A first Christmas is a significant thing: the first Christmas in a relationship; the first Christmas after a wedding; a baby’s first Christmas; the first Christmas after the death of a loved one. In 1871 our homesteading family celebrated their first Christmas in a new home. They had arrived in the area the previous year, but 150 years ago they were settled into the dugout for their first Christmas on Lone Tree Farm.
Great-grandma Hattie described the family and the dugout that sheltered them that first Christmas in letters that she wrote to sons who later moved to North Dakota as adults. John and Hattie had been married six years and had four children: Agnes who was 4 years old; Carl was 3; Lilly was 2; and baby Nettie had just been born in early November. After this first Christmas, four boys and one girl would be added to the family. The dugout was sort of a log cabin built into a hill. It had one big room about 15 by 25 feet that was lined with logs laid horizontally. There was a small, four-paned square window in the west side and the door was on the north end. The winter of 1871 was mild, so a carpet or blanket was hung as the door of the dugout. At first the floor was covered with hay, but with small children there was a fire danger so that had to change.
The homesteaders used a wild plum tree for that first Christmas in the dugout because there weren’t any evergreens available out on the prairie. In the winter, wild plum trees are pretty sparse and bare, so it probably took a lot of decorations to make the plum tree look as festive as when it had blossomed in the spring. When Great-grandpa John got supplies, he apparently also picked up mail from family and friends back East. And that’s how the family decorated the Christmas tree: they used bits of cotton and colored tissue paper saved from those packages. At that first Christmas in the dugout, gifts were put by the children’s plates at the table on Christmas morning. Those gifts must not have been very big.
A friend who is a pilot recently took this photo where the past and the present come together. We think that the dugout was located approximately at the red “X” and the red arrow points to where the Lone Tree probably stood. The tree was still standing in 1922 when the black and white picture was taken, but it fell down in the early 1930s. We built the big house in the middle ground more than 20 years ago. And, the farthest building is the house that the homesteading family built after those first Christmases in the dugout along the Creek. So, there are homes here for four generations of the family Christmas.
The homesteaders moved out of the dugout and into this house in 1874. The western part of the house was added on after Grandpa George and Grandma Daisy were married in 1904, so even the “new” part is almost 120 years old. My parents, John and Bernita, were married in 1940 and lived here for 70 Christmas seasons. Margaret and I moved back to the Farm in 1998 to add more celebrations to the string of Christmases. These days the poor old house is looking pretty tough. My parents left in about 2010 and since then it’s only been used to store artifacts and buffalo bones….and memories.
This Christmas in 2021 is the first Christmas in 150 years when there’s no family member living full time on the Farm. Margaret and I bought a second home in Vermillion, South Dakota, this year and we’ll be splitting our time between the two places for the near future. So, this is also the first Christmas in our new home.