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Christmases in the mid 1800s when pioneers were blazing trails along the way from the eastern to the western parts of the United States were humble, but merry celebrations. Though they may not have had the same glittery trimmings we do today, their Christmas traditions, like ours, centered around family, food, and fun.
Families such as the Laura Ingalls’s family helped thier children hang a stocking for Santa Claus to leave a present. In her Little House on the Prairie series, she recounts several Christmases of her childhood in which the gift from Santa was a penny, a stick of candy, and a small cake made with white sugar. It wasn’t until the family had settled near a town along the railroad that Laura even saw a Christmas tree. Gifts for her sisters were homemade items such as hand-knit mittens, or a thread strung with buttons for the baby. Ma Ingalls would bake an array of treats such as vinegar pie, stewed dried fruit pies, and special cakes to accompany the meat and vegetables. And often, the family would invite their friends or neighbors to join in the feasting.
Mormon pioneers gathered to sing and dance together at Christmas time. Musicians would keep on playing into the night as children and adults danced together in homes or in the Salt Lake City social hall. The tradition of placing gifts for guests upon a Santa Claus tree was referenced in a journal entry of Emmeline Wells documenting an 1852 Christmas party.
Decorations for pioneer Christmas times were simple. Freshly cut boughs of evergreens, pinecones, and hand-cut snowflakes were among the options. For those who decorated a tree, the candles upon the tree would have been lit just once before being dimmed to prevent a fire. Handmade ornaments made of cloth, carved wood, or dried fruit adorned the boughs.
If you want to recreate some pioneer Christmas traditions in your celebration this year, consider hanging dried apple and orange slices from the tree, making molasses candy, and hosting a Christmas dance. Try making gifts for your family members and helping them make gifts for each other. You could turn out all the lights and just sing carols by candlelight (maybe the lights on your tree could stay on). A sense of wonder and gratitude can permeate even the most basic of Christmas celebrations as you and your family remember the humble birth of Christ this season.