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9 minutes reading time (1891 words)

Christmas Stories: A tale from December 1871

Vancouver Barracks (Date Unknown)

 December 1871. By Frances M.A. Roe.

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 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 from 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, in a piece of cardboard, "One box – contents 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. My beautiful new saddle was brought in, also, for although I had had it several weeks, it was really one of Faye's Christmas gifts to me.

They have such a charming custom in the Army of going along the line Christmas morning and giving each other pleasant greetings and looking at the pretty things everyone has received. This is a rare treat out here, where we are so far from shops and beautiful Christmas displays. We all went to the bachelors' quarters, almost everyone taking over some little remembrance – homemade candy, cakes, or something of that sort.

I had a splendid cake to send over that morning, and I will tell you just what happened to it. At home we always had a large fruit cake made for the holidays, long in advance, and I thought I would have one this year as near as it as possible. But it seemed like the only way to get it was to make it. So, about four weeks ago, I commenced. It was quite an undertaking for me, as I had never done anything of any kind, and perhaps I did not go about it the easiest way, but I knew how it should look when done, and of course I know precisely how it should taste. Eliza [cook] makes delicious every-day cake, but was no assistance whatever with the fruit cake, beyond encouraging me with the assurance that it would not matter in the least if it should be heavy.

Well, for two long, tiresome days, I worked over that cake with my own fingers every bit of the fruit, which I consider was a fine test of perseverance and staying qualities. After the ingredients were all mixed together there seemed to be enough for a whole regiment, so we decided two cakes of it. They looked lovely when baked, and just right, and smelled so good, too! I wrapped them in the nice white paper that had been wet with brandy, and put them carefully away – one in a stone jar, the other in a tin box – and felt that I had done a remarkably fine bit of housekeeping.

The bachelors have been exceedingly fine to me, and I rejoiced at having a nice cake to send them Christmas morning. But alas! I forgot that the little house was fragrant with the odor of spice and fruit, and that there was a man about who was ever on the lookout for good things to eat. It is a shame that those cadets at West Point are so starved. They seem to be simply famished for months after they graduate.

It so happened that there was choir practice that very evening, and that I was at the chapel an hour or so. When I returned, I found the three bachelors sitting around the open fire, smoking, and looking very comfortable indeed. Before I was quite in the room, they all stood up and began to praise the cake. I think Faye [her husband] was the first to mention it, saying it was a "great success;" then the others said, "perfectly delicious," and so on, but at the same time assuring me that a large piece had been left for me.

For one minute I stood still, not in the least grasping their meaning; but finally, I suspected mischief, they all looked so serenely contented. So, I passed on to the dining room, and there on the table, was one of the precious cakes – at least what was left of it, the very small piece that had been so generously saved for me. And there were plates with crumbs, and napkins, that told the rest of the sad tale – and there was wine and empty glasses also. Oh, yes! Their early Christmas had been a fine one. There was nothing for me to say or do – at least not just then – so I went back to the little living-room and forced myself to be half pleasant to the four men who were there, each one looking precisely like the cat after it had eaten the canary! The cake was scarcely cold, and must have been horribly sticky – and I remember wondering, as I sat there, which one would need the doctor first, and what the doctor would do if they were all seized with cramps at the same time. But they were not ill – not in the least – which proved that the cake was well baked. If they had discovered the other one, however, there is no telling what might have happened.

At half after ten yesterday [December 25, 1871] the chaplain held service, and the little chapel was crowded – so many of the enlisted men were present. We sang our Christmas music, and received many compliments. Our little choir is really very good. Both General Phillips and Major Pierce have fine voices. One of the infantry sergeants plays the organ now, for it was quite too hard for me to sing and work those old pedals Once I forgot them entirely, and everybody smiled – even the chaplain!

From the chapel we – that is, the company officers and their wives – went to the company barracks to see the men's dinner tables. When we entered the dining hall, we found the entire company standing in two lines, one down each side, every man in his best inspection uniform, and every button shining. With eyes to the front and hands down their sides they looked absurdly like wax figures waiting to be "wound up," and I did want so much to tell the little son of General Phillips to pinch one and make him jump. He would have done it, too, and then put all the blame on me, without loss of time.

The first sergeant came to meet us and went around with us. There were three long tables, fairly groaning with things upon them: buffalo, antelope, boiled ham, several kinds of vegetables, pies, cakes, quantities of pickles, dried "apple duff," and coffee, and in the center of each table, high up, was a huge cake thickly covered with icing. These were the cakes that Mrs. Phillips, Mrs. Barker, and I had sent over that morning. It is the custom in the regiment for the wives of the officers every Christmas to send the enlisted men of their husband's companies large plum cakes, rich with fruit and sugar. Eliza made the cake I sent over, a fact I made known from the very beginning, to keep it from being devoured by those it was not intended for.

The hall was very prettily decorated with flags and accoutrements, but one missed the greens. There are no large evergreen trees here, only cottonwood. Before coming out, General Phillips said a few pleasant words to the men, wishing them a "Merry Christmas" for all of us. Judging from the laughing and shuffling of feet as soon as we got outside, the men were glad to be allowed to relax once more.

At six o'clock Faye and I, Lieutenant Baldwin, and Lieutenant Alden dined with Doctor and Mrs. Wilder. It was a beautiful little dinner, very delicious, and served in the daintiest manner possible. But out here one is never quite sure of what one is eating, for sometimes the most tempting dishes are made of almost nothing. At holiday time, however, it seems that the post trader sends to St. Louis for turkeys, celery, canned oysters, and other things. We have no fresh vegetables here, except potatoes, and have to depend upon canned stores in the commissary for a variety, and our meat consists entirely of beef, except now and then, when we may have a treat to buffalo or antelope.

A Dance for the New Year

The commanding officer gave a dancing party Friday evening that was most enjoyable. He is a widower, you know. His house is large, and the rooms of good size, so that dancing was comfortable.[1]The music consisted of one violin with accordion accompaniment. This would seem absurd in the East, but I can assure you that one accordion, when played well by a German, is an orchestra in itself. And Doos plays very well. 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. Every woman appeared in her finest gown. I wore my nile-green silk, which I am afraid showed off my splendid coat of tan only too well.[2]

The party was given for Doctor and Mrs. Anderson, who are guests of General Bourke for a few days. They are en route to Fort Union, New Mexico. Mrs. Anderson was very handsome in an elegant gown of London-smoke silk. I am to assist Mrs. Phillips in receiving New Year's day and shall wear my pearl-colored Irish poplin. We are going out now for a little ride.

Excerpted from Roe, Frances M.A. Army Letters from an Officer's Wife 1871-1888. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln & London, 1981 pp. 23-29

[1] In garrison life on Officers' Rows around the country, the ranking officer always displaced an officer and his family of lower rank. All housing was not equally built, so often in the more remote posts, this moving about was cause for great concern among families. Occasionally, a bachelor officer of higher rank might concede a house to the family already living there, but in general, rank held its privilege as did tradition, and the families moved not only between posts but among the houses at the post. This was also a strong incentive to seek promotion.

[2] This was her suntan.

This book 

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