by Nancy Christofferson
The traditions surrounding the Christmas holiday of today have been a long time evolving. Small children of today associate the day with Santa Claus and toys, while the older set thinks about their aching credit cards.
Santa Claus as we perceive him was actually a bit of a late comer, having been popularized in the 1870s by the famous New York cartoonist Thomas Nast after he first drew the jolly fat man in 1863. Even Clement Moore never mentioned the name Santa Claus in his well known poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” penned in 1823. It is said the image and the name caught on only after Frank Baum, more noted for his Oz books, wrote a children’s story featuring Santa in 1902.
Thus, children of the 19th century had little concept of the dimpled gift-giver we recognize now. Many cultures had a similar figure, a magical being who dropped down chimneys with bags full of goodies, but most countries had their own names for this person. Popular consensus tells us Santa Claus got his name from the Dutch, who called him Sinterklaas or Senter Klaus.
Be that as it may, the children of Huerfano County only knew Christmas was a time of religious rejoicing as well as a time of, hopefully, their receiving gifts in some form. We hear good children get nice presents, while the bad ones get a lump of coal in their stockings, and we know there was plenty of coal around the county to fill thousands of those stockings.
Unfortunately, most Huerfano children lived in less than favorable conditions. The large rural population lived far from shopping outlets, and a family’s livelihood might leave very little money left over for frivolity such as toys or extra sets of school clothes and shoes. Families tended to be large, stretching slim resources.
In realization of these circumstances, most churches and many rural schools had what was known as the Christmas Tree. This was not an object, but an event. Whether there was an actual tree involved, the celebration centered around providing children with gifts and, presumably, the happiness with the novelty. The membership pooled resources and bought fruits, nuts and small trinkets and one night would be set aside for the gathering and gifting. The Christmas Tree just might provide the only gifts some children received, so it was very special. The evening was made even more special with community caroling and homemade refreshments.
In good years, when the sheep yielded more wool, the crops were bounteous or work was steady, parents could provide more presents. The local stores would advertise their variety of wares, such as A.R. Campbell of Walsenburg in 1881. Campbell was the local mortician and furniture maker, and he offered “Holiday Goods suitable for Christmas Presents such as wall ornaments of all kinds, clock shelves, comb boxes, slipper pockets, etc., etc., and have more coming. Wall paper for sale by sample. Hereafter I will keep in stock a complete assortment of coffins of all sizes, also trimmings for same. Orders filled on short notice.” Hmm. One wonders just how much of the Christmas trade Mr. Campbell cornered.
M. Bernstein in the late 1890s made his pitch for buying at his department store, with a newspaper ad reading “Christmas goods – immense line, bargains in dry goods, notions, laces, ribbons, boots and shoes, toys.” Or for those who celebrate best with a full stomach, John Foley’s grocery and meat market offered “Choicest meats two and four legged and with fins.” His competition had “meats, pickled pigs feet, brains, tripe, spare ribs, sauerkraut, sweet and sour pickles, mince meat, etc.” It is hard to imagine Santa Claus delivering sauerkraut to modern day, electronic-minded children in exchange for the milk and cookies they promise to leave out for him (courtesy of Mom).
We hear about the gaiety and abandon of the “Roaring Twenties.” Consider the Christmas offerings made by the local stores in 1928, which included middy blouses, union suits, serge knee pants and sateen bloomers. No wonder the Hill School students chose to perform the holiday operetta “The Toy Shop” that year – it was simply a case of wishful thinking.
So if money was short, and the folks were forced to buy wallpaper or sour pickles for Christmas, the children had to rely on Santa for some real toys and games. Santa appeared all over Huerfano County, from the smallest one-room schoolhouse to the metropolis. In the latter, he often came by train and telegraphed his arrival time to the local paper, as in “look for Santa on the 12:43 C&S passenger Saturday.” And they did look for Santa, by the hundreds. Other times Mr. C. showed up at the theater in mid-December to distribute treats during the annual free matinee. Movies such as Buzz Barton in “The Slingshot Kid”, Jackie Coogan in “Tom Sawyer” or “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery” were shown in two seatings and as many as 1,100 children were admitted. “Free” was a misnomer, as the price of admission could be anything from a can of corn to a used toy or an article of clothing from each child 12 and under. Local merchants and service clubs, in cooperation with the theaters and newspapers, sponsored these events, and the used toys were cleaned, repaired and given to the needy by other organizations, usually the Boy Scouts, Catholic Daughters of America or Veterans of Foreign Wars.
And so, with a little help from fellow Huerfanos, the children of the county could always count on a little Christmas cheer in one form or another, and those who donated time or money could have a contented time as well.