Sometimes you hear old-timers talk about the over-commercialization of Christmas.
They’ll lament how stores start their Christmas inventory as early as September or October and stay open longer and later than they used to.
That’s not really true.
“In the 19th century, up until the 20th century, a lot of businesses were open on Christmas and New Year’s Day,” said Jim Gray, a longtime rancher and cowboy historian from Ellsworth who publishes the Kansas Cowboy newspaper. “They didn’t take it off as holiday. The fact that we bemoan the commercialization of Christmas isn’t anything new.”
Nineteenth century Kansans would gather for community celebrations, Christmas programs and pageants. They weren’t that much different than we 21st century Kansans.
The difference though might be in how elaborately we decorate our homes and the number of gifts given and received.
George Worrell, one of the first settlers in Larned, would write of a Christmas celebration in 1873 in which many residents gathered around a community tree – an ash tree wrapped in cotton.
“Everybody got something – no one was missed. It might be only a naked stick of horehound candy with a string around it, bit it was taken off the tree – name called and delivered …”
When Kansas became a state in 1861, Christmas celebrations often reflected the traditions from where the early settlers originated – from Sweden, Germany and other places.
Some of those traditions still carry over for Kansans into the 21st century.
“I think there is a tie to all things Swedish,” said Lorna Nelson, director of the McPherson County Old Mill Museum in Lindsborg. “We have the tradition of bringing light with our St. Lucia Celebration. For the early settlers, I think in the beginning for them they would celebrate with reminders of home, relatives. It was a literal connection they still had with Sweden. Now, it has become more of a symbolic connection with things Swedish.”
Lindsborg families continue to celebrate in much the same way they did in the early years of Lindsborg, Nelson said.
Special foods are prepared: Swedish meatballs, potato sausage, Lutefisk and Ostkaka.
In Lindsborg, it is a custom on Christmas morning to attend Julotta, a Swedish-style church service that starts at 5:30 a.m. with a brass quartet calling the town to worship in the bell tower of the Bethany Lutheran Church.
Julotta means Christmas morn and it is a service that has been celebrated for more than a century in Lindsborg, according to Tricia Clark, assistant to the Convention and Visitors Bureau director in Lindsborg.
“There is a genuine feeling of sharing the Swedish heritage with other people,” Nelson said.
For Mennonites, Christmas often means having handfuls of “pfeffernusse” and perhaps some neuj ahr kuchen – New Year’s Cookies, said Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Hillsboro.
“As far as Christmas, the fun kinds of foods people first made are still made,” she said. “It used to be a custom that every Mennonite family went to a grandparent’s house and every member received a Christmas sack – an apple, orange, peanuts and sometimes a couple of peanut clusters. The first Mennonites when they arrived were lucky to have anything. To get an apple and orange was something special.”
Rural, urban celebrations
Settlers in larger communities – those that had access to the railroad, such as Wichita and Topeka – could celebrate the holidays with dances and even exotic foods not normally found on the prairie.
In 1872, Wichita, as Marsh Murdock, the editor of the Wichita Eagle would write, was connected to the world. Once the railroad arrived in Kansas communities, it meant Kansans could order and receive what anyone in New York or Chicago might – from trees, clothes to even the foods that were eaten over the holidays.
One New Year’s Day’s menu from 1885 for the Central Kansas Livestock Association in Emporia featured not only fresh oysters but a “wide assortment of game, such as wild turkey, prairie chicken, Canvasback duck, buffalo, elk, antelope, and black-tailed deer. There are three species of bear prepared in different ways—fillet of Grizzly bear, ribs of Black bear, and loin of Cinnamon bear “a la Apache.” Other curious game dishes include braised jack rabbit with burgundy sauce, peacock in gravy, and English hare, Jayhawk style,” according to the Kansas State Historical Society.
In the late 19th century, table top trees were the custom. Most common was a feather tree. The trees were made of dyed green goose feathers wrapped around wooden dowels and inserted in a central column so that the feather/dowels resembled a spindly tree. And if those weren’t available, tumbleweeds could be used as a substitute.
Sometimes, residents would use tinfoil that tobacco was wrapped in and wrap it around walnuts, tie strings around them and hang them on trees.
Trees were often the place where presents were hung. Presents too large were placed underneath trees.
One early resident in Potwin recorded how “a nice Hackberry tree was selected and transported to the hall, where it was found the tree was four times as large as the door.”
The limbs were sawed off until the tree could be taken in and then promptly nailed back in place.
Even now, Jim Gray said his family’s tradition is to cut a cedar tree from the pasture and often the tree takes on special meaning as it is brought into the house.
“There is nothing like the smell of cedar,” Gray said. “It’s so Kansas.”