and always with a pail of water nearby! On the frontier, military posts that were located near train stops or stage lines could get factory-produced decorations and toys as well as fancy food items from back east without much trouble—although getting them before Christmas was sometimes a problem. For those farther afield, ingenuity kicked in, and they used whatever was at hand.
Frontier Christmas feasts were varied but often did not stray too far from today’s menus. Roasted turkeys, chickens, “pig,” beef and, depending on the availability of more traditional fare, venison and antelope. Canned lobster and oysters were special treats and usually an option only for those near the railway or a large town. Eggs, apples and oranges were very expensive and highly treasured. Relishes, nuts and dried fruit were common. Like today, desserts were an important part of the celebration: plum puddings, fruit pies, cookies and cakes—anything made with sugar, milk and eggs. Music, singing and dancing accompanied the feasting; also games and lots of egg-nog (usually spiked).
Sharing food and company with friends were the most important aspects of 19th-century frontier Christmases spent far away from home and family. Even after a hundred-plus years, this, at least, has not changed.
To learn more about Christmases on the frontier and in the old West, read “A Frontier Army Christmas” (Nebraska State Historical Society, 1996) and “Christmas in the Old West” (Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2003). To experience an 1865 frontier Christmas, join the staff, volunteers, and re-enactors at Fort Caspar Museum for a free “Candlelight Christmas” event on Saturday, Dec. 2 from 5:30 to 8:30 pm.