Celebrating Christmas in the Pioneer Days

A Company of Fort Smith's Oldest Citizens Tell
How the Day was Observed in Their Younger Days

Christmas in Fort Smith in the [1840s] was observed much differently than it is now.

"Fort Smith in the latter '40's was a very small place," narrated Charles A. Birnie. "Most of the town then was down on Front street which followed the shore line of the river. There was a very wide street in front of the stores. This all caved into the river in the early '50's.

"All of the residences were scattered along on Second street and close. [When] approached, the signs of festivity were plainly noticeable. Every house made preparations for everyone took a hand in the general frolic, which characterized the holidays.

"A large crowd of young fellows always went out on James Fork near Hackett City the day before Christmas and we would go from farm house to farm house, having a dance at each one and not ending the revelry until after New Year's.

"Election times were more exciting then than they are now. Whisky was so cheap that not so much of it was put to use as it has become since. Good whisky then cost about 16 cents per gallon in Cincinnati and sold here for 50 cents. This was the pure stuff.

One of the election precincts was at the office of the father of Sam Edmondson, 'Old Ginger,' he was called, and from whom the northern corner of Fourth and B streets derived the name of Ginger's corner. When election day rolled around, 'Old Ginger' would purchase a barrel of whisky and knock in the head. He then hung a tin cup on the side and set it out on the sidewalk in front of his office. Every voter who came along took a couple of cups full, drank them, went in and voted, came out, drank a couple more and went on his way. This prevented much repetition in voting as few men could stand the performance more than once."

"There are no more Christmas[es] like there were in the early days of Fort Smith," said Aunt Sophia Kannady. "There are not even as much firecrackers used nor near so much noise made now as there was then.

"Everyone, to begin with, had plenty to eat. There was no one who could not afford

turkey, ham, game and things which now only the well-to-do enjoy. I have known large turkeys in those days to go begging for some one to purchase them for twenty-five cents. A big dinner then, as it is today, was the principal Christmas celebration. The dining room was decorated with foliage and evergreens and on the table was a repast suitable for a crown prince. People were great on roast pig and a small one in whose mouth was an apple would adorn the center of the table. Then there would be roast turkey, garnished with parsley, boiled ham, game of all kinds, besides fruits and pastimes. Everything was put on whole.

"Parties were given everywhere but Christmas day was respected and there were no dances given on that day.

"On Christmas eve everyone hung up their stockings and presents were given as they are now. The toys were about the same, only I believe they were stronger. The first toys I ever saw were brought here by Dr. Meyers, who ran a drug store on Front street. He continued to bring them each year until the war broke out.

"Christmas day customs were followed which have long since been forgotten except by the old settlers. The merchants would contribute to a fund which was used in buying toys, nuts, fruits and candles for all the children in town. Several young men then dressed up in all sorts of toggery to resemble Santa Claus. They would take the toys and things in a big sack on their back and make the rounds. When a house was reached they went in, announced and made the children their presents. The children were always frightened half out of their wits and custom was abandoned on that account. They certainly scared me when I was a child.

"Another custom was for the young men to disguise themselves and ride over town whooping and blowing horns. They called themselves calathumpians. It was a scary sight for a child to look up and see a dozen of these weird figures come charging down the roads, pushing their [steeds] to the utmost.

"During the war, we Southerners were able to get plenty to eat and had our turkey dinner on Christmas, if the Federals would let us alone long enough. The children missed their toys — that is we missed the opportunity of buying factory made ones — but the children were as happy with what they received as they were when we could get the imported ones again after the war. We could take cloth, cut out a doll and stuff it with cotton. What better doll could a child want — they couldn't break it. Then we would make doughnuts and cut them in the shape of all sorts of animals. They pleased the children more than an imported toy would have done.

"After Christmas the round of parties would begin. Such decorations you will not see now, as were seen in the parlor where the party was being held. [There] were no lamps — everyone used candles. In some of the parlors were immense chandeliers which hung from the ceiling. In this there would be about a hundred candles, all colors. The room was as light as day and the candles added ornament to the room.

"Speaking of having no lamps makes me think of the first coal oil I ever saw. It was brought here by the father of Col. B.F. Atkinson, who gave an exhibition of its qualities, by lighting up the town hall. Oil then sold at $1.50 a gallon. People were afraid to use it at first.

"New Year's day was kept the same as Christmas, another big dinner was given, after which everyone kept open house and received callers. This is a lost custom nowadays.

"I had rather live in the old days when Fort Smith was one large family."

Fort Smith News Record, Dec. 13, 1903, p. 13