Denver’s first Christmas dinner: Bear meat, elk tongue and plenty of whiskey

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(Photo: Courtesy Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum)
<p><strong>Colorado Springs, 1926. </strong>Pedestrians walk on Pikes Peak Avenue shortly before Christmas. </p>

This story first aired on 12/22/2014.

In 1858, a group of about 50 people gathered for Denver’s first Christmas. It wasn’t a white Christmas that year -- a recurring theme for the Mile High City in many years hence.

“Here we are, in the midst of winter, on this glorious Christ­mas Day, and what do we find?” William Larimer, one of the city’s founding fathers, said. “On my way down this morning, to your hospitable ranch, walking without an overcoat, I found the perspiration passing down my face, as though it had been mid­ summer; and so it has been for the last month. True, we had a little brush of winter about the middle of November, but it amounted to nothing at all.”

Related: NORAD's Santa Tracker, based in Colorado, began with a typo and a good sport

Today, decorations and lights adorn a section of the popular downtown street bearing Larimer's name. Others who gathered for that first Christmas, like E.P. Stout and S.S. Curtis, are perhaps better known as the fathers of Denver’s names of streets -- if that.

A.L. McGrew, a correspondent for many newspapers, wrote about Denver's first Christmas. The defunct "Colorado Magazine" reprinted the article about that day when men “lolled lazily around on the logs, smoking their pipes or spinning innumerable yarns about their gold prospecting and hunting expeditions.”

They enjoyed a feast of boiled elk tongue and roast buffalo. They also consumed grizzly bear, antelope, mountain pig, rats, rabbits, sage hen, white swans and prairie chickens.

And, of course, strong drinks -- plenty of them, according to a “wine list” that had little in the way of actual wine on it. The celebrants downed hockheimer, champagne, cherry bounce and several varieties of whiskey, including one from New Mexico known as Taos Lightning.

Between drinks, the group sang songs, including “The Star Spangled Banner,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and “Rosalie, The Prairie Flower.” They also raised their cups for many toasts -- gushing gratitudes for everything from their homes to the carpenters who built them. They offered thanks to the miners among them and the mines in mountains: “May the latter be as prolific of treasures as the former are pregnant with high hopes.”

One volunteer didn’t think much of the the whiskey from Taos: “Although there are good things come up from Old Taos, its whiskey ain't worth three skips of a louse.” The men drank as well to the idea that that they “be blessed with an abundance of the genuine article of genus female during the coming summer.”

And so was born the myth of Menver, that nickname for Denver that comes from the belief that men dramatically outnumber women.

Bill Convery, Colorado’s historian, spoke with Colorado Matters’ host Ryan Warner about Denver’s first Christmas and other celebrations and traditions around the state. In addition to Denver’s Christmas history, he touched on age-old Latino traditions in San Luis Valley and NORAD’s annual Santa Tracker.