Christmas in Old Dodge City

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
Louis Hartman (in non-Santa clothes), gave out presents to the children as Santa in Old Dodge City. SUBMITTED PHOTO

This year many of us will spend Christmas with only immediate family, but almost all of us will made an attempt to celebrate the holiday.

It was no different in early Dodge City.

Whether it was a newcomer with no local ties or someone just passing through, most people attempted to get into the Christmas spirit even if they were far from friends and family.

Deacon Klaine, editor of the Dodge City Times wrote, “We gave a friend a present, or we attended the Christmas tree entertainment, or we attended the Firemen’s Ball, or we ate dinner at the Presbyterian church tables, or ate supper at Mendenhall and Rendy’s restaurant, or ate at the house of a friend, or we drank a glass of eggnog – in some way according to the custom of the civilized world – we acknowledged the day which give birth to Christianity.”

Organized Christmas affairs began as early as 1877 in Dodge City. They appeared to be an effort to control drunken and raucous crowds as much as a chance to celebrate the birth of Christ. At this first party “rich and toothsome presents” were given and there was “no drunkenness, no hilarity and utmost decorum prevailed.”

The first large community wide Christmas party was in the Odd Fellows hall in on Christmas Eve 1880. The party lasted all day and well into the night and included activities for people of all ages and from all walks of life.

For early Dodge City this was a staid and sober celebration. Despite the “bug juice” available there was little drunken behavior.

The center of most of the secular festivities which followed through the years was the “Christmas Tree,” where the children received their gifts. An example of this were the festivities on Christmas Eve, 1883 at Kelley’s Opera House. Here policeman L.C. Hartman, better remembered for his role in the “Saloon War,” dressed as Santa and gave out presents to the children.

The following year the mayor allowed dance halls to open on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. This was a mistake as many revelers got intoxicated and a stabbing resulted.

Still, for most Dodge Citians celebrating was confined to private parties, serenading excursions and fancy balls. Gifts and food dominated family Christmases. Children joined, often reluctantly, the singing, stories and pageants in order to receive rewards of toys, candy and sweets.

Despite the sobriety demonstrated by most during Christmas, New Years usually brought back the heavy drinking to this wild cattle town.