A hundred years or more separates a Victorian Christmas in Breckenridge from today’s celebrations. Yet the holiday would look very familiar to us. Evergreen decorations, Christmas trees, parties, gift-giving and feasting were all part of Breckenridge’s historical celebrations of Christmas.
The holiday customs we practice then and now originated in Britain under the reign of Queen Victoria. Fascination with the Queen captivated the people of the United States in the middle- and late-19th Century and Breckenridgians were no different. Local folks copied her dress, etiquette rules, and mourning customs. Victoria even inspired the architecture of early Breckenridge.
Yet it is Victoria’s husband who gets the credit for introducing the world to one of the Christmas traditions we most honor today. Consort Prince Albert hailed from Germany and brought the classic Tannenbaum to the palace. In 1848, an illustration of the royal family decorating a tree for Christmas went viral on both sides of the pond. As a result, Christmas trees played a significant role in community celebrations in Victorian-era Breckenridge.
As Breckenridge matured from a gritty prospecting camp to an established mining town in the late-19th Century, women stayed year-round and built the community. Their yearning for civilization and family “back home” was satisfied by strict adherence to the culture and traditions of the day, and that included the Christmas holiday.
The historical record details Christmas-time parties, gifts, dances, weddings, and feasts.
Photograph_ Summit Historical Society Collection_ SHS-P.2014.120-1. Image created by Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
Early Breckenridge residents celebrated Christmas with their community. Far from family and home, miners enjoyed the excuse of a holiday party to leave their cabins in the mountains for a special journey to town to decorate the tree, dance, and see friends. Newspapers were the social media of the day and told of comings and goings. We learned that Judge T.J. Kelly came “back to town” for Christmas celebrations. And miner George LaGue came “down from the Bell” to enjoy the holiday with friends.
The community celebration focused on the Christmas tree. Not everyone made the effort to erect a Christmas tree in their cabin. Instead, the people of Breckenridge came together to decorate a tree and exchange gifts with friends and neighbors. At one party in 1884, the community tree was “…loaded …completely covered with presents and keepsakes.” Today, gifts have migrated to the floor under the tree; in the Victorian-era, the gifts were the decorations.
Lighting the candles animated the Christmas Tree party. Today we enjoy the relative safety of electric lights adorning our Christmas trees. In the historic era, wax tapers adhered to the tree provided illumination. Fully aware of the danger of live flame on a dried-out tree, the Victorians must have diligently monitored their holiday decorations, as the local newspapers lack stories of year-end conflagrations.
Photograph: Kaiser Family Collection [BHA.2016.1.14]_ Dr. Sandra F. Mather Archives, Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
Early Breckenridgians followed the well-established custom of gift giving. Gifts were typically small, personal, hand-made, and chronicled in the local newspaper. Today, it is hard to imagine the news editor listing what you gave your neighbor as a holiday gift, but that was common in historic Breckenridge. Gifts included painted china, embroidered fancy-work, anything made from silk, doilies, cigar holders, blotting paper and pen wipes, and handkerchief cases (yes, that was a thing).
Extravagant gifts also made the news. In 1898, Mr. Robert Foote, owner of the Denver Hotel, gave his wife an Emerson piano. A local jeweler advertised charms made from Farncomb Hill specimen gold. Otto Westerman, local photographer, suggested a visit to his gallery to purchase prints of mountain landscapes as holiday gifts. Many local merchants advertised their lines of Christmas presents in the newspaper.
A Christmas dinner in the Victorian age would look and taste very familiar today. Turkey commanded the center of attention. Oysters offered a special treat. Nuts and fruits, imported via the railway, graced holiday tables. A turkey shoot on Christmas Day 1898 near today’s Tiger Run RV Park rewarded the winners with their dinner that evening.
Photograph: Agnes Miner Collection [BHA.2015.1.38]_ Gift of Colorado Springs Ghost Town Club_ Dr. Sandra F. Mather Archives, Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
All-night dances highlighted the holiday season in Breckenridge. Today, we are more inclined to spend Christmas evening with family and close friends. And liquor laws today certainly don’t permit all-night revelry. For the Victorians, it was an opportunity to “trip the light fantastic” with friends and neighbors until the wee hours of the morning. Dancing wasn’t the only festive activity: Christmas dance parties included events like a cake walk and prize waltz. Because revelers expected to party until early morning, children were bundled onto benches and tucked under tables to sleep until their parents were ready to say farewell. In the light of early dawn, families made their way home.
Photograph: 1900s_ Summit Historical Society Collection_ SHS-P.2014.399-1. Image created by Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
In 1899, the annual Pioneer Hook & Ladder Christmas Dance at the G.A.R. Hall celebrated the 19th anniversary of the founding of that important volunteer fire-fighting brigade. The festivities began at 9:00 p.m. with a break at midnight for supper sponsored by the ladies of St. Mary’s Church. The Christmas Dance also served as a fundraiser. The “Hooks” raised $41 that evening, and the ladies of St. Mary’s earned $31 from their delectables.
Weddings on Christmas Day were much more common than today. That Christmas 1899 was particularly busy with three weddings celebrated in Breckenridge. In the morning, Miss Blanch Etzler married Fred Reddert. At noon, Miss Anna Williams wed Grant Kirtz. And at 8:00 p.m. that same evening, Miss Lizzie Brown married E.H. Beindorf. Theirs was not the wedding party to miss, as it combined with the aforementioned Pioneer Hook’s Dance, and a “special repast” at 11:00 p.m. at the Denver Hotel.
Christmas in Breckenridge is a magical time, today and a century ago. We are blessed with snow, the beauty of nature, and a friendly community.