Weed Trees, Pricey Eggnog & Program Pranks: Stories from Nebraska Christmas Past

Historians Jim Potter (L) and David Bristow (R) of the Nebraska State Historical Society. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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December 22, 2017 - 8:00am

From weed trees to pricey eggnog, pioneer Nebraskans celebrated Christmas in different ways. We unwrap a collection of sometimes quirky holiday stories, as told by Nebraska State Historical Society historians.


In 1890, the southwest Nebraska town of Trenton was full of adventuresome homesteaders, according to an account from local resident Ned Davis. Jim Potter, senior research historian and associate editor at the Nebraska State Historical Society, continued this story of how industrious, “high spirited” young men created the town’s first community Christmas tree.

Buffalo Bill's Christmas Program Prank

Jim Potter of the Nebraska State Historical Society said one of his favorite stories is about legendary frontiersman and showman Buffalo Bill Cody, his wife Louisa and daughter Arta. In the 1870s, the family was living at Fort McPherson, near North Platte, where Buffalo Bill was an Army scout. Louisa tasked her husband with preparing young Arta for a recitation at a Christmas event at the barracks. Louisa decided that Arta would recite a piece called the “Star of Bethlehem” for the crowd of soldiers and family members. But Buffalo Bill had a different idea, as Potter related in this account from Louisa.

“Her father carried her up to the platform, squared her around, patted her on the cheeks and hurried back to his seat. My heart thumped with excitement. It was Arta’s first recitation. Prettily, she made her little curtsey and then with a quick glance toward her father, she parted her lips. But the words that came forth, my pride changed to apprehension and then to wildest dismay. For Arta was reciting something that I never heard before. Something only a few lines in length that ran, ‘the lightning roared, the thunder flashed and broke my mother's teapot all to smash.’ Then she laughed, clapped her little hands and running to her father leaped into his lap. Will was almost rolling off his chair. The tears were running down his cheeks. His face was as red as a boiled beat, and he was shaking with laughter from head to foot. As for the rest of the big hall it was roaring like a summer thunderstorm, while I like Cardinal Wolsey sat alone in my fallen greatness. For a moment there was only blank dismay. Then I looked at Will and understood. ‘Willy,’ I exclaimed dramatically, ‘I’ll never speak to you again as long as I live. Never, never, never.’ But a moment later, as he choked down his laughter to boom out a ‘lump tee-dee lump’ to the tune of Rock of Ages, the closing song of the celebration, I reached over, took his hand, squeezed it, then pressed tight my lips to keep from laughing myself. But never again did I trust to Will the task of rehearsing a child in its recitations.”

 


The Year Christmas Was Mostly Cancelled

The devastating flu pandemic of 1918 killed millions of people worldwide, and thousands in Nebraska. “Here in Nebraska, there was almost no holiday season as we're used to thinking of it,” related David Bristow of the Nebraska State Historical Society. “No Christmas events or entertainment. Merchants suffered because a lot of things were closed. You had quarantine rules. If you were living in a house and you'd been in contact with somebody, if somebody in the household had the flu you were expected to remain inside until the quarantine was lifted. Only a doctor or nurse was permitted to come in. So it was a very quiet holiday that year.”

 


Nebraska State Historical Society articles

"Christmas with the Cumings"

"When it Absolutely Had to be There Overnight"

"Christmas Trees Opposed by J. Sterling Morton"

"Flu Epidemic 1918"

"Sales, Santa and Good Fellows: Celebrating Christmas in Omaha"

"How Times Change, Thoughts on Christmas in 1925"

"A Midsummer Christmas Eve"

"The Santa Claus Survey, a Study in Child Psychology"

“On Christmas Eve, the young men of Trenton dragged a windmill tower into the main intersection of the village where they decorated it with barn lanterns and pine boughs,” Potter said. “They put presents on the tree and gave them out. There was probably quite a lot of liquor mixed up in it!”

State Historical Society publications are full of entertaining accounts of Christmas in Nebraska from decades past. Potter had another story of Christmas tree innovation from Nellie Snyder Yost, who grew up in the mostly treeless Sandhills at the turn-of-the-century.

“In the Sandhills, getting a Christmas tree was quite a task,” Potter said. “(Yost) says ‘up against the fence, at the foot of the garden, was a straggling line of tall, husky horse weeds. Bleached white by the winters frost and they rustled dryly in the chilly wind. One weed six foot tall, wide and bushy, stood out from the others and right away my brother and I knew we'd found our Christmas tree.’ So they took it into the house and they set it aside in the corner and then they spent the next several days making decorations for it. She talks about making paper chains for the tree from pink invoice sheets from the last Montgomery Ward order.”

“’The day before Christmas finally came,’” Potter continued relating the Yost story. “’We brought our tree and mom wedged its thick stub end into the heavy hub of an old wagon wheel. By the end of that busy afternoon our horse weed had disappeared beneath paper chains of red, green, purple and yellow newspaper wrappers, Montgomery Ward invoices, popcorn and rose hips, and there it stood, it’s wagon hub base covered with a cow hide rope.’”

One prominent Nebraskan would have rather seen everyone decorate large weeds for the holidays. Politician and Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton used his Nebraska City newspaper to rail against Christmas trees in 1899.

“Because his attitude was trees are so rare, and you're planting them and then you just cut them down when they're young,” said David Bristow, associate director at the State Historical Society. “I'm actually reading from his column here. He said ‘millions upon millions of the straightest, most symmetrical and vigorous hemlocks, spruces, pines and balsams will soon be aboard freight cars and going toward cities to be put in homes for Christmas trees which will bear tin bells, dolls, bon bons, glass bulbs and all sorts of jimcracks for the amusement of children. The generations following will want for lumber which these Christmas trees would have made.’

“My understanding is that the reaction of the press was mixed, which is probably putting it politely,” Bristow added. “I think he was basically ignored.”

Bristow said moving west to the frontier meant it wasn’t easy or cheap for some early Omaha residents to have the holiday luxuries they were used to back east.

“Herman Kountze, the banker, remembered that in the Christmas of 1856 he was living in a little log cabin on 10th street and he paid five dollars for a turkey, at that time which was an enormous amount of money,” Bristow said, noting that this would have likely been the equivalent of more than $100 in cost today.

“James Creighton that same year said that he was there for Christmas in 1856 and he was mostly busy getting enough fuel to keep his family from freezing, as he put it,” Bristow continued. “He said he was living in a shanty at the corner of 14th and Davenport and when he was asked about, ‘did you have turkey,’ his response was ‘Turkey? Why turkey that Christmas was taken from the side of a hog.’”

But the most extreme example of breaking the bank for Christmas may have been this account Bristow shared about Thomas Cuming, who served as the equivalent of governor of Nebraska before statehood. In 1854, his mother-in-law was visiting, and she really wanted some Virginia eggnog.

“Tom Cuming went out trying to buy some eggs,” Bristow shared. “And the best deal that he could get was $36 for three dozen eggs. So he brought these home and he was later commenting on the quality of the eggnog and said the eggs were ‘extra fine.’ His mother in law replied, ‘well, they just seem to be ordinary everyday eggs.’ Then he told her how much they cost.

“These are the exceptions,” Bristow added. “People couldn't afford to do things like that all the time. But I think they were determined to bring a little bit of civilization out into the frontier, whenever they could, and I think the holidays were a perfect time to do that and so they were willing to spend an outrageous sum, once, just to remind themselves of what they had left behind.”

But getting turkey and eggs in Nebraska’s largest city was nothing compared to the challenges of getting anything while living in one of the state’s numerous remote military outposts. In one case, Bristow said a wagon and mule team making a 300-mile round trip journey from Fort Robinson in 1882 to pick-up a shipment of Christmas items at the nearest railroad point nearly perished in a blizzard.

“But he finally manages to get back to the fort and he arrives on Christmas Eve, the afternoon,” Bristow said. “It was about two o'clock, and he and his driver are riding in. This storm is over and the children are coming out of the officer’s quarters, running up and down the walks for the first time in five days, and he said when they saw me they began to shout, ‘the Christmas wagon has come!’”

Because whether it was making journeys or makeshift trees, early Nebraska settlers seemed to figure out ways to make Christmas come to the state.

(Note: Jim Potter passed away in August 2016. His insight on and knowledge of Nebraska history will be greatly missed!)

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