An orange, an apple, a few nuts and a bit of candy stuffed into a child’s stocking. These Christmas gifts seem meager compared wtih the heaps of presents that surround many holiday trees today.
Still, accounts in newspapers of celebrations as early as the 1880s tell of youngsters delighted with yuletide activities as they grew up in the hardscrabble era of early Johnson County.
For families who could afford it, there were gifts, the traditional tree, Santa Claus and a festive holiday dinner.
And, even back then, Christmas had a commercial side, as revealed in the Johnson County Museum archives. An advertisement in the Olathe Mirror in 1886 highlighted merchandise for more prosperous families.
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“Bisc Kid Body Dolls” for the girls, “Steel Axle Wagons” for the boys, a “Fine Brush And Comb Case” for the “young ladies” and a “Fine Baby Carriage” for the “old folks.”
In the 1950s, the Johnson County Herald asked older residents to describe memorable Christmases of their youth.
Verne McLeod, a Merriam resident, recalled that times were tough. Christmas was a rather bleak event for many youngsters in the 19th century, he noted. The newspaper summed it up this way:
“There were, consequently, slim pickings in most households — no tree, few gifts and those of a strictly utilitarian nature — but usually an orange, an apple, a few nuts and a bit of candy stuffed into each expectant child’s stocking.”
Christmas dinner was not much either.
“We were lucky if we got sow belly and beans,” McLeod said.
But he recalled that as a boy of about 10, he and his family had a well-remembered Christmas quite by surprise. A relative bagged some wild turkeys during a December shoot. He delivered one to the McLeods in time for their Christmas dinner.
That year the family had a feast — the turkey, dressing, gravy and plenty of spicy mincemeat pies, McLeod recalled. He could not remember a more joyful Christmas.
John L. Barkley, who lived in Mission and played an important role in the development of the Johnson County park system, recalled a standout Christmas.
Barkley, described in the Herald as a descendant of famed frontiersman Daniel Boone, loved to roam the woods as a boy. He accompanied older persons on hunting trips and longed for a rifle of his own.
But Barkley, a Medal of Honor winner in World War I, was wisely told he would have to wait. The day finally came when he was older. He received a hunting rifle, an experience he vividly remembered later.
The Kansas Historical Society has an account of the unforgettable Christmas of a 7-year-old in the 1870s. Harriet Adams remembered hunting for a tree with her father. She watched as he felled a choice one with an ax. He then fashioned candleholders from a piece of tin. Their tree was adorned with strands of cranberries, popcorn and brightly colored ribbons.
Adams, who wrote about her recollections in 1928, said she doubted that children in “modern times” enjoyed the “profusion of toys now available” any more than the simple ones of her youth.
Times do keep changing. Now, in addition to Christmas, many Johnson Countians celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the winter solstice. Their addition to our seasonal landscape is an important legacy for those looking back on us a century from now.
Freelance columnist Bob Sigman, a former member of The Star’s Editorial Board, writes monthly.