Wyoming Christmas, Territorial Style
By Phil Roberts
Christmas was celebrated in territorial Wyoming much like it is today with family dinners, parties, church services and school programs. Festive occasions were reported in the newspapers of the time and press accounts reveal some of the interesting ones.
In Cheyenne in 1877 the ladies of the African Methodist Church cooked a Christmas dinner for church members and friends. “About 250 presents hung upon the tree,” the newspaper item reported.
The Presbyterian Sabbath School in Cheyenne elected new officers for the coming year, according to the same 1877 Cheyenne newspaper. Elected secretary-treasurer was photographer-banker D. D. Dare who several years later fled to the Near East after two banks in which he had an interest failed.
The Evanston newspaper mentioned a Christmas present given to the local judge. It was a “magnificent gold cane,” the judge told the Evanston editor.
It’s hard to tell just how “merry” Christmas was at Fort Laramie in 1877. One writer in a letter to the editor wrote: “Good old Christmas was fitly celebrated in Fort Laramie. . . . Every window in the Post was brilliantly illuminated with a dozen candles each, the quarters were decorated with evergreen… Wine flowed freely, and many a hearty toast was drunk to the happiness of old friends….”
A second letter several days later offered a different view. “Seeing the brief but improper item in your columns (about Christmas at Fort Laramie). . .the would-be correspondent gives not only an improper description, but a selfish account of the whole affair. But few evergreens were seen, the only being in the Band quarters. The tree was nine inches high (when placed on a bunk) and was decorated with old cigar stumps. Our would-be correspondent does not for an instant speak of the quality of the wine which flowed so freely. I have not the least doubt but some of that wine is flowing yet.”
There was less debate on the festivities at Laramie that year. The Wanless Hose Company—apparently a firefighting brigade—sponsored “a grand ball at a hotel Christmas night.” Near present-day Newcastle, prospectors celebrated Christmas with the news of an oil strike close to Jenney’s Stockade.
An 1879 newspaper reported festivities near Lander. “Fifth Cavalry held a grand military ball on Christmas Eve.” The report added that “Lander…was well represented by ‘the fair.'”
On Christmas Day, 1878, a huge Christmas tree decorated with “glittering tinsels and golden winged images” highlighted the program at Fort Washakie, the Indian agency near Lander. Presents were handed out by Santa Claus who “sprang out in his suit of furs and robes.” After the gifts were presented “all assembled again and listened to the reading of the sermon by the agent.”
The Christmas tree at Lander was not the first one raised in Wyoming. Nineteen years earlier in 1858 missionaries at Deer Creek (near present-day Glenrock) chopped down a spruce tree in the nearby hills and decorated it. That evening they entertained members of Capt. W. F. Raynolds’s topographic expedition and Indians with violin music, Bible readings and German Christmas carols.
The Christmas tree was a standard part of celebrations in the 1870s. Residents of Rock Springs held a Christmas party at their one-room schoolhouse in 1878. The Christmas tree was decorated with cranberries and popcorn strung by the school children. According to one account, gifts were distributed. “Occasionally some old hardened sinner crouching in a seat at the rear of the building would be startled and surprised when Santa Claus, calling him by name, announced in ringing tones a gift for that man. When the child acting as Santa’s messenger carried the prize to him, his old eyes would moisten and often tears trickled down his cheeks.. . The knowledge that someone cared for him enough to manifest it with a token of remembrance affected him.”
And, in the 21st century, children of all ages in Wyoming still look forward to Santa’s visit.
Editor’s note: This column was first published in 1978 as part of the author’s “Buffalo Bones” series syndicated in Wyoming newspapers. Phil Roberts is emeritus professor of history at the University of Wyoming.