When Christmas was all about hard times and a little frolicking


As near as I can tell from historical accounts, in order to celebrate a traditional Christmas in the West a couple of hundred years ago, you needed to get so riotous and tipsy that you could forget that you were starving. Rather than decorate any evergreen trees, you’d happily burn them as firewood.

In 1800, explorer William Clark was at Fort Mandan in North Dakota wintering with the Mandan and the Hidatsa tribes.  Clark wrote that he gave his men “a little Taffia,” a rum drink made with a dollop of molasses. Sgt. Ordway, one of the many members of the Corps of Discovery who also kept a journal, added, “We had the best to eat that could be had and continued firing, dancing and frolicking during the whole day.”

In 1805, Lewis and Clark spent Christmas Day at their winter encampment, dubbed Fort Clatsop, near present-day Astoria, Oregon, where it had been raining for days. Someone fired a rifle to awaken Clark, who wrote, “The day proved showery, wet and disagreeable.  We would have spent this day of the nativity of Christ in feasting, had we anything to either raise our spirits or even gratify our appetites, our dinner consisted of poor elk, so much spoiled that we ate it through mere necessity.” (Also) “Some spoiled pounded fish and a few roots.”

1806: Zebulon Pike and his crew of explorers in Colorado were lucky enough to kill a buffalo on Dec. 16. On Christmas Day, Pike noted, “Here I must take the liberty of observing in this situation, the hardships and privations we underwent, were this day brought more to mind. ... We spent the day a agreeably as could be expected from men in our situation.” They were munching on 10-day old buffalo and freezing their buns.

1843: John Fremont was in Oregon with Kit Carson. What woke him that day was the discharge from a howitzer they’d been dragging along with them. But victuals were in such short supply they abandoned their short cannon and ate the horses and mules.

1848:  Fremont was in the La Garita Mountains of Colorado looking for a railroad route, but by that Christmas he’d lost 100 of his 120 mules when they froze one night.  He also lost 10 of his 36 men, and the company was only making 3.5 miles a day between camps, eating the remaining mules for dinner. He called where they stayed, just below tree line, Christmas Camp. The men sang songs to keep their morale up and felled so many trees to keep their fires going that you can still find their camp by looking for high and crudely cut stumps.

1853:  Fremont was celebrating yet another Christmas, this one in Utah.  The day involved more hunger and exposure, and his men ended up dining on the leather harness from the mules they had already eaten. Then there was the infelicitously named Donner Party’s 1846 celebration and Alferd Packer's Christmas in 1873. Or perhaps we should forget those altogether.

In the spirit of honoring the hard times our brave explorers spent learning where the West was, we might want to change this year’s Christmas celebration. It’s time for some new traditions. Some suggestions: First thing in the morning, go out and cut an evergreen or two and use the trees to build a giant bonfire in the backyard.  Ideally, the yard should be filled with snow or wet from rain when you hunker around the fire.  Obviously, more than one tree will be necessary for an all-day fire. Do keep an eye on how close any structures might be to your blaze.

Once everyone is warmed up, haul out rifles and shoot into the air, while dancing around the fire shouting rowdy stuff and frolicking in the snow. It’s permissible to belt out songs that might be considered in bad taste today.

In the evening, as the fire is dying down, pass around some booze sweetened with a glug of molasses along with a slab of bark piled with really, really aged meat from a bison, mule or elk. Sides include boiled roots, and perhaps some leftover harness. This is truly an occasion for celebration: Remember that even though you are starving, you are also half-soused and warm for the first time in a brutally cold winter. I’m guessing that you’ll feel genuinely thankful even as you pray for better times to come. I promise that when you go back into your house after this re-enactment of an old-fashioned Western Christmas, you will be grateful beyond measure for everything you have, no matter how humble your life might be.

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He says, ”Bah, humbug,” in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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