Skip to main content

December 2013 - Sharing Holiday Traditions

Sharing Holiday Traditions

Settlers in Dakota Territory carried Christmas with them and celebrated it wherever they were with whatever they could find at hand.

In what would become Grant Township in northeastern Dakota Territory, a mother was struggling to give her children the best Christmas she could. Mrs. Charles Johnson feared that her six children were facing a meager celebration in 1876, not like the ones the family enjoyed in Sweden.

In Sweden, the children enjoyed lutefisk, Swedish meatballs, potato sausage, chicken, baked rolls, Christmas cakes and cookies on Christmas Eve, according to a Dec. 23, 1970, article in the Grant County Review by Alfred E. Nord, a grandson of Mrs. Johnson. In Grant County, no special food would grace the table on Christmas Eve.

Much had been made of giving gifts in Sweden on Christmas Eve. There were no gifts for the Johnson family in 1876. Nor was there a Christmas tree, which had always been in the family’s home at Christmas time in Sweden.

“In Sweden they make much of lighting candles and placing as many as possible in all their windows on Christmas eve,” Nord wrote. “They sing, ‘Now a thousand Christmas candles are alight’ (Nu tandas tusen juleljus). In the dugout there were no windows. Grandmother lit a few candles and asked them to sing the song anyway as there might be one thousand candles in Minnesota, even if there were only a dozen candles in Grant county.”

The tradition in Sweden was to attend church services at 6 Christmas morning and sing hymns to welcome in Christmas. As there was no church to attend, the Johnson family and a neighboring family, that of Gullick Olson, joined their voices together in singing Christmas carols.

The theme at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre this holiday season is “Sharing Holiday Traditions.” While Mrs. Johnson was recalling holiday traditions in Sweden, other pioneer families were no doubt recalling Christmases in their native land.

Traditions in Norway included exchanging presents on Christmas Eve and attending church on Christmas Day, followed by socializing in the days after Christmas. Traditions in Germany included bringing the Christmas tree into the house and exchanging presents within the family on Christmas Eve.

On the prairie, pioneers were adapting holiday traditions to their circumstances.
An article in the Dec. 30, 1862, Yankton Press & Dakotan stated, “Christmas was celebrated in the usual manner – children’s stockings were filled with candy, nuts, etc., on Christmas Eve.”

The Faulk County Times in Faulkton stated on Dec. 28, 1882, “It being the time honored custom for Santa Claus to come in a sleigh, there had been grave apprehension, on the part of the little folks, lest he would not be enabled to make Southern Dakota this season, but the snow, even so little, on Saturday night was just in time to accommodate the old fellow, and quiet all uneasiness on the part of the little ones.”

In their dugout in Grant County, Mrs. Johnson and her children ate for Christmas Eve foods that they had eaten for months – pickled herring, summer sausage, potatoes and rye krisp. Mrs. Johnson told the children about the good earth, the fertile soil, and the abundant harvest they would have in the future. While the family did not have gifts, Mrs. Johnson pointed out that they were rich in love for each other and that being a pioneer was a great gift. She told the youngsters that people in Grant County would be planting evergreens and they would have a Christmas tree in a few years.

“Do they have Christmas out West?” wrote the Rev. Cyrus Brady in Children of the West by Cathy Luchetti. “Well, they have it in their hearts, if no place else, and, after all, that is the place above all others where it should be.”

This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Find us on the web at Contact us at to submit a story idea.