Christmas Day in early America was nothing like the bacchanalia of food, presents, and decorations we enjoy today. In the New England states, Calvinist protestant traditions ran strong, and many northerners celebrated Christmas quietly or not at all. American southerners, in contrast, were more aligned with the Church of England. Southerners were more likely to exchange gifts, throw parties, and gather family and friends around the table for a holiday feast.
Lewis and Clark both had deep roots in Virginia. They celebrated three Christmases along the trail in the grand Southern tradition—which is to say, the emphasis was food and drink, frolic, and merriment, rather than any overt expressions of religious feeling. In the hard-drinking days of the early 19th century, Christmas was a great excuse for adults to overindulge, much like our modern New Year’s Eve.
William Clark seems to have particularly loved Christmas, and his journal reveals a lot about how the Corps of Discovery viewed the holiday. On Christmas Day of 1803, Clark was in charge of the men in camp at Wood River, Illinois. Clark recorded in his journal:
Clark further reported that three Indians came to camp to “take Christmas with us.” He gave them a bottle of whiskey for a present, and they all sat around talking politics.
Christmas in 1804 found Lewis and Clark at Fort Mandan in present-day North Dakota. On Christmas eve, the captains issued flour, dried apples, and pepper to each of the different messes “to enable them to celebrate Christmas in a proper and social manner,” as Sergeant Gass put it. (You have to wonder if they tried to make apple pie.) Having finished their fortification the day before, the captains gave the men the day off for merrymaking. They even requested that the Indians stay away from the fort that day, as Christmas “was a Great medician day with us” and they wanted the men to be able to relax. Clark wrote:
I was awakened before Day by a discharge of 3 platoons from the Party and the french, the men merrily Disposed, I give them all a little Taffia and permited 3 Cannon fired, at raising Our flag, Some men went out to hunt & the Others to Danceing and Continued untill 9 oClock P, M, when the frolick ended &c.
The men went to bed happy, full of food and drink, and “all in peace & quietness.”
One year later in 1806, the Corps was marooned at Fort Clatsop in the rainy and inhospitable forest on the Pacific Northwest coast, but they still found time for a gift exchange and celebration—albeit one woefully without alcohol. Sergeant Joseph Whitehouse wrote:
We saluted our officers, by each of our party firing off his gun at day break in honor to the day (Christmass) Our Officers in return, presented to each of the party that used Tobacco a part of what Tobacco they had remaining; and to those who did not make use of it, they gave a handerchief or some other article, in remembrance of Christmass. We had no ardent spirit of any kind among us; but are mostly in good health, A blessing, which we esteem more, than all the luxuries this life can afford, and the party are all thankful to the Supreme Being, for his goodness towards us.— hoping he will preserve us in the same, & enable us to return to the United States again in safety. We have at present nothing to eat but lean Elk meat & that without Salt, but the whole of our party are content with this fare.—
Clark disagreed, writing, “Our Diner to day Consisted of pore Elk boiled, Spoilt fish & Some roots, a bad Christmass diner.” However, he had little reason to complain, for he had made off with quite a haul of presents. “I recved a presnt of Capt L. of a fleece hosrie Shirt Draws and Socks—, a pr. mockersons of Whitehouse a Small Indian basket of Gutherich, two Dozen white weazils tails of the Indian woman, & Some black root of the Indians before their departure.”