A Trip Back in Time: Stillwater’s First Christmas

The first Christmas held in Stillwater has been a story that has been handed down from family to family.

It has been reprinted in newspapers and books, but this first Christmas, celebrated nearly 175 years ago needs once again to be handed down as a heritage present to the readers of the Historical MessengerScreen Shot 2015-12-20 at 4.21.55 PM

It was Lydia Carli, who traveled from Chicago to what is now Stillwater in 1841. She came here and lived in the Tamarack House that was constructed by her half-brother, Joseph R. Brown.

It was that Christmas that Mrs. Carli would latter tell about to Mr. A.B. Easton, the publisher of the Stillwater Gazette and the two volume History of the Saint Croix Valley published in 1909:

“I suppose I ought to tell you something about the first Christmas celebration ever held in Stillwater. And speaking of that reminds me that several years ago a fellow was here and talked a long time about this old time affair, and then went away and wrote a nice story about it; but made a bad break in the first line by saying there was but one person living in this city who observed Christmas day in 1841. The two children I brought with me are still living, and I am quite sure they were present at that famous Christmas gathering. Yes, you can wager they were strictly in it.

“And when it comes to figures and dates he says I was born in 1878, near Lancaster, Pa. Of course, that was the printer’s mistake. Our household at the time mentioned, consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph R. Brown and their three children, Dr. Carli and myself and two children. On the bluff back of us were about a dozen Sioux Indians. I manufactured a lot of incongruous things in the nature of dolls for the little girls and some wonderful zoological impossibilities for the boys, made of dough. We called these Christmas presents. Wouldn’t compare with the glittering treasures that adorn Christmas trees in these modern times. When we came to the subject of the feast my brother suggested that we get up a dinner for the squaws and children in the tepees, and that he would provide for the men and would invite all the inhabitants of the town.

“Christmas morning dawned bleak and cold and gray. When I looked out no living thing met my sight; nor did a sound break the solitude. The quagmire now covered by the business part of Stillwater was covered deep with snow, and a desolate white waste stretched away on every side. There were no sound of Christmas bells, no outside greetings to exchange.

“The Christmas bill of fare comprised pemmican [thin strips of meat dried in the sun], salt pork, black dried apples, bread, coffee and sugar. The port was of the ‘condemned’ variety. And right here – let me see, in the Bible doesn’t condemned mean the same and damned

“The flour sent to us had also been condemned by the government – and no doubt the examiners used the scriptural synonym in speaking of it – and the stuff arrived here in solid chunks, which I had to smash up and sift before using. But notwithstanding all these drawbacks and discouragements the day and the dinner were merry.

“The table had no covering of cloth; we didn’t use one for the reason that in the winter it would freeze to the table if anything wet was spilled on it.

“The Indian guests were not only all eyes and ears in wonder and expectation, but pretty near all mouths when it came to the business of eating. The squaws were on their best behavior, if you know what that is, and if one of them spilled her coffee she scooped it up with remarkable agility.

“It is hardly necessary to remark that we were shy on napkins.

“But everything passed off pleasantly and the three of us who are yet living who participated in this first Christmas gathering in this city often revert to the occasion as one of the memorable events in our checkered lives.”

Mrs. Carli would died in 1905, but leaving a legacy of Stillwater’s First Christmas for the pages of newspapers, books and local history for generations to come.