Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmas on the Prairie

An image borrowed from a pioneer plate
I've always loved Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and she had a unique way of describing Christmas through the eyes of a young girl.  The holiday in the 1800s was nothing like the one we celebrate today, but the excitement children felt back then was equally as exhilarating.

This is the start to a story I might write, while I picture a pioneering young miss, anticipating a visit from Santa:
Wiping the mist from the window, Sally O’Dell strained to see through the blizzard’s white wall. The barn, only a short distance from the front door, had disappeared in the barrage of snow. The footprints Pa had left only minutes before no longer showed.  Though the house smelled of pine needles and cinnamon, she worried that Christmas’ most important guest, Santa, wouldn’t be able to find her in the storm.  A chill seeped around the recently installed glass and peppered her arms with goosebumps.
Sally closed the splintery shutters,  rubbed her forearms and turned to her mother, who straightened from the cast-iron stove, holding a browned apple pie.  “Momma, are you sure Santa can fly in this weather?”
“Don’t fret, Sally, you’ll cause wrinkles in that pretty little ten-year-old face of yorn.” Eliza O’Dell placed her pie with the other’s she’d baked in the stove she’d received as a gift last year and smiled.  “Santa can do anything.”  She swiped her hands down her apron, walked to the fireplace, and straightened the stockings hanging there.  "Be a darlin' and climb up to the loft and check to see if your sister's awake." ©gingersimpson

Now that I've given you a starting place, think what it must have been like, surviving inclimate weather in a house built by your father's hands and limited resources,  having to give or receive handmade gifts, and not having a grocery handy for all the fixings needed for Christmas dinner.  Most pioneers lacked money for frivolities, and the nearest 'mercantile' might be a several day's ride away from the homestead. While pennies today don't seem like much, they were most important back then.
Pioneer folks were definitely trendsetters.  They couldn't just trot off to a local tree farm or rely on an articifical one, they either cut their own, if they had room, or relied on Mother Nature and her pinecones, holly berries, or mere sprigs of greenery to make their homes festive.  Any decorations were handmade.  Paper chains and angels, and for those lucky enough to have popcorn, strands strung together to form a unique garland adorned the tree. In a few movies, I've even seen small candles adhered to branches to light the evergreen, but I imagine that would give today's fire marshal the shivers.  :)
Fresh game killed by Pa usually topped the holiday fare, with pies, homemade bread and canned vegetables supplied by Momma.  A favorite of the children was Plum Pudding although it originated in jolly old England.  I've never had it, but I understand making it takes some time, talent and special ingredients.
Any toys received were almost always hand-carved or built by Pa, while knitted scarves, mittens, hats and stockings  Momma contributed were not only necessary but welcomed.  Imagine getting a corn-husk doll. No walking, talking or diaper wetting babydolls to be had in the 1800s.  Gifts children presented to their parents were limited only by supplies and their own imaginations.
I picture a family gathered in their log cabin, around a roaring fire, enjoying the story telling of Christ's birth as read from the family Bible by Pa.  Of course, Michael Landon is Pa and he's married to Caroline Ingalls, and Mary, Laura and Baby Grace are nearby. I watched too much Little House on the Prairie, but if I can impact someone's life the way that series has mine, then I'm happy to trudge along in the path set by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her amazing stories.  I wish for each of you the happiness of a prairie Christmas. How do you picture your Christmas set in the old west?

1 comment:

Alison E. Bruce said...

Plum pudding was a real luxury because of all the dried fruit and spices it takes to make one. In Puritan England the dish was outlawed because it was too decadent.

The dried fruit has to be prepared a day or more ahead and soaked in brandy. My mother used to put the raisons and peel through a hand grinder. Mixing the pudding is easy enough. Then it has to be stuffed in a pudding bag and steamed or boiled for a few hours.

I did all this one year because I wanted to say I'd done it. My maternal aunt (English side of the family) did it every year for Christmas - usually well in advance to the holiday so the pudding would have a chance to mellow. The pudding, as well as the fruit cakes, would be kept in the cold room covered in brandy soaked cloths.

It wouldn't have been easy for the average pioneer woman to get hold of the currents, raisins, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and nutmeats necessary. However, my paternal aunt (Empire Loyalist farmer side of the family)made a great carrot pudding at Christmas. It had some nuts and spices but the bulk of the fruit was replaced by shredded carrots.

Now that's something I should try making.