Imagining Christmases Past Through Food and Community
By Diane Euston
In 1843, the first printed Christmas card was commissioned by Henry Cole in England and featured a group of people surrounding a dinner table. A simple message of “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” was painted on the bottom of the tablecloth.
The early pioneer traditions of Christmas, especially surrounding gift-giving and sharing food, show us how much the menu and the presents have changed over the years. On the western border of Missouri, starting as early as the 1840s, these customs seem unfamiliar today to our palate and our strained pocketbooks.
While most people today embrace the message “Merry Christmas” when addressing people during the holiday season, early settlers on the Missouri-Kansas border, most with southern roots, would cheerfully rush toward neighbors and friends with a different message. John C. McCoy’s daughter, Nelly McCoy Harris (1840-1926), was hailed as the first “white girl” born in Kansas City and was known as one of the city’s first historians.
In her manuscript, “Reminiscences of the Pioneer Days,” she described Christmas traditions that she fondly remembered as a child. “We said ‘Christmas gift’ when meeting friends on [Christmas]. Now they say ‘Merry Christmas.’ I do not exactly understand the last expression.”
As early as the 1840s, people hailing from the southern states would address people on Christmas day by exclaiming “Christmas gift!” Even slaves would express this to their masters, expecting to receive a small gift in return. The first one to say it claimed the gift, usually a small present of a fruit, sweet treat or nuts.
Christmas was usually a free day for slaves, thus, according to Nelly, “All were happy except the mistress of the mansion, who had to continue all sorts of ways to get along without the usual quota of house servants.”
The Christmas Party
Although Kansas City was slowly growing before the Civil War, the area was quite isolated compared to northeastern cities. Spending Christmas with loved ones far away was usually not possible, so it was common for neighbors to gather together to celebrate the holiday. In these simpler times, pioneers looked forward with joy to the festivities of the Christmas season.
“We went to frolics early and stayed late,” Nelly wrote. The community would come together, invitations sometimes being verbal and others written, to celebrate. In this area some guests traveled by horse up to 20 miles away to attend parties. When parties went all night long, “Pallets were spread about the floor by good-natured colored servants” to create makeshift beds.
Tables were placed in larger residences wherever there was room, and in the center of each was a large stack of pyramid cake, likely similar to what we see today at weddings. “No one was afraid of eating all they wanted for fear the cake would give out,” Nelly wrote. “The bottom section of the pyramid was generally a tin pan iced over, but that was no loss to anybody, for guests never got down to that [layer].”
What was served on Christmas day generally depended on whether you lived in the city or the country. In the small town of Kansas City, menus would have been heavy in fruits and root vegetables. Nuts and spices roasted on an open fire would have created a familiar scent of the season in small homes. Sugar at the time would have been quite expensive, so sweet treats were not as common as dried fruits. Because of this and other ancient traditions, the fruitcake became a popular staple at the holiday table. Those of more comfortable means would have been more likely to have more sugary options for guests and family.
Foods such as turkey, hams, chickens, roast pig, saddle of mutton and sometimes venison and buffalo were served to guests. Oysters in tins were expensive but popular additions to the menu.
In 1918 the great niece of Henrietta Harris (1804-1881), the wife of the famous proprietor of Harris House Hotel in Westport, shared her recipe for chess cakes, copied as it was written “nearly a hundred years ago.” Henrietta was well-known in the Westport area for her delicious chess cakes.
The recipe simply reads: One cup butter, two cups brown sugar (English golden); yolks of eight eggs. Flavor with nutmeg and vanilla or a little sherry wine. Work the butter and sugar until very creamy; add the well-beaten yolks of the eggs, and lastly the flavorings. Bake in small patty pans, in paste. Bake in a very slow oven.”
Today, piecing together the steps of this recipe is quite difficult; setting your electric oven to a temperature and baking for a certain amount of time are vital parts of successful baking. But before the electric oven, women cooked on an open fire or on a cast iron stove.
From Verbal Recipes to Cookbooks
Today’s cooking, including Christmas dinner, is usually based on a written recipe with clear directions. Cookbooks as we know them today were not commonplace in the 19th century. However, some women began featuring their favorite recipes in church cookbooks, usually arranged as a community fundraiser.
Cheryl McCann, author of “Stirring up History: The Meals, Memoirs and Memories of Our Ladies of Clay County,” has spent years reading old recipes and decoding them. Her book recreates the 1880 and then the 1903 Presbyterian ladies of Liberty, Missouri’s “Economy Cook Books.” McCann was interested in trying to figure out more about the women behind the recipes as well as interpreting the recipes into today’s measurements and baking times.
“Cooking and cookbooks could be surprisingly liberating and bring women of different backgrounds together,” she explained.
As she researched the women who in the early additions were listed only by their husbands’ names, she also had to learn how women in the 19th century cooked. “I started trying to find out who these ladies were, and many of them had remarkable stories of their own to tell.” Therefore, “Stirring up History,” available on Amazon, includes the old recipes as they were typed, updated recipes in today’s measurements, and biographies about the women who supplied them.
Some recipes called for ingredients such as ammonia, tartaric acid and carbolic acid that we don’t cook with today. Directions such as “butter the size of an egg” needed to be given in acceptable measurements to ensure the best results. A “cold oven” in these old recipes actually meant 325 degrees, showing how many strides have been made over the years on the subject of accurate recipes.
“I think we can all be inspired from the lives of other people, past and present, but to know how these strong women from a variety of backgrounds came together to create this cookbook shows a sense of community,” McCann commented.
Christmas in our Community
Today we don’t shout “Christmas gift” at friends, and we generally don’t celebrate the holiday with neighbors. We are mobile; we have the ability to travel far distances to be with our families. But the pioneers of this area created their own versions of Christmas that best suited them. We can learn so much about how we celebrate from the foods that decorated the tables of the past and the labor of love that created delicious meals for the special occasion of Christmas day.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com