Everywhere we look during this season, signs of commercialized Christmas are everywhere. The kids are begging for upgraded electronic gadgets, stores are overflowing with lit-up, cheerful Santas and penguins for the lawn, and the radio plays nothing but Bing and Elvis. If you attend church or have a spiritual life, at least the "true meaning" of the holiday is brought home to you. Folks out West certainly had a different view of Christmas than we do today. I can only imagine what a cowboy Christmas would be like: probably the same stew or beans, but maybe with a special treat later if the ranch owner was kind. Churches were scarce in the early days, so people would meet in homes or even outside. Depending on the environment and weather, snow or blizzards might interfere, so many families went without church of any kind.
One of my favorite Christmas stories of all times is the Christmas scene from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House On The Prairie. I read that chapter to my daughter last Christmas, which was the last time she believed in Santa. I encouraged her to close her eyes and imagine she lived in a little house in the middle of nowhere, whose nearest neighbor was an hour's drive away. Imagine the cold rain, the rising, freezing river, and the desolate, open prairie. Imagine eating only what your father could hunt, and having no entertainment of any kind but each other's company and Pa's fiddle. We talked about Laura and Mary waiting for Santa, going to bed so hopeful, even though they could hear Ma and Pa's worried voices discussing how bad the situation for any presents looks. Ma says, "there's always the white sugar." My eyes always tear up when I get to this part. I put myself in Ma's sturdy workboots and think about how hard their life was in those days that a little bit of sugar, so rare and precious, would have to suffice for a Christmas gift for two good little girls.
When Mr. Edwards sweeps into the house, covered in ice and snow, announcing he met Santa Claus, you know that Christmas has been saved. Laura and Mary are overjoyed and excited. My daughter shared their excitement, too - she knew that Santa was real, just as those two, long-ago girls did. When Laura and Mary discover their gifts (a tin cup, a penny, candy, and a little cake), we both felt their joy. Of course, those simple gifts are almost comical to us now - just try and give even something homemade or secondhand to a child today and see what happens. But, a hundred and more years ago, such gifts were hard to come by.
Christmas trees, even though a major part of the holiday in Victorian America, were scarce or impossible to find in some regions of the west. But if they were available and a family was lucky enough to have one, they were decorated with handmade ornaments such as cookies, dolls made of straw or yarn, or other things. Music would have been important, and caroling was popular. I imagine a group of cowboys sitting around a fire on a cold Christmas Eve, singing to their cows and maybe dreaming of Christmas traditions back home.
Christmas for many in the west was a difficult time. For those on the prairies, they were often barraged with terrible blizzards and savage December winds. For mountain men, forced away from their mining activities long before Christmas, in fear of the blinding winter storms and freezing cold, the holidays were often meager. But, to these strong pioneers, Christmas would not be forgotten, be it ever so humble. More religious folk would observe the holiday as they did every Sunday, with little work except the essential chores, and Bible reading or other quiet activities. Children have been hanging stockings for Santa for a long time, and the western child would have been no different, whether it was hanging on an adobe or peat fire.
As I pondered the celebration of Christmas in days past or in our own time, one thing always seems predominant, and it is the most obvious and precious - spending time with family and loved ones. Forget the glittering lights and piles of presents from Amazon and Ebay. Forget the china that is only rolled out once a year. Family, friends, and good health are still the most important things for anyone.
Merry Christmas to all of the Wild Rose Press authors, editors, artists, and others, as well as our readers, fans, reviewers, and loving families. May the New Year bring happiness and peace to all.
with acknowledgements to www.legendsofamerica.com for the picture and information.