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Monday, 24 December 2012

Old West Christmas

By the mid 1800s the American Christmas tradition included much of the customs and festivities it does today, including tree decorating, gift-giving, Santa Claus, greeting cards, stockings by the fire, church activities and family-oriented days of feasting and fun.

For those out West, far away from civilisation - pioneers, cowboys, explorers, and mountain men, usually celebrated Christmas more meagerly.Those on the prairies, they were often barraged with terrible blizzards and savage December winds. For mountain men, forced away from their mining activities long before Christmas, in fear of the blinding winter storms and freezing cold, the holidays were often meager. But, to these strong pioneers, Christmas would not be forgotten. Even in the Wild West one had to keep up standard, you know.

On Christmas Day 1863, Mark Twain received a gift from a Miss Chase - "The box contained nothing but a ghastly, naked, porcelain doll," Twain wrote in The Virginia City Enterprise. In fact Virginia City has a long Christmas tradition and even today the city hold an annual Christmas on the Comstock celebration in which original oil lamps from the 1880's are lit alongside the regular Christmas lights. But even in the 1880's Christmas was not a new thing on the frontier - the tradition of lighting small bonfires to guide Catholics to midnight mass on Christmas Eve was started by the Franciscan monks in the 16th century.

 Merryweather Lewis and William Clark celebrated Christmas in 1804 at Fort Manden in what would become North Dakota. They apparently celebrated by shooting off guns and drinking a lot of brandy. The mining camp of Denver City had only been established a little over a month when in 1858 Christmas was celebrated in high style. Richen Lacy Wotton arrived in camp on the day with a barrel of Taos Lightening and gave the entire town a Christmas drink or two or three. All the potent moonshine led to singing and the Christmas service planned by Rev. George Fisher had to be cancelled because of drunkenness.

Newspaper man, William Lawrance wrote a Christmas poem in 1890 that has become famous:

'Way out in Western Texas, where the Clear Fork's waters flow, Where the cattle are "a-browzin'," an' the Spanish ponies grow; Where the Northers "come a-whistlin'" from beyond the Neutral Strip; And the prairie dogs are sneezin', as if they had "The Grip"; Where the cayotes come a-howlin' 'round the ranches after dark, And the mocking-birds are singin' to the lovely "medder lark"; Where the 'possum and the badger, and rattlesnakes abound, And the monstrous stars are winkin' o'er a wilderness profound; Where lonesome, tawny prairies melt into airy streams, While the Double Mountains slumber, in heavenly kinds of dreams; Where the antelope is grazin' and the lonely plovers call— It was there that I attended "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball." The town was Anson City, old Jones's county seat, Where they raised Polled Angus cattle, and waving whiskered wheat; Where the air is soft and "bammy," an' dry an' full of health, And the prairies is explodin' with agricultural wealth; Where they print the Texas Western, that Hec. McCann supplies With news and yarns and stories, uv most amazin' size; Where Frank Smith "pulls the badger," on knowin' tenderfeet, And Democracy's triumphant, and might hard to beat; Where lives that good old hunter, John Milsap, from Lamar, Who "used to be the Sheriff, back East, in Paris sah!" 'T was there, I say, at Anson with the lovely "widder Wall," That I went to that reception, "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball." The boys had left the ranches and come to town in piles; The ladies—"kinder scatterin'"—had gathered in for miles. And yet the place was crowded, as I remember well, 'T was got for the occasion, at "The Morning Star Hotel." The music was a fiddle an' a lively tambourine, And a "viol came imported," by the stage from Abilene. The room was togged out gorgeous-with mistletoe and shawls, And candles flickered frescoes, around the airy walls. The "wimmin folks" looked lovely-the boys looked kinder treed, Till their leader commenced yellin': "Whoa! fellers, let's stampede," And the music started sighin', an' awailin' through the hall As a kind of introduction to "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball." The leader was a feller that came from Swenson's ranch, They called him "Windy Billy," from "little Deadman's Branch." His rig was "kinder keerless," big spurs and high-heeled boots; He had the reputation that comes when "fellers shoots." His voice was like a bugle upon the mountain's height; His feet were animated an' a mighty, movin' sight, When he commenced to holler, "Neow, fellers stake your pen! "Lock horns ter all them heifers, an' russle 'em like men. "Saloot yer lovely critters; neow swing an' let 'em go, "Climb the grape vine 'round 'em—all hands do-ce-do! "You Mavericks, jine the round-up- Jest skip her waterfall," Huh! hit wuz gettin' happy, "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball!" The boys were tolerable skittish, the ladies powerful neat, That old bass viol's music just got there with both feet! That wailin', frisky fiddle, I never shall forget; And Windy kept a-singin'—I think I hear him yet— "Oh Xes, chase yer squirrels, an' cut 'em to one side; "Spur Treadwell to the centre, with Cross P Charley's bride; "Doc. Hollis down the middle, an' twine the ladies' chain; "Varn Andrews pen the fillies in big T Diamond's train. "All pull yer freight together, neow swallow fork an' change; "'Big Boston,' lead the trail herd, through little Pitchfork's range. "Purr 'round yer gentle pussies, neow rope 'em! Balance all!" Huh! hit wuz gettin' active—"The Cowboys' Christmas Ball!" The dust riz fast an' furious; we all jes' galloped 'round, Till the scenery got so giddy that T Bar Dick was downed. We buckled to our partners, an' told 'em to hold on, Then shook our hoofs like lightning, until the early dawn. Don't tell me 'bout cotillions, or germans. No sire 'ee! That whirl at Anson City just takes the cake with me. I'm sick of lazy shufflin's, of them I've had my fill, Give me a frontier break-down, backed up by Windy Bill. McAllister ain't nowhar: when Windy leads the show, I've seen 'em both in harness, and so I sorter know— Oh, Bill, I sha'n't forget yer, and I'll oftentimes recall, That lively gaited sworray—"The Cowboys' Christmas Ball." So this Christmas why not give a western and continue the long tradition of the Cowboy Christmas.


Neil A. Waring said...

Very nice- I had not read that Christmas Poem before

Love the history lesson on Christmas celebrations--too much Brandy or too much Taos Lightning can have and affect on proper Christmas parties.


David Cranmer said...

Wonderful Christmas post, Gary. And Happy Holidays to and yours, sir.