Texas Times: Texas accounts of Christmas past

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn Dec. 19, 2011, 5:49am

If you ever wonder how our predecessors in Texas' early days spent their holidays, you need only look to a 1941 entry in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 44.

In a piece titled "Christmas and New Year in Texas," historian Walter Prescott Webb presents a sampling of how the holiday season was celebrated in frontier Texas by weaving together stories from Texans across the state that describe various celebrations and traditions.

Take for example what—according to Webb—was "an account of probably the first Christmas celebrated in Texas"— that of French Explorer Robert de LaSalle and his fellow Frenchmen at the colony of Garcitas Creek in 1686.

"Monsieur de la Salle being recover'd from his Indisposition, Preparations were again made for his Journey; but we first kept the Christmas Holy-Days. The Midnight Mass was sung, and on Twelve-Day, we cry'd The King drinks (according to the custom of France) tho' we had only Water: When that was over we began to think of setting out."

In contrast to the stark LaSalle Family Christmas, Webb includes an excerpt from Dr. J. O. Dyer's "Holiday Season in Early Texas," published in the Galveston Daily News on Dec. 26, 1920.

The account describes the more raucous New Year's festivities at a camp of buccaneers under the leadership of French pirate Jean Lafitte, who together with his brother Pierre settled the colony on Galveston Island: "Without rum there would have been no holiday season in the old buccaneer days...the playing of tricks and pranks was common enough in the old pioneer days, but on New Year's Day the camp of Lafitte resounded with hoarse laughs and shouts...the first day of the year was the day when those able to write used their wits and their pens (a quill feather of a bird shaped into a pen point and usually blood for ink) to satire or ridicule their companions—all, however, in a spirit of mirth, or, as now called a 'Christmas Spirit.'"

Far more civil are the descriptions of the holiday season in Houston and Brazoria, as captured by Mrs. Mary Austin Holley in letters to her friend Mrs. William M. Brand, dated Dec. 30, 1837, through Jan. 1, 1838.

In her letters, Mrs. Holley describes her visit to Houston and Brazoria to celebrate Christmas and New Year's Day: "We were invited to the house of Mr. Allen – the proprietor of the land on which the city is built. He is of course wealthy. She is a Northern lady. They are very genteel people & live well. Have a good house & elegant furniture...all nice & new, & in modern style...Egg-nog not plenty at Christmas—eggs worth 50 cts each $6 per doz in Houston...We had a gay supper last night & danced in the new year, though, being Sunday we did not dance out the old."

In Huntsville, an English gentleman describes a peculiar Christmas tradition he observed while visiting in 1843: "Attended an amusement called candy pulling. Some 50 lads & lasses congregated to assist at this sport. A great quantity of molasses is boiled down until it becomes thick; it is then poured out into dishes & plates, each one taking a portion & commences 'pulling' or elongating it until it gets cold, when it takes on a yellow appearance & hardens—but the great fun & sport is to approach slyly the person whose candy appears to be well pulled & snatch it from them, this produces great hilarity."

Throughout the collection, Webb intertwines stories from a wide variety of perspectives, including that of a German tourist who wrote of spending Christmas Day at the Tremont House in Galveston sipping whiskey punch, which he describes as the "national drink here with which Christmas is celebrated."

Fittingly, the collection ends with an anecdote that celebrates the reason for the Christmas season.

Webb quotes an excerpt from Sarah S. King's The Pastores, an Interpretation, which describes a Christmas play performed outdoors in San Antonio de Bexar in the early 20th century: "Within the Texas missions it became a moving panorama of religious instruction and emotions...you will find 'Los Pastores' at the 'Chapel of Miracles,' a mile northwest of the Alamo. If not there, some adjacent jacalita, rich in piety and hospitality, bids a welcome; as the players are under a moral obligation to go wherever an altar is built to the Christ Child."

As we carry on our Texas traditions, may you have a joyful, peaceful, and merry Christmas.

Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Armed Services, and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.

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