The Wild West of Yester-Year

Christmas in the Old West
By Rachel Kovaciny

Did cowboys and ranchers celebrate Christmas? What about pioneer farmers and ranchers? Cavalrymen stationed at forts? American Indians? Did they put up Christmas trees? Give gifts? Have a feast? Sing carols?

The basic answer for all of those is... yes. While not everyone celebrated Christmas in the Old West, it was a popular holiday during the Cowboy Era (roughly 1865-1885). And people on the frontier celebrated it in many of the same ways we do today. If that surprises you, you need to remember the Cowboy Era coincides with a chunk of the Victorian Era, and the Victorians brought together the many Christmas traditions we practice today, largely thanks to two men: Charles Dickens and Prince Albert. When Prince Albert married Britain’s Queen Victoria in 1840, he brought many of his German Christmas traditions with him, especially decorated evergreen trees inside the home and Advent wreaths with candles to light. Meanwhile, Charles Dickens published a novella called A Christmas Carol in 1843. That simple, now-famous story turned the hearts and minds of the Victorian British toward celebrating Christmas by giving gifts and good cheer to as many people as they could.

Americans on the east coast copied anything fashionable in Great Britain as soon as they learned of them. Whatever was stylish on the east coast trickled its way west, too. Not only that, German, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants brought their own Christmas traditions here with them, sharing their ways of celebrating with their new neighbors. By the 1860s, a Christmas with no gifts, special food, or decorations just wouldn’t have felt like Christmas. Sometimes, a Christmas tree would get set up in the middle of a small town, in a church or schoolhouse, or in a family’s home. If a family had their own tree, they might invite friends or family members to help decorate it. A woman’s committee might decorate the town tree, or perhaps they would let all the children from the local school do it. Most ornaments were simple: shapes cut from tin or paper, nuts painted in pretty colors, pretty ribbons, strings of berries, gingerbread cookies threaded on a string, dried apple rings with a loop of yarn through them, etc. If you had the right little holders for them, you might put lighted candles on your Christmas tree (please don’t try that at home!) the way Germans traditionally did.

Presents were often useful items, such as new gloves, a hat, or socks. Children might receive a handmade or store-bought toy or book. Harmonicas were a popular gift for young and old alike. So were exotic fruits like oranges. Shipped to the west on trains, they were too expensive to be anything but a special treat for most frontier families. Santa Claus was popular among frontier children, and he was especially fond of bringing them oranges, whistles, candy sticks, and pocket knives. Candy was a popular gift, just as it is now. We have records of German immigrants decorating Christmas trees with candy canes, though they would have been plain white—the red stripes didn’t get added until around 1900, along with the peppermint flavor. But peppermint sticks existed in the Old West and were cheap enough even poor families could usually afford them. 

If you lived close enough to a town that had a church, or at least a minister, you would attend a church service on Christmas Day. If you didn’t, the head of the family would read the Christmas story from Luke in the Bible. But most people didn’t get the day off on Christmas—much of farm and ranch life revolved around livestock, and they needed cared for just as much on Christmas as any other day. Still, eating a big meal for supper, exchanging gifts, and maybe singing some carols would make the day festive, regardless.

Many of our beloved Christmas songs date back to long before the 1860s. Silent Night was composed in 1818. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing is even older; it was written in 1739, though the tune we sing today was written in 1840. And Joy to the World dates back to 1719! Soldiers stationed at frontier outposts would enjoy Christmas too, even putting up Christmas trees and enjoying a holiday feast. The American Indians on reservations learned that celebrating Christmas meant they might be allowed to visit family members they didn’t see often. Whether they had converted to Christianity or were still practicing their traditional religions, native peoples often celebrated Christmas by combining their own dances and celebrations with the festivities introduced by Europeans. Christmas on the frontier would look pretty familiar to our modern eyes, only a bit simpler and quieter. But it was still a time to spread joy to those around you, just as it is today.