The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published December 24, 2010, by Grand Junction Free Press.
These days at Christmas most of us enjoy the opulence of the season. We might drive our shiny automobiles past sparkling lights on our way to the movies, the mall, or a restaurant. Under the tree many of us will find video disks and games, iPods, Kindles, or maybe even a new flat-screen television.
We owe our wealth and comfort today largely to the hard work of Colorado’s pioneers. This Christmas, it is worth remembering the challenges and struggles our forebears overcame and the more modest holiday celebrations they enjoyed.
We found several Christmas stories in a two-volume work from 1982, “Long Horns and Short Tales: A History of the Crawford Country,” by Mamie Ferrier and George Sibley. It covers the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“At a typical one room schoolhouse there was one teacher for all eight grades,” Ferrier and Sibley tell us. Apparently it is not the case that today’s students cause more trouble. At Maher (near Crawford) the school board hired John Stafford, who brought a bull whip to class to keep the unruly older boys in line.
“In the days before the automobile, movies, TV, and the like,” Ferrier and Sibley write, the school houses were used not only for class but for church, elections, and business meetings. Twice a month the local residents held a “literary” where people would sing, debate, and perform skits. To raise funds for the school, women would auction off boxed dinners and their company, and the “young ladies brought… as much as $25.”
Christmas brought a “gift exchange, singing of Christmas carols, and a program that included every child in the school.” Despite the modesty of the celebration, “a good time was enjoyed by all,” our authors assure us, and we do not doubt it.
Ferrier and Sibley nicely summarize the spirit of Christmas in those ground-breaking times. “In the homes Christmas was celebrated with a big dinner and lots of company. Gifts were much different from those of today. Most children received only one gift and the hand knitted mittens and stocking caps.
“There might be a few oranges which was a real treat as they were not purchased during the rest of the year. Home-made rag dolls were common. Older boys might be given a single shot .22 rifle; older girls got things for their hope chest, hair ribbons, and handkerchiefs. The men were sure to get neckties or socks. Today children are given so many toys that they don’t appreciate any of them. In pioneer days the few things were treasured.”
The book about Crawford contains the brief autobiography of Laura Piburn Pace, who arrived in Colorado as a girl in 1884. She describes her home after her marriage: “The house was a two-room log cabin. The kitchen had a dirt floor and one small window. My furniture was wooden boxes nailed to the wall and stacked on top of each other… I made curtains out of flour sacks, embroidered them and crocheted edges on them and they were quite clever.”
One May Laura’s house burned down. “By August, 1911, the new house was near enough finished so we could move into it,” and “by Christmas Day we had a lovely farm home.”
Of course, some people today are struggling this season, hit by unemployment or the housing crunch; the Denver Post reports a rise in poverty. But today’s economic troubles pale in comparison to those of the Great Depression. Yet even in those dark days Coloradans found a way to enjoy and celebrate Christmas.
Writing for the Winter 1986 edition of “The Journal of the Western Slope,” Mesa State professor Paul Reddin describes how Grand Junction women coped with the Depression. He bases much of the article on interviews he conducted.
“During the Depression, the residents of Grand Junction worked hard, but they also found time to enjoy life. Much about their entertainment reflected the rural aspects of the region and a conviction that good times centered around family and friends,” Reddin writes. He adds that people then had the attitude that you should “make your own fun.”
The professor’s comments on Christmas are especially poignant: “Holidays, especially Christmas, brought family together. All enjoyed the fellowship of such occasions. If funds for gifts were short, grown-ups did not exchange them, using the available cash for presents for the children. Parents could practically always afford gifts for youngsters because a small toy car might cost as little as 15 cents, and a dollar would buy a nice present. For adults, the chance to visit with inlaws was more important than gifts.”
Earlier Coloradans, rugged of spirit, maintained a good outlook even in rough times, and generally they appreciated the things they had and made do with them. As you enjoy your glorious feast and the amenities of modern life, spend a moment to reflect on what has been made possible by Colorado’s hearty pioneers.