by Kathy Brown
Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society
In the early 1850s about 8% of California's population were women. That percentage dropped to about 2% in the foothill mining camps. In an era when women generally did all the cooking, most men had no notion how to cook. In the gold camps, meals were usually make-do. Rarely, a group would gather for such a meal as described here, "On Christmas Day 1852 a company of miners got up a big dinner. They put a fine large hawk in the center of a Dutch oven, about 20 quails around it, and around them potatoes. Some slices of salt pork on the hawk and quails seasoned the bird. The hawk was pronounced the best of all."
Expensive suppers of Champagne and oysters, brought from the coast, were sometimes offered at Christmas. Hangtown Fry, originating in Placerville, was generally a dish made of oysters with eggs and bacon. Oysters cost about $1 each in 1850, equivalent to $35 each today. Ordering them showed that a miner had struck it rich.
With the arrival of women and children in the mining camps, Christmas celebrations changed. Back east in the mid-1800s families had begun celebrating with gift giving, Christmas trees and decorations, copying the Victorian Court in England. In the Mother Lode that picture was usually more modest. One wrote: "We celebrated Christmas in the European style. The Christmas tree is an evergreen tree upon which hung all the nice things, as the children are taught to believe Santa Claus or Kris Kringle brings. The festival was held at the school house for the benefit of the children." Plays, recitals and caroling were a part of a community celebration.
Gifts were usually practical - socks, mittens, a carved wooden toy, and sometimes an orange, a delicacy. Presents were often hung on the tree along with lit candles and paper garlands made from wall paper sample catalogs. Sometimes a gold nugget was gifted - it was the Gold Rush after all.
Grovelander Dorel Gray McDowell reminisced about retiring to their living room after an early 1900s Christmas dinner. “A colorful glass lamp was lighted as it hung from the center of ceiling. The pot bellied stove was sending its cheerful red warmth shining through its mica glass windows. Laura sat down before the organ and began to softly play Christmas carols, everyone started to gather around and soon a family song fest began….It wasn’t the gifts we received but the togetherness we shared that made our day so wonderful.”