Fremont County, Iowa

Pioneer Christmas Decorations
by Evelyn Birkby
View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
December 5, 2015

Pioneer Christmas stories abound, and those among my favorites are by author, Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I think of those early Christmas stories, I remember a clove-studded apple hanging on the tree in Little House in the Big Woods. In The Long Winter, Laura embroidered a picture frame for a gift. Almost every Little House book, includes a story about the holiday they experienced that made me want to be there with them.

This year, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, is featuring a series of trees decorated with items from the Little House books. What fun it would be to do the same in our home, read stories of their holidays from the Wilder books and decide what to make as a family.

Bess Streeter Aldrich, is another of my favorite authors who wrote wonderful books about pioneer days. Spring Comes On Forever is one I remember, located in Nebraska City. In it she describes their pioneer Christmas with the decorations they made from what they had at hand. They used nuts and pinecones, for example. Like many a pioneer family they had lots of feathers available from their homegrown chickens. Gluing the feathers into the shape of a tree made for one of the most common decorations, or just fastening them to a branch of a tree. They were used in a variety of ways.

Pioneer houses were tiny so often a tree would not fit in. Many a family simply brought in an evergreen branch and decorated it. And so I start thinking of these wonderful stories that have preserved the description of the early decorations. Now I am hearing of people who use these ideas for their own family to craft handmade decorations for their own trees. Almost everyone knows about the paper chains made from construction paper, or any paper available, for that matter. Cut into strips these pieces are then looped together and glued. Many pioneer children used flour moistened with water as their glue. Not the best, but often the only paste available.

Women in early days saved the long hairs from their brushing sessions and made lovely woven items including wreaths (if they had enough). Flowers and leaves were picked in the summer when in full bloom, pressed and dried to make into holiday arrangements later. Dolls were made out of yarn, straw, corn husks, and corn cobs. Small ones were made as tree ornaments, Cookie dough ornaments and gingerbread men were also hung on the tree. Think of rag dolls as well, made with leftover fabric from cothes, quilt, rugs and pajama making.

Many a cranberry was strung in the olden days, and even today, to decorate the tree. Strings of popcorn is another easily reprised decoration from the past.

The “paint” the pioneer famiies used was from local sources. Clay made brown, a special beetle made purple, berry juice made colors from red to dark purple depending on the berry. Our craft stores make this part of decorations easier.

Children in those earlier days did hang their stockings where Santa could put in a nut, an orange, a piece of cady and soemtimes, a shiny new penny.

My, but times have changed!

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