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Long Time Gone: The Tradition of Dining on Christmas Day

By Priscilla Waggoner

December 20, 2023

Christmas traditions on the plains continue to evolve and change as the current generation of people chooses their own way to celebrate the season.

However, the food and recipes families enjoy at Christmas time are mostly traditional and rarely go out of fashion or become outdated.

A number of different immigrant groups came to the plains of southeast Colorado in the early development of the area. They included Germans, English, and Scandinavian people. Each culture brought their own Christmas traditions and recipes to this new and unforgiving land. These people were a hardy bunch and learned to make do with little in the stark environment that was the plains of Colorado. As such, their celebrations, especially Christmas, were treated with great enthusiasm toward food; something they could control with the assets they could trade for, grow or hunt.

The Germans brought the concept of various meats to the Christmas dinner table, the English brought pastries, and the Scandinavians shared their love of side dishes such as vegetables, breads, and salads. In looking at a history of Christmas dinners on the plains we must first examine the late 1800’s when the original homesteaders arrived and began to build communities and homes.

In the 1886 magazine, Kansas Home Cook Book, a long description of serving venison as the main course is provided: “The venison should be hung a few days before in a cold place and should be washed off five or six times with vinegar. On Christmas morning it should be washed with warm water, with a dash of cold water at the last. Then wipe perfectly dry and enclose it in a covering of dough made of flour and water rolled into a thickness of not more than half an inch. Encase this in two layers of white wrapping-paper and secure with a string. Fill a dripping-pan a third full of hot water and baste often, adding to it from the tea-kettle as it evaporates. Frequent basting will keep the paper from scorching; and when thoroughly cooked—which will require from two to three hours—take form the oven about three-fourths of an hour before dinner, remove all the coverings, rub well with butter and dredge with flour, and then return to the oven. Repeat this butter-basting two or three times, till the meat is nicely browned and a ‘glaze’ formed. Garnish the venison with alternate slices of lemon and pickled beet-root. Season the gravy with a large spoonful of currant jelly and the juice of half a lemon. Other suitable vegetables to be passed with venison are mashed turnips, mashed potato, or sweet potato.”

After the main meal ample servings of “mince-pies, fruits, nuts, and raisins” would be served.

By 1905, when Kiowa County was beginning to grow by leaps and bounds, the traditional Christmas dinner included poultry, either turkey or chicken. Side dishes continued to include mashed potatoes and gravy. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas in 1905 without plum pudding and sugar plums for dessert. Mrs. Royer’s Everyday Menu Book reminded the prairie wife, “The pudding for the feast should be made at least two months before the occasion, and put away to ripen and become mellow and rich.”

During the Great Depression there was no money to go to the store and purchase all the items needed for the Christmas Dinner. Despite this fact, in Chicago, many people were starting to eat Christmas dinner out at the restaurants. But on the plains of Colorado, the housewife used what she had on the farm to create that special Christmas meal. Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes, sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture, suggested the following Depression-era Christmas spread: “Roast chicken or roast pork loin, browned potatoes, mashed rutabaga turnip, string beans, celery, mince pie, nuts and fruit, and coffee.”

As the years passed on the plains and Christmas came, passed, then came again, the women of the families handed down their own special recipes, used only at Christmas time, to the next generation. Despite the fact that the basic poultry, beef, or pork continued to be the main course and included mashed potatoes, cranberry, and various forms of vegetables, there were many variations to these dishes and, especially, the ones that complimented them. Many times the heritage recipe would be one that was a little different, and possibly a little unpopular, but despite this, the dish was brought to the table every year.

The dish was traditional, it meant Christmas, it meant the connectedness between the generations.

So when you sit down this year with family all around remember that the choices of dishes on your table have a history, they have a tradition, they have a way of bringing us all together.

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