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Imagining the Christmases of the Past Through Food and Community

Imagining the Christmases of the Past Through Food and Community

In 1843, the first printed Christmas card was commissioned by Henry Cole in England and featured a group of people surrounding a dinner table. A simple message of “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” was painted on the bottom of the tablecloth. The early pioneer traditions of Christmas, especially surrounding gift-giving and sharing food, show us how much the menu and the presents have changed over the years. On the western border of Missouri, starting as early as the 1840s, these customs seem unfamiliar today to our palate and our strained pocketbooks.

Isaac McCoy's homestead

While most people today embrace the message “Merry Christmas” when addressing people during the holiday season, early pioneer settlers on the Missouri-Kansas border, most with southern roots, would cheerfully rush toward neighbors and friends with a different message. John C. McCoy’s daughter, Nelly McCoy Harris (1840-1926) was hailed as the first “white girl” born in Kansas City and known as one of the city’s first historians. Her grandfather was Rev. Isaac McCoy, Indian missionary whose home (known as "Locust Hill") stood where St. Luke's on the Plaza stands today. In her manuscript, “Reminiscences of the Pioneer Days,” she describes Christmas traditions that she fondly remembered as a child. “We said ‘Christmas gift’ when meeting friends on [Christmas]. Now they say ‘Merry Christmas.’ I do not exactly understand the last expression.”

Nellie McCoy Harris (1840-1926)

As early as the 1840s, people hailing from the southern states would address people on Christmas day by exclaiming, “Christmas gift!” Even slaves would express this to their masters, expecting to receive a small gift in return. The first one to say it claimed the gift, usually a small present of a fruit, sweet treat or nuts would be given. Christmas was usually a given free day for slaves, thus, according to Nelly, “All were happy except the mistress of the mansion, who had to continue all sorts of ways to get along without the usual quota of house servants.” Boo-hoo. Although Kansas City was slowly growing before the Civil War, the area was quite isolated as compared to the northeastern cities. Spending Christmas with loved ones far away was usually not possible, so it was usual for neighbors to gather together to celebrate the holiday. In these simpler times, pioneers looked forward with joy to the festivities of the Christmas season. “We went to frolics early and stayed late,” Nelly wrote, “especially if the entertainments were at the homes of the McGee families . . . where they were so hospitable.” I have a personal fondness for the great-grandchildren of A.B.H. McGee. They are my friends that I have fortunately met through my research and writing. Nelly, over 100 years ago, gushed over her personal relationships with them, stating, “The hearts of these McGees seemed to be overflowing with good will to all.”

The McGee family cir. 1880 in front of the first brick home in all of Kansas City. Photo courtesy of the McGee family

Nelly had a way with words. I couldn’t have said it better myself as it pertains to my personal feelings about the McGees of Kansas City.

A candlelit tree at Wornall House

These early pioneer families would spend the holiday together in their homes lit only by the fireplaces' glow or the soft flicker of candles placed around the room. Invitations to celebrate sometimes were verbal and others were written (yet never requiring an RSVP). In this area, some guests traveled by horse up to 20 miles away to attend parties. When festivities went all night long, “pallets were spread about the floor by good-natured colored servants” so makeshift beds could be utilized. Tables were placed in larger residences wherever there was room, and in the center of each table was placed a large stack of pyramid cake, likely similar to what we see today at weddings. “No one was afraid of eating all they wanted for fear the cake would give out,” Nelly wrote, “The bottom section of the pyramid was generally a tin pan iced over, but that was no loss to anybody, for guests never got down to that [layer].” The next day, children would gather around those tin pans still iced over with frosting and eat the sugary substance until the pan was revealed underneath. What was served on Christmas day generally depended on whether you lived in the city or the country. In the small town of Kansas City, menus would have been heavy in fruits and root vegetables.

Henrietta Harris

Nuts and spices roasted on an open fire would have created a familiar scent of the season in small homes. Sugar at the time would have been quite expensive, so sweet treats were not as common as dried fruits. Because of this and other ancient traditions, the fruitcake became a popular staple at the holiday table. Those of more comfortable means would have been more likely to have more sugary options for guests and family. Foods such as turkey, hams, chickens, roast pig, saddle of mutton, and sometimes venison and buffalo were served to guests. Oysters in tins were expensive but popular additions to the menu. In 1918, the great niece of Henrietta Harris (1804-1881), the wife of the famous proprietor of Harris House Hotel in Westport, shared her recipe for chess cakes, copied as it was written “nearly a hundred years ago.” Henrietta was well-known in the Westport area for her delicious chess cakes.

Helen Miller demonstrates cooking over an open fire at the Wornall House Christmas candlelight tour

The recipe simply reads: One cup butter, two cups brown sugar (English golden); yolks of eight eggs. Flavor with nutmeg and vanilla or a little sherry wine. Work the butter and sugar until very creamy; add the well-beaten yolks of the eggs, and lastly the flavorings. Bake in small patty pans, in paste. Bake in a very slow oven.” Confused? So am I. Another early recipe printed in 1847 in The Carolina Housewife by Sarah Rutledge reads: Bake the walls of thick standing crust, to any size you like, and ornamented as fancy directs. Lay at the bottom of the pie a beef steak. Bone a turkey, goose, fowl, duck, partridge, and place one over the other, so that, when cut, the white and brown meat may appear alternately. Put a large tongue by its side, and fill the vacancies with forcemeat balls and hard eggs, and add savory jelly. This last is better for being kept in a mould, and only taken out as required. Bacon, chopped or beat up with the forecemeat, is preferable to suet, as it is nicer when cold, and keeps better. Boy, am I glad that our taste buds aren’t suffering anymore. Today, piecing together the steps of these old recipes is quite difficult; setting your electric oven to a temperature and baking for a certain amount of time are vital parts of successful baking. But before the electric oven, women cooked on an open fire or on a cast iron stove.

Stirring Up History is available on

Modern cooking that we all do, including Christmas dinner, is usually based off a written recipe with clear directions. Cookbooks as we know them today were not commonplace in the 19th century. However, some women began featuring their favorite recipes in church cookbooks, usually arranged as a fundraiser for their community. Cheryl McCann, author of Stirring up History: The Meals, Memoirs and Memories of Our Ladies of Clay County, has spent years reading old recipes and decoding them. The book is the recreation of the 1880 and then the 1903 Presbyterian ladies of Liberty Missouri’s Economy Cook Books. McCann was interested in trying to figure out more about the women behind the recipes as well as interpreting the recipes into today’s measurements and baking times. “Cooking and cookbooks could be surprisingly liberating and bring women of different backgrounds together,” McCann explained. As she researched the women who in the early additions were listed by only the name of their husband, she also had to learn how women in the 19th century cooked. “I started trying to find out who these ladies were, and many of them had remarkable stories of their own to tell.” Therefore, Stirring up History, available on Amazon, includes the old recipes as they were typed, updated recipes in today’s measurements, and biographies about the women who supplied them.

Kansas City Times, 1895

Some recipes called for ingredients such as glycerin, glucose, ammonia, tartaric acid and carbolic acid that we wouldn’t dare ingest today. Directions such as “butter the size of an egg” needed to be given in acceptable measurements to ensure the best results. A “cold oven” in these old recipes actually means 325 degrees, showing us how many strides have been made over the years on the subject of accurate recipes. “I think we can all be inspired from the lives of other people, past and present, but to know how these strong women from a variety of backgrounds came together to create this cookbook shows a sense of community,” McCann commented. In a way, Stirring Up History brings the past alive through our current taste buds and opens our eyes to the lives these women led. “I also find that the biographies show great character traits such as endurance, faith, kindness, injunity, and the bravery. These ladies lived in a time before the vote, and some lived through the Civil War. They took on the challenges that were presented to them,” McCann said.

Cream puffs

Posted by Diane Euston at 8:27 PM

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