A “tailing” tale of a pioneer Christmas

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Spending time with family and reflecting on why we celebrate

By Maggie Magoffin

Christmas in Colorado in the mid 1800’s included many of the same traditions we observe today, but gifts, greeting cards and decorations were all made by hand. It was a much simpler time when pride was taken in each stitch made or scrap of wood nailed or shaved away. These homemade gifts might include corn husk dolls, sachets, carved wooden toys, pillows, footstools and embroidered hankies. Knitted scarves, hats, mittens, and socks were especially prized. If the family experienced a particularly prosperous year, the children might find candles, cookies, and fruit in their stockings.

Christmas trees were of the small tabletop variety. Bigger isn’t better when you live in a 10 X 10 cabin. Stockings were hung on the mantel or children’s beds. Stories of the Christ Child and Santa were told. Families attended church services – if a church was within walking distance. Those living too far from a church held their own Christmas Eve services at home with Bible readings and singing of Christmas carols.

Most Colorado pioneers spent their Christmas holidays far away from family and familiar traditions. However, in spite of frequent blizzards and savage December winds, the hardy settlers would not forego their Christmas celebrations – no matter how humble or meager they might be.

Evergreen, pinecones, holly, nuts and berries were brought inside to decorate their modest homes. Cookie dough ornaments, small dolls made of straw or yarn, bits of ribbon, yarn, berries, popcorn or paper strings decorated their frail little trees. Their holiday feasts might include fruits, vegetables, and preserves – precious commodities saved for Christmas. If they were abundantly blessed there would be a ham, beef, or turkey.

Christmas Eve found most families singing carols around the Christmas tree or fireplace. Christmas Day, after church services, they returned home for the traditional Christmas meal and then spent the day visiting with friends and neighbors.

Memories of Christmas in Chase Gulch

I was eight years old at the Christmas of 1865. I’d helped Mama bake bread and cookies for several days. Whenever I could sneak off, I’d squirrel myself away in the loft near the window, wrapping myself in a quilt to keep warm, and embroider Papa’s initials on the handkerchiefs I was making for him. I finished my work on the tea towels for Mama late that summer and knitted brother a new pair of mittens. Brother could never keep a secret, and he had shown me the beautiful comb he carved for Mama’s hair and the new tool box he built for Papa. I couldn’t wait to see what he’d made for me. I hoped it was another animal, maybe a horse this time. Brother had made me an animal of some sort for the past three years. I collected them on the beam above my bed.

Papa said on Christmas day our closest neighbors were coming to visit. They had children the same age as me and Brother, and Mama promised we could pull taffy. It was one of my favorite things to do at Christmas. Mama had saved sugar all year long to make the cookies and her fruitcake, but she kept back just enough to make the taffy.

On Christmas Eve we would decorate our Christmas tree that Papa would cut that day. Papa told funny stories about Christmas in Texas. He said they didn’t have any pine trees so they decorated tumbleweed or sagebrush. I’m not sure if I believe him. But, Papa never lies. So, it must be true.

The Christmas before, Brother got a new penknife and I got a rag doll from Santa. I would giggle with excitement just thinking of what gifts we might get that year. I was hoping for a cradle for my rag doll. Brother said he wanted one of those slip-stick toy things. Boys are so strange.

When Christmas Eve finally came, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Papa brought in the tree. It was a beautiful little pine tree that Mama set on the table in front of the window. We decorated it with paper chains I made from paper from our packages from the mercantile. Mama tied bows on the branches from bits of ribbons and fabric she saved from her sewing, and brother hung three little wooden angels he’d carved.

That night it took me forever to fall asleep. I kept thinking of that cradle I wanted for my rag doll and all the goodies we might find in our stockings we’d hung on our bed posts.

Christmas morning, before the sun came up, Mama lit the lamps and woke us up. First thing, I grabbed my stocking from the foot of my bed. It was very heavy. I couldn’t believe my eyes or my nose. I had an orange! It was so pretty and round and it smelled heavenly. We’d never gotten an orange before. Papa had said they were much too expensive. They came from a place called Florida. Which was very far away. They had to come on the train or by stagecoach and they couldn’t get too hot or too cold or they’d be ruined. My orange was perfect and I couldn’t wait to eat it. Papa would have to show me how. I also got some new hair ribbons and several pieces of hard candy.

I then hurried down the ladder to see a beautiful cradle sitting in front of the table that held our Christmas tree and I squealed with joy. Brother got his silly slip-stick toy, and he played with it all day long. Brother’s gift to me was the three little angels he’d hung on the tree. They were very pretty. Papa loved his handkerchiefs and Mama said the tea towels were beautiful and she really needed some new ones. I laid Brother’s mittens on his breakfast plate and he didn’t see them right away because he was so busy playing with his slip-stick toy. I think he liked them. He smiled and said, “Thanks, Sis.”

After breakfast, Mama warmed water on the stove for us to wash up. I put on my Sunday dress and Brother put on his Sunday pants and shirt while Mama and Papa changed into their Sunday clothes. We bundled up in our winter coats and hats, tied scarves around our necks, pulled on our mittens and hurried to the wagon Papa had pulled up by the front door. It had started to snow that morning and the trees looked like they were covered in sugar. Papa drove us into Central City and had to leave the horses and wagon at the bottom of the hill because there were so many people going to the church. Mama told me and brother, “Remember children, the Christ Child is the reason we celebrate Christmas. It’s not about the tree, decorations, candy and gifts. It’s about Jesus coming to earth to live with us and die for us so that one day we can go to heaven to live with him.”

Resources by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April 2015. The Mini Page by Betty Debnam, December 15-21, 2001

Maggie’s Books

The first two books of my Misadventures of the Cholua Brothers series are available at Mountain Menagerie on Main Street in Central City, Colorado; at,, and The third and final book in the series, Bonanza Beans, will be available February 2017.

For past columns and other information on my speaking engagements, book releases, and events visit me at

I’m always looking for interesting stories about Colorado pioneers and local folk instrumental in the founding and/or development of Gilpin County. If you have stories about family members or friends to share, please contact me at or send snail mail to Maggie Magoffin, P.O. Box 746495, Arvada, Colorado 80003.

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