Imagine…You came along the Santa Fe trail to settle in this part of the Missouri territory. Few people have made their homes here, other than the Native Americans who were forced into the area from the Great Lakes region and the East. They live far from you, though, and aren’t a concern.
|Image of Kansas in winter by Rob Wishusen
It’s the isolation worrying you this day, the 24th of December. There is no church service to attend, no close neighbors to gather with for a small Christmas Eve service. Looking around you, the two small faces gazing at you cause you to shake off your gloom. You will make Christmas Eve special with the things you have around you.
This was the case for pioneers who lived a rough, work-centered life to maintain their existence in places like the Kansa prairie of the Missouri Territory. Holidays like Christmas were treasured. They paused in their daily struggle and celebrated with whatever and whoever they had close at hand. It might seem like a humble celebration to us today, but Christmas was not forgotten or ignored by these families.
The land around the homesteaders provided part of the decorations. Dried plants that seemed festive took the place of evergreens and pine cones. Imagine the dried grasses and prickly brown cones of thistles in mason jars or along a small mantle. Perhaps the mother dried flowers in her root cellar, hanging them upside down. Now, she brings them out to add some muted color to the holiday.
|Even dried grasses began a part of the Christmas decorations.
Other dried items would also come out at this time of year. Dried apples would be used to make a pie, perhaps, or just to chew on as a special treat. Dried vegetables like green beans would be eaten as well. Green beans were strung during the summer and hung above the cookstove. As they dried, they absorbed the smoke from the stove to give them added flavor. Sometimes called leather britches, these were chewed during the winter, helping to avoid vitamin deficiencies.
Popcorn was another source of fun at Christmas. Using thread and a needle, it was carefully turned into a garland. Dried items like the rose hips gathered from wild roses could also be added to the garland for color. In America, the tradition of a popcorn garland actually dates back to Williamsburg, Virginia. According to author Phillip Snyder, the first Christmas tree in that city appeared in 1842. It was decorated with popcorn and colored paper. (from The Christmas Tree Book by that author) Pioneers would be very familiar with the practice adapted from traditions brought to the United States by German immigrants. These quickly became popular in the East.
In the days leading up to Christmas, one traditional item would be aging to gain flavor—the plum pudding. Mixed together and then placed in some type of linen, this was typically made two to three days before Christmas. It was steamed on Christmas day and served with a lemon sauce or a sweet milky sauce. My grandparents were still including it as a part of our Christmas celebration when I was a child and a teen. I remember well the spicy flavor of the very moist cake.
The homesteaders would gather on Christmas Eve as a family. Though the group might be small and the wind would howl outside as it whipped the snow, they would sing carols and read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Children would wake up to small homemade gifts left in stockings.
Yes, Christmas was treasured by these hardy homesteaders on the Kansas prairie.
(For further reading, I recommend https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-christmas/.)
(My great-great-great grandmother brought this recipe with her to the United States when she immigrated from Northumbria, England. I believe the sorgum was a substitute for another ingredient since it was a common sweetener in Wisconsin.)
3 cups flour
1 tsp. soda
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup suet
1 cup soured milk
3 tsp. sorgum
1/2 cup sugar
Steam 3 hours in cloth.