Archive for December, 2017

Little Christmases on the Prairie

By James Marten

Historians@Work rather accidentally started a tradition of holiday-themed blogs in our first year (see earlier posts for a historians’ take on Frankincense and Myrrh, a blog about the Christmas truce during the First World War, Christmas during the Civil War, and hints of actual history in popular Christmas movies). I’m indulging in a bit of nostalgia from my own life in this year’s holiday blog.

Some of my coziest childhood memories come from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of books about growing up in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, and Dakota Territory. Sometimes the books were being read to me, by my mother, or by Miss Larsen, the teacher in the “little room” (grades one through four—the “big room” naturally had grades five through eight) in the school I attended in Badger, South Dakota (population 117 in 1960). Eventually I read them all myself, and read some of them to our daughter decades later.

I have a feeling that these books helped spark a sense of history in my little boy brain, probably because I knew that my family had shared a time and place with Laura and her family; my Marten, Wesenberg, and Hokenstad great-grandparents had all homesteaded in Dakota Territory at the about the same time the Ingallses arrived. Moreover, the actual “Little Town on the Prairie” was De Smet, South Dakota, the seat of Kingsbury County, located about twenty miles from Badger. Indeed, on at least one occasion our school took a field trip to De Smet, visited the graves of Ma, Pa, Carrie, and Mary (Laura is buried elsewhere), drove past their homestead, and toured the house in town where they holed up during the “Long Winter” of 1880-1881.  I’m pretty sure I read some of the books when I was in seventh grade and living in the slightly larger town of Canova (where it took four rooms to hold all eight grades). That was the year that South Dakota and the rest of the upper great plains had a historically severe winter. In February 1969, we had only nine days of school because of frequent blizzards that closed country roads.

But all of that is just background to why I connect Christmas to these fictionalized versions of actual Dakota pioneers.

Among my favorite parts of the Little House books were Wilder’s descriptions of feasts, ceremonies, parties, and holidays. Christmas was pretty important to the Ingalls and their neighbors.  Most of Laura’s books featured at least one Christmas—with town xmas“socials,” a Santa Clause who looked surprisingly like a grizzled neighbor, and simple gifts of oranges, pennies, and mittens. The kind of celebration the family could enjoy tended to reflect the status of the sometimes hard-scrabble lives they lived (since they were constantly fighting drought, grasshoppers, and blizzards, after all).  That somehow resonated with me, too—although, in all honesty, I never fought grasshoppers and blizzards were more a source of delight than trauma when I was a boy—probably because virtually all of my classmates lived on farms and my father’s job depended on a healthy agricultural economy.

Christmas memories from my small-town past were created sixty years after Laura’s, but included:jim and jane driving past lonely farmsteads with colored lights strung over trees and outbuildings; the cardboard “fireplace” and fire we set up just for Christmas; the mysterious bubble-lights on Grandma’s tree that absolutely enthralled me as a five-year-old; the corny “reports” from Dave Dedrick, the Channel Eleven weatherman, tracking Santa’s sleigh on radar (and my longing to believe those reports long after it was really appropriate for a boy my age to do so); certain gifts that my grandmother picked out for her five grandchildren and my young aunt on the other side of the family gave to her seven nieces and nephews (giant foot-shaped rugs one year!); “helping” my Dad make a rough wooden star with blue lights to hang outside our upstairs window;  the glow of the candles while singing “Silent Night” at the end of the Christmas Eve service in our white-steepled country church. (In the photograph above, the author and his sister Janey enjoy Christmas morning, 1963.)

Even if we did not grow up in little towns on the prairie, like the Ingallses, those of us who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other seasonal holiday create our own traditions; some are based on customs ingrained since childhood, others emerge from changing beliefs and living arrangements, still others are built from scratch with spouses, partners, and children. They all become parts of our personal histories, coloring our pasts with concrete places, people, and circumstances.

Happy Holidays on behalf of the faculty, staff, and students in the History Department!

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department. Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder may want to visit this website from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association, which, I have to mention, holds an annual conference called “Laurapalooza”:









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