Christmas in the 1860s

Editor’s note: This story about the first Christmas in Marion appeared in the Marion Record-Review on Dec. 20, 1945. It was written by Mrs. T.B. Matlock, a relative of one of the original settlers.

The first Christmas on the frontier, in 1861, the three families of the first caravan gathered at the Billings home, a log house on the Cottonwood.

They observed the day out under a blue sky and leafless trees, for it was a balmy spring-like day. So much so, that the men worked in shirt sleeves as they arranged the Christmas tree and tables out in the yard.

Now when these families came from their eastern homes, they brought flower seeds and all kinds of garden seeds, and immediately upon their arrival in June, they broke the soil and planted gardens. The yield of the gardens, along with wild elderberries, wild plums and native black walnuts, helped to make their Christmas dinner.

In due time, the fowlers went forth. They were Jack Griffeth and Elisha, Sam and George Shreve. They brought home venison and buffalo steaks for the occasion.

Also, there was a fish box that Uncle William Billings had placed in the Cottonwood in the fall, full of fine fish.

The women folk had canned pumpkin and elder berries and had made plum butter and jelly during harvest time, but there were no pies as there was no wheat flour to be had.

No pine or cedars were available for the Christmas tree, so a sapling was decorated with popcorn balls and festoons of strung popcorn.

The candy was homemade of brown sugar and it was good.

A suspended small rope clothesline held the gifts for all. They consisted of wool socks, mittens, mufflers, wristlets—all of coarse, dark gray yarn, trimmed with bright blue and red yarn.

For the fair sex it was “lingerie” made from a bolt of muslin that came with them to the frontier in the wagon. There were pretty petticoats with wide embroidered flounces, daintily embroidered chemises and pantalettes, wool hosiery of pretty gray yarn with wide stripes of bright colored yarn. All these gifts were the handiwork of those women. Much of the making was accomplished at nighttime after a day’s work and by the light of a piece of flannel burning in a small tin dish of tallow.

This first Christmas party away from home, away from civilization almost, was spent in much reminiscences. Their “Ghost of Christmas Past,” recalled this happy event of a year just gone. The spacious candlelighted parlor with a large ladened Christmas tree before the fireplace, the long table set for family guests and the massive beautifully decorated dance hall, where these very maidens, in gorgeous gowns, had tripped the light fantastic until the midnight intermission. After which they appeared attired in white for the remainder of the Christmas dance with the gentlemen of their choice. Thus “Christmas Past” merged into their “Christmas Present” with the singing of hymns and carols until the woods along the Cottonwood reverberated with the spirit of the day.

Then at nightfall the ground was swept and sprinkled and the orchestra (Uncle George) took its place, and Mollie called the dance which continued into the night. Thus they made merry —their first Christmas on the frontier.

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