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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Christmas History, Cultures and Traditions of Kansas City Settlers

The Plaza lights, courtesy of
It's no surprise that this time of year brightens the spirit.... the soft, dimly lit ambiance of a glowing tree. Sweet lyrics of tidings and simplistic songs enrapture the imagination of childhood wonderment. Evergreen hangs from doorways, fences and railings. Kitchens stir up hearty holiday meals. The fire crackles and sends warmth in deep contrast to the icy nights fogging up the windows of homes.

Yes, Christmas is full of fascination and excitement. But, in my humble opinion, Christmas is so much more than presents and Santa and a drained bank account.

.... It's nostalgic. It brings fond feelings of days long since past- of the days where merriment was more important than anything else. Christmas, it seems, makes us cherish everything just a little bit more.

The goal of the Santa Fe Trailer is to tell the unknown stories of pioneers in a relatively small area of the Kansas City metro area, but for this post, I'm going to extend my evergreen branch out a wee bit more and work to show you the true beginnings of some of our most treasured holiday customs.

Petticoat Lane in the 1960s, Missouri Valley Special Collections
Specifically, Christmas traditions really took off in the 1850s and 1860s- the heart of when most of my pioneers were "pioneering" in the Jackson County area. An added bonus, this is exactly when Westport was booming and Kansas City was founded. 

I'm going to take you back to the way it used to be- and what Christmas customs continue.

Plus, some pretty interesting events occurred during Christmastime in the area.

Drop a Google on the history of Christmas- your options for cyber-storytelling are endless. But if you want to know about what Christmas was like here in the Kansas City area, the material is much less broad.

It's super sparse.

Before planes, trains and automobiles could blast us from one end to the earth to the other in very little time, settlers of the Jackson County area weren't able to travel large distances for just any occasion. Travel from Independence to Westport or New Santa Fe to Westport would take a day's journey. 

So, going from one house to another to celebrate with extended family living several miles away from one another probably wasn't happening.City folk would have more of the modern conveniences to allow for a more "advanced" Christmas celebration than those on the frontier. 

In the book Christmastime in Kansas Cityauthor Monroe Dodd notes that early Kansas City settlers at Kawsmouth were very different than the men that followed them.

Pioneer dinner depicted by Sidney E. King
Namely, the French Catholic fur traders were outnumbered by new settlers from Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. And with new settlers comes old customs of their home state. These southern men, women and children spent Christmas at their log homes, cooking meals of wild turkey and venison over a large fire"Sides" included dried vegetables or fruits.

Apparently, Southern Christmases also consisted of "noisemaking," so random gunfire would echo off the bluffs of newly formed Kansas City and throughout the dotted farmsteads along the countryside.


In today's time, we are prepped for Christmas starting in early October. The orange and black Halloween decorations for sale are swapped for red and green before the leaves on the trees have changed"Ugh, a Christmas commercial? Already?!" people gawk before they have even put a grocery list together for Thanksgiving.

We are spoon-fed Christmas for months; Plaza lights on Thanksgiving night, Black Friday shopping, Cyber Monday sales, the Mayor's Christmas Tree lighting, racing to Lowe's to illuminate our houses in thousands of lights, picking out a Christmas tree, and a plethora of presents to purchase. 

Oh, and the lines..... the lines of cranky shoppers bouncing from one store to another.

1876 Pioneer Christmas sketch
Yeah, this kind of stuff didn't happen back in the 1800s. Not even close.

Even the mention of Christmas as a celebration in early newspapers is few and far between. Christmas was a religious observance that started with two important ingredients- church and family.

What makes this country unique is we are a mashed up bunch of cultures stirred together to create a new take on ChristmasEach group of people came from the old world to the new with their own set of traditions for the holiday.

The Dutch brought Santa ClausScandinavians hung mistletoe, and Christmas trees were a German custom, to just name a few. So when these immigrants sailed to America, they brought with them these unique customs. And as people married outside otheir native countries, the entangling of traditions began.

Queen Victoria's Christmas Tree etching, 1848
Even in the early 1800s, evergreens, festoons and garlands with artificial roses decorated churches and public buildings in large cities and small town America. It gave people the sense of renewal.

The only true color during the cold winter months was that of evergreens and holly berries. Bringing these only signs of life indoors became associated with the season.

In the 1850s, large cities such as Philadelphia and New York began to adopt some of the customs we see in many homes today.

They welcomed the Christmas tree. 

At this time in history, the Christmas tree would be something a community would erect in a church or public space. The popularity of this unique custom began with Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria. Honoring his roots, the Queen first allowed a Christmas tree in her castle in 1841. 

And people love to copy the rich and fashionable, right?

It wasn't long before our pioneers would partake in the Christmas tree. In In an article published February 6, 1850 in the Washington Reporter, a missionary near Pittsburgh wrote, "According to the good old German custom, we had a 'Christmas Tree' at the Infirmary on Christmas Eve. I had often heard of the observance of this custom in the hospitals, asylums, and orphan houses of Europe, but had no idea before what happiness such an affair simple could produce. The tree was of spruce."
"The German Christmas Tree" at a field hospital, 1871
This once-isolated custom of the Christmas tree spread like wildfire. People, mostly in large cities, began purchasing small trees that sat on tables, decorating them with dried fruit, popcorn strings, candies... and later candles. So in 1850, this Christmas tree thing was new and certainly wasn't commonly practiced in this area.

Small towns, as Kansas City, Westport and New Santa Fe were at the time, wouldn't have had widespread Christmas celebrations and most likely had small home gatherings. They gave small handmade gifts to children and had a hearty meal.

That was about it.

As the east coast grew in industry and the farms grew in prosperitypeople in this country had a false sense of security in the early 1850s. 

On December 23, 1852, the Evening Star in Washington, D.C. wrote, "Just now that our country is prosperous, powerful and at peace with the world, we have cause to rejoice as a Christian people; while plenty, the unexampled blessings that surround us, and exemption from pestilence and scourge, shed around us every element of happiness to the individual."

I'd guess there was little reason to believe that this "peace" would be interrupted by war less than ten years later.

Typical food served for gatherings showcased
at the Wornall House
Amidst the growing of a nation and the movement of pioneers to the west, including the Kansas City area, the Christmas tree moved along with them. By 1857, the Christmas tree, according to an account in New York, was "becoming a common institution among [people]." 

The days surrounding Christmas along the frontier often consisted of visiting parties to neighbors and a jubilee or dance at a house nearby. Roasted meats and sweet, delicious smells would ooze out of kitchens of homes. Sugar, an expensive commodity during this time period, would be utilized to bake treats and cakes.

By the mid 1850s, the borders around here were less-than-calm. The Jayhawkers versus the Border Ruffians had interrupted any hopes of peace. A Christian observance of Jesus' birthday wasn't going to stop them from their mission. 

During the week of Christmas in 1858, an infamous guy named John Brown popped on over to the Missouri side of the state line in Vernon County and freed eleven slaves. In their "Christmas Raid," as it became to be known, they killed one slave owner named David Cruise. One freed slave was pregnant and when she gave birth to a baby boy, she named him "John Brown." 

News of the Christmas Raid traveled all the way to the east coast.

But there was some evidence of Christmas tidings and cheer that same year, when Rosser's Drugstore in Westport was advertising its line of flavorings - lemon, orange, raspberry, peach, strawberry and vanilla as "Seasonable: Just in time for Christmas." 
Headline in the Border Star, December 31, 1859

But destruction wreaked havoc on the area one year later when on Christmas day in 1859, a fire in the heart of Westport destroyed thirteen businesses and houses made mostly of wood. The Border Star, a pro-slavery newspaper in Westport, wrote on December 31st, "Our town is truly a scene of sadness and distress, and the square in front of our office window presents a mournful picture of smothered flames, cinders, charred walls, a desolation."

Starting at the Pioneer Drug Store on Main Street owned by Dr. Boggs, the fire interrupted any semblance of Christmas cheer. The clerk of the store was off at church, so the doors to the business were locked.

Yes, people worked on Christmas back then.

An alarm was given but they couldn't enter the secured business quickly. Time ticked on and the fire traveled to neighboring businesses, including Roby's Indian Store next door. It raged onto the corner of Main and Main Cross Streets (Pennsylvania).

As people gathered to work to put out the fire, the greedy were ready in the shadows.

One man stuffed his chest with handkerchiefs and his rear end with "silks and laces."

Why did it spread so quickly? Well, Westport didn't have a fire station and water was hard to come by.

The Border Star reported, "A great deal of free liquor was rolled out onto the street, and a great many free drinkers took advantage of it. They got a cheap Christmas spree."

Events such as these are buried in mountains of newspapers and are not commonly known. But these pioneers of Kansas City spent the early days of Christmas with less than we would entertain now.
A Christmas soiree advertised in the Liberty Tribune, Dec. 16, 1862

On Christmas Day in 1861, the year the Civil War broke out, Westport hosted a dance for those who weren't in the army or were "neutral." At the height of the party, Quantrill's men busted into the dance.

One of his border ruffians had on a Union officer's uniform... where blood could be seen on the collar.

They danced with unwilling partners and left as quickly as they had come.

Merry Christmas, Westport.

Things certainly didn't get easier in the area when in October 1864, 3,500 men were killed or severely injured in the Battle of Westport.

On Christmas night in 1865, Union soldiers at a dance in Lee's Summit got into an argument with bushwackers over dance partners and it spilled onto the streets.

Shots were fired, and even a train passing by was shot into. Only one injury was reported.

Even with all this commotion in the Kansas City area, the slow progression of our modern-day Christmas began to morph into traditions, images and customs we still see today. German immigrant Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harper's Weeklytook his talents and literally formed our modern image of good ole Saint Nick. 

Harper's Weekly 1863 cover, "Christmas at Camp"
by Thomas Nast
Nast's persona of Santa Claus, based off the German interpretation of St. Nicholas, was carried throughout the next twenty-plus years. By 1881, he perfected his representation of the jolly red-suited Santa.

This is modern-day Santa Claus.

His images during the Civil War helped personalize Christmas when the deeply divided nation needed it the most.

Citizens in cities and on the frontier found solace in the message of Christmas. Peace and good will toward men maybe held a special meaning during this heartbreaking time period.

The Civil War ripped families apart; the breadwinners of a myriad amount of settlers were off fighting in the war, hundreds of miles away from all they loved. And after the Civil War ended in 1865, 620,000 men - 2% of the population- never returned home.

This was tumultuous time in American history, but the Civil War truly developed a love with Christmas and what it represented. Even though the Civil War gave men, women and children on the frontier some facade of normalcy, the truth was that most of these settlers wouldn't have had the money to celebrate past a meal with family and neighbors.

Harper's Weekly 1881 Thomas Nast depiction
of Santa Claus
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents!"

Sound familiar, fellow book lovers?

I can't help to think of Little Women, where protagonist Jo complains that because of her father being away fighting in the Civil War, they were too poor to celebrate Christmas.

This coming-of-age classic story builds an accurate vision of how a Victorian Christmas was impacted by the outbreak of war. Selflessness, self-reliance and sense of a community are messages painted beautifully in the words of Louisa May Alcott.  

By the end of the novel, a happier time is described as a group of families and neighbors gathered around the piano to sing Christmas carols by the dimly lit table top tree. 

In small communities, the celebration of lighting and decorating a Christmas tree at church on Christmas Eve became commonplace, even during the Civil War. "Grand soirees" and Christmas parties with neighbors, much like what is demonstrated in Little Women, were always accompanied by music. 
Original 1868 page from Little Women, Library of Congress

Christmas songs, such as Silent Night (1816), I Saw Three Ships (Medieval), and O Little Town of Bethlehem (1865), and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (16th century- and my favorite!) are just a few examples of the music that would have been sung

So many customs we have today came from the Victorian era... including the Christmas card.

The first Christmas card is credited to British educator Henry Cole, who was looking for a quick solution to corresponding with people over the holidays. In 1843, he commissioned an artist and printed 1,000 copies of a Christmas postcard depicting a family celebrating the holiday and images of helping the poor around the sides.

Just shy of 75 years later in 1915, Kansas City's own Joyce Hall revolutionized the Christmas card and created a new take on it. Postcards didn't have enough room for messages that people wanted to write on them.

Ah, but Mr. Hall had a solution.

J.C. Hall created displays that allowed shoppers to see all the cards
instead of opening drawers, and this changed the industry forever.
Courtesy of Hallmark
The Hall Brothers Company restructured the card into a four inch high, six inch wide card that folded once and was inserted in an envelope.

And so the modern-day Christmas card was born... right here in Kansas City. 

The success of this company, renamed ten years later to Hallmark Cards, remains a staple as one of the Kansas City-based businesses that is recognizable worldwide.

In the late 1910s, Joyce Hall would be the innovator of another pastime. In Christmastime in Kansas City, the event is retold.

At the height of the Christmas rush, their store on 11th Street sold out of the tissue-style wrapping papers common at the time. Not wishing to disappoint their loyal customers, brother Rollie Hall raced to their warehouse to find a solution.

He found fancy envelope linings with patterns on them that were imported from France. They threw these sheets on the floor and slapped a 10 cent price on them. They were immensely popular and stronger than the thin tissue labeled as wrapping paper.

Two years later, they added this new industry standard to their manufacturing line, and modern day wrapping paper was born.
1954 card design "Christmas Surprise" by Rockwell
Courtesy of Hallmark Archives 

How cool is that?

The Christmas card and wrapping paper pushed Hallmark to new heights. The card was a new industry standard, so Hallmark hunted for new and innovative designs for their Christmas cards. The solution? Hire famous artists to illustrate new designs. Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell were some of the artists to design Christmas cards for Hallmark. reports that between 1948 and 1957, Rockwell designed 32 Christmas cards. Some of his images are still reprinted by Hallmark every few years.

Much like Harpers Weekly artist Thomas Nast, Norman Rockwell was widely known for his realistic impressions of the American culture and his ability to accurately display emotions in his art. His Santa Claus images are, as most, influenced by Thomas Nast's popular Santa Claus creations.

Even though the early settlers have long since passed away, their mark on the Kansas City area is prominent if you know where to look. It's especially intriguing to walk in the steps of Kansas City's own first families and see firsthand how Christmas would have looked at a home in 1800s Jackson County, Mo.

A reenactment of the Wornall family Christmas at the Wornall House
On a cold Friday night this month, I set out to personally experience these Christmas traditions we hold so dear. The John Wornall House and Museum at 6115 Wornall Road had just what I was looking for...

...Not just for research for this blog, but also to rejuvenate my very own Christmas spirit.

I was far from disappointed in my experience during their candlelight Christmas tour. The beautiful house, completed in 1858, was carefully decorated in the Victorian Christmas style I had been researching. 

Each room held reenactments, including local musicians and actors that accurately depicted the days of an early settler in the Kansas City area.  

A hammered dulcimer was a common instrument in the days of my pioneers, and when accompanied by a guitar, the sounds are splendid.

Married musicians Dan DeLancey and Linda Thomas, part of a local group called "Frosty Morn Trio" were stationed in the parlor at the Wornall House (please click on the video to hear this exceptional music!).

Under soft lighting, a small group of us on the tour stopped to listen to the spectacular music coming from their instruments. They demonstrated Christmas songs and the type of music that would have been played at country parties of the day.

Each room held a surprise, including the period kitchen where a woman demonstrated the art of making cakes and cornbread over an open fire. A little boy, no older than seven and dressed in period clothing, offered us trays of treats and then wrestled back to the window where he was stringing cranberries and popcorn.

He may have been my favorite part of my visit. He captured the true spirit of Christmas with every step and smile.

I don't want to give too much away, because this is one of those events in Kansas City everyone should try to attend.

Popcorn and cranberry decorations at Wornall House
Christmas has a way of transforming us, even for a day, into a better version of ourselves. The customs of the present are from the molds of something much deeper- of a time that early settlers of the area transitioned into before, during, and after a war that tore our nation apart.

This turmoil came about and caused a worldwide echo of change. Starting with traditions in western Europe, the metamorphosis of Christmas happened right under Kansas City's earliest settlers' noses. 

They adopted new traditions while holding onto old ones. 

Angelo Trozzolo's the New Santa Fe Trailer
advertisement from the neighborhood
newspaper, cir. 1987
They aided their neighbors, drank egg nog with them, roasted chestnuts, danced with them, and celebrated with them. Their hearts were healed with family and church after the devastation of war. Christmas helped close some of their deepest wounds, even if just for a little while. 

The rekindling of spirit, the celebration of life and their personal sacrifices can be imagined when carolers sing, trees are raised and holiday meals are shared.

And today, we have new traditions in Kansas City that only further unite the community and remind us that Christmas is more than just presents. 

Just as it did for the early settlers of the Kansas City area, Christmas may just renew our faith in one another.

Merry Christmas to all my readers of the Santa Fe Trailer!

- Diane :)

Ten Fast and Fun Facts About Christmas in Kansas City

1. Kansas City's first community Christmas tree was installed in front of Union Station in 1915 by the Women's City League.
2. The first service held at the new St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church was high Mass on Christmas Day in 1875.
3. Second Presbyterian Church, at 8th and Wyandotte, lit their first Christmas tree with candles and was surrounded by presents for children in 1875.
Kansas City advertisement
4.  A common menu for Christmas dinner in the 1890s consisted of roast turkey, oyster dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stewed onions, chicken pie, pickled peaches, mince pie, fruit and coffee.
5. The first Mayor's Christmas Tree was in 1908, and they had planned to give 5,000 small gifts to children in attendance. 700 sacks were tucked in the tree for distribution to children in hospitals nearby. They underestimated the number in attendance, and because of this, all 5,700 gifts were gone and 1,000 children left empty-handed.
6. The first "white Christmas" on record is in 1918, where 3 inches of snow fell on December 23rd and temperatures stayed well below freezing.
7. In the 1920s, downtown Kansas City decorated the streets with greenery and large ornaments to create a cohesive look.
8. Giant crowns hung above the streets on "Petticoat Lane" in the 1950s and revisited every year for about a decade. In 2010, the giant crown ornaments were removed from storage, refabricated (they were very heavy) and displayed at Zona Rosa in North Kansas City.
Crowns on Petticoat Lane, Missouri Valley Special Collections
9. The first Plaza lights that resemble the current spectacular scene we have today was in 1936.
10. Kline's Department Store at 1113 Main Street introduced a Fairy Princess in 1935 when the store when through a large expansion and added a "Toyland." After the store went out of business in 1970, the Princess' throne was empty. In 1986, the Kansas City Museum revived the tradition and the Fairy Princess reigns again.

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