Earlier this month, I wrote about wolves howling in the night. But as I sit down to write just before Christmas 2022, the wind is making all the noise, howling long and loud, day and night. As the arctic storm closes Interstate 90 and the highways into Pierre, I feel as if I have been transported back to the Dakota Territory of 1880–1881. While, so far, the electric heat has provided a steady warmth, back-to-back blizzard conditions have begun to empty the grocery shelves, if one is desperate enough to venture out into the wind for eggs or milk or bread. My two daughters are stranded in Arizona until Christmas Day, and my husband and I will spend a lonely Christmas Eve without kith or kin. So I have turned for company to the many Christmases and Christmas Eves of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Wilder shares at least one Christmas celebration in each of her Little House novels. In Wisconsin, when she is four, Laura receives her first doll and makes pictures in the snow with her cousins. Wilder next shares a Christmas feast among the James and Angeline Wilder family in New York State, where Almanzo “ate and ate and ate. . . . till he could eat no more” (Farmer Boy, p. 325). On the Kansas plains, the Ingalls family’s next Christmas is sparser as Laura worries about whether Santa Claus can find them out on the prairie. Mr. Edwards saves the day, hauling Santa’s gifts across the swollen creek just in time, carrying sweet potatoes in his pockets to add to Christmas dinner. In Minnesota, the author shares three Christmas holidays with readers, welcoming new horses in the first instance, attending the church Christmas tree giveaway in the second, and then celebrating Pa’s narrow escape from disaster after he was caught in a blizzard on the way back from town the next year. He survived for three days in a snowbank, eating the girl’s Christmas candy and the oyster crackers but bringing home the oysters still frozen solid. As the family settles in on Christmas Eve, Pa notes that the wind is rising: “‘We will have another blizzard before morning.’ ‘Just so you are here, Charles, I don’t care how much it storms,’ said Ma” (Plum Creek, p. 335).
In Dakota Territory, each year is punctuated with at least one Christmas dinner or preparation for a dinner. In 1879, the Boasts—Robert and Ella—unexpectedly arrive in De Smet on Christmas Eve, where the Ingalls are staying alone in the Surveyor’s House. A jolly Christmas and New Year’s celebration with these new friends follows. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls share homemade and store-bought gifts over a makeshift feast with the last of the milk and two cans of oysters. This skimpy meal is balanced by a full turkey dinner when adequate groceries and the Christmas barrel finally arrive in May. The following holiday season, Wilder unexpectedly earns her teaching certificate amid the family’s Christmas preparations, and in These Happy Golden Years, Almanzo returns to De Smet from an extended absence, arriving on Christmas Eve with a bag of oranges to add to the Christmas dinner.
Throughout all these years and Christmases, the Ingalls family rejoices in being together, in making do with small gifts and sometimes hearty and sometimes meager feasts, and in delaying gratification until everyone can be present. It is a heartwarming message to take into this blustery holiday season of 2022 when families like mine are struggling to get together under difficult and dangerous conditions.
Stay safe wherever you are and have a wonderful holiday season.
―Nancy Tystad Koupal