Christmas in the "Old Army"
December 10, 2011
A number of years have passed since the U.S. Army served on duty in the frontier, the Great Plains, and the American West, but one thing remains now as it was then: the celebration of Christmas in a joyous and festive fashion. Even soldiers deployed in the field never forgot the day; indeed, it was celebrated as much as possible with extra rations and lightened duty. Troops in garrison duty, though, were able to celebrate in a much more elaborate fashion, as Christmas Day was marked with religious observances, music, food, gifts, and a blessed relief in the monotony of duty in isolated and remote forts spread across the western frontier.
Many of the customs we have today were also observed in the 1800s, to include Christmas trees and a visit from Santa Claus. The Christmas celebration at Fort Custer, Montana, is recorded by the Army and Navy Journal issue of January 13, 1883: "Christmas met with the usual recognition at this post, and a Gloria in Excelsis Deo time has been enjoyed by all. The officers and ladies worked indefatigably to suitably decorate the hall and prepare a Christmas tree for the ninety odd children of the garrison and vicinity, to furnish which they had subscribed and expended something more the $100. The Christmas Eve celebration took place on Saturday, Lieut. Borden, 5th Infantry, taking the role of Santa Claus. It was a great pleasure to see the little ones step up and receive the toys, candies, and useful articles as plucked from the glittering illuminated tree, or extract from the grab-bag the things of wonder and beauty to their young minds. The festive board, or menu, of the different companies on Christmas day was excelled by none previous in our experience. A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you in the present and in the future. S."
As noted previously, feasting was happily anticipated on Christmas day, and the holiday dinner was one of the high points of the day. The enlisted men would eat in their dining halls, consuming whatever meat and special rations could be drawn from the commissary or could be hunted from readily available wild game, with as many trimmings as possible, washing it down with plenty of coffee and spirits, while the officers and their ladies dined in a more genteel manner with their fellow officers in their quarters. The bachelor officers were not forgotten but were well taken care of by the ladies of the regiment, since it was customary to take the bachelors cakes and other treats on Christmas Day.
That same Army and Navy Journal issue tells of the dinner bill of fare of Co. "I," 12th U.S. Infantry on Christmas Day. The company served at Plattsburg Barracks on Lake Champlain in upstate New York, which had been an isolated and embattled military frontier from the 17th Century through the War of 1812 but which was a far quieter, more settled part of the country by 1882. There, too, the Christmas meals were sumptuous:
"Breakfast, Ham and eggs, corned beef hash, hot buttered rolls. Waffles with maple syrup, coffee, tea etc.
"Dinner, Roasts: round of beef, tenderloin of beef, loin of mutton, pork stuffed; turkey stuffed (olives and oysters) served with cranberry sauce and currant jelly. Boiled: mess pork, mutton, beef, ham (Whitickers) served with jelly. Entrees: baked pork and beans, pressed corned beef, stewed kidneys. Vegetables: potatoes, mashed and baked with roast beef, cabbage boiled, turnips boiled and baked with meats, carrots stewed (cream sauce), beets boiled and pickled, tomatoes stewed, cold slaw (sic), parsnips boiled and baked. Pastry: mince pie, green apple pie, cranberry pie, lemon pie Dessert: Plum duff (a la 12th infantry) [editor's note: a plum duff is a steamed pudding similar to an English Christmas pudding], blanc mange, nuts assorted, raisins, apples, coffee, tea, sweet cider, etc.
"Supper: cold roast beef, roast mutton, roast turkey, boiled ham, fillet of beef. Pastry: mince pie, cranberry pie, green apple pie, blanc mange, tea and coffee. Dum Vivimus, Viamus." [Editor's note: this Latin phrase translates to "let us live while we live, i.e., let us enjoy life"]
Social events were de rigueur and included visiting the quarters of the other officers on post and admiring the gifts that had been given and received. An Army wife, Frances Roe, whose husband, Second Lieutenant Fayette Roe, was stationed at Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory, recalls their first Christmas on the frontier: "Our first Christmas on the frontier was ever so pleasant, but it certainly was most vexatious not to have that box from home. And I expect that it has been at Kit Carson for days, waiting to be brought down. We had quite a little Christmas without it, however, for a number of things came from the girls, and several women of the garrison sent pretty little gifts to me. It was so kind and thoughtful of them to remember that I might be a bit homesick just now. All the little presents were spread out on a table, and in a way to make them present as fine an appearance as possible. Then I printed in large letters, on a piece of cardboard, 'One box - content unknown!' and stood it up on the back of the table. I did this to let everyone know that we had not been forgotten by home people. "
Another common pastime was dancing, and dances which were known as "hops" were frequent during the Christmas season. Mrs. Roe recalls: "The commanding officer gave a dancing party Friday evening that was most enjoyable…. The girls East may have better music to dance by, and polished waxed floors to slip down upon, but they cannot have the excellent partners one has at an Army post, and I choose the partners! The officers are excellent dancers - every one of them - and when you are gliding around, your chin, or perhaps your nose, getting a scratch now and then from a gorgeous gold epaulet, you feel as light as a feather, and imagine yourself with a fairy prince. Of course the officers were in full dress uniform Friday night, so I know just what I am talking about, scratches and all."
Religious services were held in the Chapel, and unlike other activities, enlisted men also attended. The choir sang, and Christmas carols pealed out good tidings to all. And so, as the Christmas season is again upon us, as it was for these courageous men and women so many years ago, we want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.