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.
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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.
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.
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.
The cost of this entire meal was only $1.50 or 75 cents without wine.
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 email@example.com. Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.