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Column: Merry Christmas, pioneer style

WORTHINGTON -- Ebenezer Scrooge wished to have nothing to do with Christmas, and Scrooge had his wish. There were no Christmas lights strung along the streets of London in that time. There were no Christmas trees in shop windows along the way. There was no Christmas music streaming from loudspeakers. If you wanted to ignore Christmas, this was easily done.

By the time of settlement in Nobles County, Christmas was observed widely and merrily. President U.S. Grant signed a bill in 1870 making Christmas an official holiday, in addition to being an observance of Christian churches. Nonetheless, Christmas days on the treeless prairie of southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa might have delighted Scrooge. Christmases were bleak.

There were many pioneers living in holes in the ground. Dugouts. It is documented that George and Mary Bulick made their home in a dugout near the site of what one day would be Reading. The Bulicks' underground Christmases could scarcely have been joyous.

Hamlin Garland, author and friend of Theodore Roosevelt, was a familiar Worthington visitor. He spent time with his aunt and uncle, Peter and Christine Thompson. The Garlands were Wisconsin pioneers. Hamlin wrote of Christmas observances when he was a boy --the family went for a sleigh ride:

"The first I recall of my first Christmas I am riding behind my parents in a huge sleigh, amid high snowdrifts, sculptured into strange forms by the prairie winds. It is growing dusk. Before us in a similar sleigh my young uncle, a giant in size, leads the way.

"I can see him outlined against the dull orange sky. He stands erect, holding the reins of his swiftly moving horses in one of his powerful hands; occasionally he shouts back to my father, who is buried in a thick buffalo hide coat. My mother is only another figure, wrapped in shawls.

"My sister and brother are beside me under the blankets on the straw. My brother is asleep, but I am on my knees looking ahead. I see now my uncle silhouetted on the dull orange notch between two deep purple banks of trees..."

The Garland Christmases were memorable but a sharp contrast to Christmas observances in these times.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, who spent Decembers in a little house along Plum Creek on the southwest Minnesota prairie, shaped Christmas celebrations, although these were surely modest:

"The day before Christmas, the cousins arrived. Laura and Mary heard sleigh bells ringing outside. ...Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter and the cousins were in the bobsled, all covered up under blankets and robes and buffalo skins. They were wrapped in so many coats and shawls that they looked like big, shapeless bundles...

"The little log house had never been so full. Laura and the cousins tried to fall asleep, but they could not. They were wide awake, listening to the grown-ups tell stories...Pa's fiddle sang merrily to itself.

"On Christmas morning, Laura, Mary and all the cousins woke up at the same time. Santa Claus had been there! ... In each stocking there was a pair of bright-red mittens and a long stick of red-and-white-striped peppermint candy. They were all so happy they could hardly talk. ... But Laura was happiest of all. Santa Claus had brought Laura a rag doll..."

There are many records and reminiscences of Christmas celebrations in the prairie churches of Minnesota and Iowa. There seem to have been children's Christmas programs -- songs, readings, recitations -- from the first years of the first churches. This manner of Christmas celebration came to be observed by many communities.

There is one carefully-detailed record of a Christmas observance at Bigelow. The community came together at the town hall to celebrate the Christmas Day. There was a children's program -- the same as in the churches -- and there also were songs and instrumental interludes involving adults.

Though the prairies were treeless, arrangements were made very early in local history to import fir trees for December celebrations. Oh, tannenbaum. These were important to the north European immigrants.

Candle-lighted Christmas trees beamed in very many houses and in most churches. People sang, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "Joy to the World" and, "Away in a Manger."

"White Christmas?" Not in that time.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.