Sunday, November 26, 2017


The Christmas season is upon us, and you all know what that means. Well, besides the end-of-year writing deadlines and book releases! Even we head-in-the-clouds writers are expected to hang a wreath on a fence post and shove a little something in the oven in case relatives or neighbors drop by. I suggest any recipe with apples and cinnamon. With that heavenly scent in the air, no one will notice that your Christmas tree has a list to starboard, or that the gifts underneath are still in Target bags.

When you spend your time writing about the people and events of a century and a half ago, you begin to see everything–even holidays– through the lens of history. For instance, when did we switch from buying things in burlap bags, then wrapping them in pretty boxes to buying things in pretty boxes and wrapping them in burlap? (I'm amazed by the smallest things.)

Many works of historical fiction include family scenes that take place at Christmas, the Fourth of July, and other holidays. It is not safe to assume that people always observed those occasions in the same ways that we do. For instance, it wasn’t until the 1850s that celebrating Christmas really took hold in the United States, and each community was likely to decorate one tree in the center of town rather than display them in their homes. Strangely, tomato soup was a favored dish for St. Valentine’s Day, as were other red, white, or pink foods. And where did I find such a holiday trivia tidbit?

As luck would have it, my cowgirlfriend Sherry Monahan has just released a wonderful book called Tinsel, Tumbleweeds, and Star-Spangled Celebrations: Holidays on the Frontier from New Year’s to Christmas. (Like me, Sherry can often be found whipping up dishes in the kitchen when she’s not writing.) Included are holiday family customs, historic accounts, decorating notes, and tons of authentic recipes right out of the 1800s. It’s a great reference tool, not to mention a fine Christmas gift for your writer friends.

Here’s an excerpt regarding gift ideas:

The list of gift suggestions that were advertised in local papers ran the gamut from fun to practical and included items for adults and children alike. Here’s just a small sampling of nineteenth-century Christmas presents:


            Books, writing desks and portfolios

            Tourists’ cases and diaries, photographic albums

            Chess and backgammon boards

            Fancy stationery, gold pens

            Choice teas, fancy French or American bonbons

            Sewing machines, stoves

            Musical instruments

            Glove boxes, knives, clothing and material, hats

            China, tea sets, cut glass, dinnerware


            Bisque and china dolls and doll furniture

            Mechanical trains, animals, wooden toys

            Hobby horses, blocks, games


Of course, we can assume that many gifts were handmade where there was no access to a general store or mail-order catalog. Apples and oranges were common stocking stuffers in years gone by.

Here is the recipe Sherry included for fruitcake, which she adapted from the San Francisco Bulletin (1879). Yes, fruitcake has been around for a very long time!


1 cup butter

1 cup brown sugar

4 eggs, beaten

1 cup molasses

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of salt

1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon nutmeg, grated

1 cup milk

2 teaspoons brandy

2 pounds raisins

Rum flavoring (optional)

NOTE: You can substitute 2 teaspoons baking powder for the cream of tartar and baking soda.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the molasses and mix until blended. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients and stir.

Combine milk and brandy. Alternately add the flour and milk mixtures, beginning and ending with the flour, stirring after each addition. Beat for an additional 2 minutes. Gently fold in the raisins.

Pour into a greased and floured loaf or ring pan and bake at 350° for about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Check for doneness with a toothpick. Liberally apply rum flavoring, if desired.
Tinsels, Tumbleweeds, and Star-Spangled Celebrations is chock full of historical info about all American holidays. HERE is the link to buy the book on Amazon. And, if you see Sherry Monahan, tell her she owes me a cupcake or something.

The merriest of Christmas holidays to you, my friends! Until next month–happy writing, happy decorating, and happy eating.

All the best,


Vonn McKee
“Writing the Range”
2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 Western Writers of America Spur Finalist (Short Fiction)


  1. I am definitely getting Sherry's book. This looks really interesting, Vonn. Like you, I'm interested in the details of things you mentioned like the pretty boxes/burlap. LOL And I LOVE fruitcake. Growing up, I could not understand how my parents could eat it but when I got to be about 14 or so, everything changed. LOL Thanks for giving us a look at Sherry's book! Enjoyed your post--as always!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Cheryl. I'm a fruitcake fan too! See? Sisters!

    You'll love the book. Sherry is the queen of frontier cooking and has several other wonderful books.

  3. I've put this book on my Christmas list. As a writer, I'm sure it will be use a lot. Thank you for posting this.

  4. Hello, Agnes. Thanks for your comment. This book is going to save me a lot of research time! Merry Christmas to you.

  5. Getting the book too - I love stuff like this! Thanks for the tip.

  6. You're most welcome. We look forward to your next book!

  7. Thanks for the article, Vonn. I MAY have a Christmas scene in "Marta's Daughter," which I'm working on now. I included a Christmas scene on a South Texas ranch in "The Hardest Ride," which took a bit of research on how they decorated inside the ranch house and typical gifts. They didn't decorate the outside at all. It is very true what you say about how holidays were celebrated and in some cases, even their meaning could be much different than now. For details you can look up specific American holidays in Wiki articles for lots of interesting period details.

  8. This book references newspaper articles from around the country published around holiday times and includes a chapter called "A Ranch Christmas." I think the personal letters and journal entries shed the most light on holiday customs and attitudes. The traditions also varied by region, even as they do today. Glad you are adding to the great "Marta" series!

  9. Great article. Yeah, I'm getting Sherry's book.

  10. Thanks, Heather, and I appreciate you stopping by the WF blog! You will enjoy the book. Happy holidays!