Tales of Christmas past in Placerville
Mary Cory, El Dorado County Museum director, displays an assortment of vintage Christmas cards and postcards. Democrat photo by Pat Dollins
For the most part, Christmas traditions haven’t changed all that much, although Christmas is a far more secular and commercial event than it was 100 years ago.
Looking through the archives at the Mountain Democrat, keepsakes at the El Dorado County Museum, and a book of stories called “Old West Christmas” by Craig and Franklin MacDonald, gives one a sense of how Christmas was celebrated in the 1800s and early 1900s in El Dorado County.
Out in the gold fields, the festivities were more spontaneous but no less joyous. One miner in the Rock Creek area wrote about a Christmas celebration in 1851. “We sent word up and down the creek that we would celebrate Christmas at our camp and everybody should bring grub and a fiddle.” Prospectors then showed up with a bear, a deer, six bottles of port, three yards of dried apples and pickles. Their dog, Rover, was happy with his mountain of bones. “He took the place of a watcher,” said the miner, “who charged 3 ounces of dust a night to guard our gold, so we saved $40 a night and fed him accordingly.”
In town, Christmas celebrations were more formal with pageants and musical programs at schools and churches along with private festivities at home.
Children would decorate their schoolrooms in Christmas greens and holly berries and make ornaments and small gifts. Christmas programs for teachers and parents featured singing and skits by the students.
A Christmas dance or ball were also common festivities. One in Diamond Springs was advertised as only costing $1 for the dance. Supper was an additional 50 cents.
A more elaborate party one was held in Coloma in 1853. The newspaper account noted that, “No Ball that has ever been given in our county created anything like the interest this did.” Sponsored by the Coloma Hook & Ladder Company, it attracted firefighters all the way from Auburn and Placerville. The newspaper article went on to say, “At 9 pm, a trumpet sounded and the doors of the Metropolitan Hotel were thrown open. We can boast, with truth, that we had as beautiful women and as gallant gentlemen, and as fine music as we wish to see and hear together. Supper was called and 300 people sat down, the tables fairly groaned under the choicest viands, prepared in the most tempting style. The dance was continued until 4 am, and everything passed off in the most quiet and agreeable manner.”
Christmas cards, trees and ornaments
While sending Christmas cards or Christmas newsletters is how many of us like to keep in touch with distant friends and relatives nowadays, the sending of cards wasn’t always so common.
According to a docent at the El Dorado County Museum, sending Christmas cards was largely unknown in the mid 1800s because there weren’t any for sale. However, there were Christmas postcards, although only a few were actually sent. That’s because at the time, the Post Office charged the person receiving the mail rather than the person sending it. Once the Post Office reversed that practice, there was less hesitation about sending them. Samples of these postcards can be seen at the museum.
Bringing a Christmas tree into the house was also something that developed over the years. Up until the mid 1800s, Christmas trees were often viewed as pagan symbols. But they gradually caught on as did the practice of decorating them with hand-made ornaments or whatever odds and ends people had in their homes.
Local newspaper accounts from the 1850s list tree ornaments as including individual bon-bon bags, buttons strung together, candies, cigar butts, painted cookies, crocheted doilies, gilded and filled eggshells, fans, flags, honey cakes, Indian trade beads, mirrors, nuts, pincushions, soap cut into shapes, wax figures, or other items.
Gifts and toys
Christmas gifts included home-made items plus whatever was available for purchase locally.
A Dec. 17, 1915, ad in the newspaper encouraged local buying by saying, “If you are sending something to a former resident you should be sure to secure an article with the local trade mark on it. A box of mountain apples or a box of cigars from one of the local factories is always presentable, for it brings the absent one on Christmas Day back to his former home.”
A popular hand-made gift for adults were crepe paper “Hanky” bags. These were made of, “a bit of flowered crepe paper, a bisque doll head, a short length of passe partout gold paper binding, (and) some paste.” The bags were a dainty way to hide soiled hankies.
Sought after Christmas gifts for children were wheel goods, dolls, books, doll furniture, games, mechanical toys, and guns. At the Placerville News Co. you could buy a Kodak camera selling for $6 and up. Pig and Whistle chocolates in boxes were 30 cents and up. Dolls sold for 25 cents to $6. Rocking horses went from $1 to $2.50.
However, not all families could afford gifts and a story in “Old West Christmas” relates a particularly poignant tale of Christmas giving involving a young widow having a difficult time raising her children after her husband died in a mine explosion. The woman, Mary Stewart, lived near the gold-mining camp of Fair Play and made a living washing miners’ clothes. As Christmas approached, she wept, knowing she could provide nothing for her children who nonetheless hung up their stockings for Santa to fill.
Overhearing all this, a young miner named Jack Dawson grabbed a blue stocking off their clothesline and rushed to town and went from saloon to saloon asking for contributions. Soon the sock was heavy with gold coins. He then went to a local store and purchased toys, clothes, and food. He and the other miners took the items to the cabin of the widow and left them outside the door. When the children awoke Christmas morning, they were disappointed with their empty stockings. But when they opened the cabin door, they found flour, hams, canned fruits, clothes, a wax doll and sled, a note from Santa and a sock full of gold coins.
When Mary learned who her “secret Santa’ was, she grabbed Jack’s coat and gave him a tearful thanks. Four months later, Mary and Jack were married and forever after, Jack was called “Santa Claus Papa” by her children.
Exchanging gifts of food and sitting down to a Christmas feast was as common back then as it is today. And while most people ate Christmas supper at home, there were places where one could feast like a king.
In 1915, for example, a sumptuous Christmas dinner at the Ohio House in Placerville included: large eastern oysters half shell; stuffed egg en mayonnaise salad; chicken old Saint Monde or Consomme en tasse soup; boiled salmon with egg sauce; pickles, celery en branch, ripe olives, lettuce; Kingan ham, Yorkshire sauce; entrees of braised sirloin beef with mushroom sauce, potatoes souffle, and split bananas fried with custard sauce; roast turkey, Honkong dressing, cranberry sauce, suckling pig, fresh apple sauce; vegetables including mashed potatoes, steamed potatoes, asparagus, cream sauce, sweet corn; desserts included Christmas plum pudding, hard and brandy sauce, hot mince-pie, fresh apple pie, vanilla ice cream, lady fingers, fruit cake, apples, oranges, nuts, raisins, American cheese, and cute noir. Leading wines, liquors, and cigars were offered at the bar.
The cost of this entire meal was only $1.50 or 75 cents without wine.
Fortunes could also be made by supplying just the right food during the holidays. One example of this was a man named Henry Clay Hooker who had a hardware business in Placerville. His store was doing well until a fire in 1866 destroyed much of the town, including his business. He figured a way to rebound was to sell turkeys to those in Carson City since they were very scarce there. So he bought 500 turkeys, got two dogs and hired a helper to herd the animals on a turkey drive.
But that meant a 70-mile trip over the snow-covered mountains on foot. To protect the turkeys’ feet against the snow, Hooker first had them walk through warm tar and then sand. During the trek over the mountains, camp was made at night whenever the turkeys got tired. After several close calls, Hooker and his turkeys made it to Carson City where the miners and townspeople were more than willing to pay top dollar. With the money from his turkey drive, Hooker was later able to make a down payment on what turned into one of the largest cattle ranches in Arizona.
However, holiday eating was not without the usual warnings from those who deemed eating too well as hazardous to one’s health. A Dec. 14. 1928, editorial in the local newspaper included advice from several physicians in Auburn about not driving on Christmas Day.
They editorial stated, “Over indulgence in Christmas delicacies, they declare, induce a physical lethargy which does not allow the individual to react as quickly to unexpected dangers.” They recommended abstinence — from driving — “since no one could be expected to abstain from turkey, cranberry sauce, dressing, and mince-pie.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.