Perhaps it’s just me but Christmas of the past has always seemed just a bit more Christmasy than today’s noisy shopping extravaganza. As it turns out, this perception isn’t always true, particularly in a place like Colorado, with our unruly beginnings. A good example is a charming Christmas poem printed by the fledgling Rocky Mountain News in 1860, penned by a sensitive soul who’d been shocked by the Christmas Eve goings on he witnessed in the streets of Denver. One memorable stanza:
The tom-cats squalling through the street,
At once have sought their still retreat—
But house dogs make the scene replete,
Growling o’er their rivalry!
You get the gist.
Only a couple years later, in 1862, as civilization made its slow inroads, at least one merchant seemed determined to make something out of the holiday. In between the war news, notes about the arrival of fresh supplies from the east, and an important announcement about the refurnishing of the Criterion Saloon, a shop called Floorman’s Confectionery offered “fancy toys for Children,” along with such delights as “pyramids or ornaments, creams, jellies, of every description.” It’s not clear what they meant by “creams and jellies” but I bet they were pretty tempting at the time.
In case you’ve never heard of it (I hadn’t), a Christmas pyramid is a contraption of varying degrees of complexity that originated in Germany. It is held together with a central axle to which are attached one or more platforms. Each platform is decorated with holiday displays (angels, nutcrackers, tiny gifts and so on) and a series of candles. The whole thing is topped by a propeller. Here’s the cool part: When you light the candles, the rising heat causes the propeller to turn, which turns the axle, which turns the entire apparatus. Very charming (and very expensive to purchase today).
Another thirty years later, Colorado was a state, civilization had arrived and the holiday season was celebrated properly, with Christmas trees, lights everywhere, and all kinds of fattening treats. Customs popular at that time included burning a Christmas candle in one’s front window, and lighting a yule log. In addition to being a yummy chocolate sponge cake rolled up in the shape of a log, a yule log is a large log that you were supposed to fetch from your own land. Custom dictated that you save a bit from last year’s log (wrapped up under your bed) and this piece was used as a sort of kindling to get the new one started. Once it was going, the yule log was to burn for 12 hours while folks huddled around the fire spinning yarns and drinking cider. According to legend, failure to correctly perform any of the yule log rituals would bring an entire year of bad luck to the hapless household.
Not surprisingly, although frontier Colorado was home to plenty of Jews and a good number were prominent citizens, Hanukah was largely ignored by the newspapers of the day.