Isabel Crawford’s Christmas Trees, Part II: Among the Kiowa

In 1893, the American Baptist women’s missionary society assigned Isabel Crawford to go work among the Kiowa on their reservation in southwest Oklahoma. She carried with her girlhood memories of the annual Christmas tree at the mission her church had opened in a poor section of Woodstock, Ontario. Thus, as Christmas approached on the Oklahoma mission, Crawford made plans for a Christmas tree.

As a girl, Crawford had made gifts for the Sunday school Christmas tree out of odds and ends that she found at home. Here on the reservation, everything serviceable was put into use. There was but one source to be tapped: the missionary barrels. Congregations from churches around the country sent barrels of goods to the missions. The collections were well-intended, yet they often contained items like elaborate bonnets “which should have been burned at the stake before being allowed to enter the missionary field.” But Crawford was well experienced turning odds and ends into something useful, and she went to work. She hunted men’s shirts in the missionary barrel and also crocheted cuffs for the men; she found women’s clothing and she made sewing baskets for the women; and she prepared clothes and toys for the children.

When the great day arrived, the men, women, and children gathered around the tree, which was decorated with black and white skunk tails tied onto its branches. The Kiowa received the gifts with gratitude, but they often did not examine them until after the service had ended and they were seated around their own campfires. For Crawford, Christmas had always been a time of giving, and she taught that spirit to her Kiowa Christian converts. The highlight of the Christmas service for them was the opportunity to bring their gifts as a birthday present for the baby Jesus. They had little, but they brought their coins with gratitude. At first their offerings went to take the gospel to the Hopi on another reservation. As years went on, they began contributing toward the construction of their own church and toward the salary of their interpreter. Crawford had taught them well, and they, too, learned the joy of Christmas giving.