December 10, 2017

1853: The First Christmas in Northern Arizona

"Ten years before the tents of Ft. Whipple were pitched in Chino Valley in 1864, the man for whom that post was named, with a small reconnoitering party, spent two weeks exploring the southwestern slopes of Bill Williams mountain and the basins between it and and Picacho Peak [Partridge Creek and the Big Chino Wash.]"

This time included December 25th, and the first anglo Christmas ever celebrated in northern Arizona would combine with modest commemorations from cultures here previously.

Whipple was surveying the 35th parallel for a route to California. The small company marched through a snow storm on December 23. "It was a day of toil for the wagon mules, as snow gathered in balls upon their feet, causing them to slip and stumble badly," Whipple wrote. "Having a sheltered spot on the edge of a forest, with plenty of water and grass, it was deemed necessary for the welfare of the mules, upon which we are so dependent, to rest until Monday [the 26th]."

Whipple continued: "The weather [Christmas Eve] morning was very cold, the thermometer at sunrise reading 3.5 degrees below zero. Later in the day the sun's rays were powerful, melting the snow upon the southern slopes. Several of the party went out to hunt turkeys and other game, thinking to have a feast, but were quite unsuccessful. They found plenty of tracks in the snow. One younger hunter got upon the trail of a bear; but the footprints were so enormous that he preferred to return to camp."

The delightful story of the 1st Christmas tree erected on the Courthouse Plaza in 1916. It was also the first municipal tree in the state.

With Whipple was his German topographer and artist, HB Mollhausen. The latter related that he arrived with others before the rest of the train. They cleared away the snow and kindled piles of wood. "As [Christmas Eve] night came on, the fires burned brighter, the company was seated around them, while cooks ran busily around with hissing fry pans and bubbling coffee pots."

"For the first time," Mollhausen observed, "the question of diminishing our baggage began to be discussed. All articles that appeared most to be dispensed with were sought out to be consumed or left behind. Our gunpowder, of which we had a superfluous quantity, was partly given to the Mexicans, who determined to employ it in the celebration of Christmas Eve.

"Various dainties that had been hitherto carried in closed cases were brought forth to be eaten up at once, partly with the view of lightening the load of the wagons, but at the same time with an eye to the glorification of our Christmas dinner in the wilderness. When we left Albuquerque some of the party had bethought themselves of the festive season, and procured a chest of eggs, which carefully packed, had travelled in safety thus far. Others had brought a stock of rum and wine and all these luxuries were now produced to do honor to the Christmas banquet."

The potent potables were "combined in a huge kettle over the fire and into the hot and potent Christmas cheer the men dipped their tin cups, proposing toasts and telling jokes until the lively chorus echoed far and wide through the ravines, and must have sadly interfered with the night's rest of the sleeping turkeys," Mollhausen related.

The sad, yet inspiring story of the Christmas of 1937 in Prescott, AZ. The nutritional needs of the city's children was so acute, it was decided not to give candy that year.

Whipple thought the Mexicans' fireworks were "decidedly magnificent." Additionally, "tall isolated pines surrounded the camp and were set on fire. The flames leaped to the treetops, and then, dying away, sent up innumerable brilliant sparks." 

Some friendly Navajo Indians, acting as scouts, also took the opportunity to celebrate and performed some native dances.

That was "succeeded by songs from the teamsters, and a pastoral enacted by Mexicans, after the usual custom at this festival," Whipple wrote.  A "tamed" Crow Indian and a herder then did an improvisational duet "in which they took the liberty of saying what[ever] they pleased of the company present--an amusement common in New Mexico and California, where this troubadour singing is much in vogue at fandangos," Whipple said. 

"These last entertainments are interesting to a stranger from their singularity," he continued, "the plaintive tones of the singers, and the strange simplicity of the people, lead one's fancy back to the middle ages. In this state of society, so free from ambition for wealth and power, where the realities of life are in great measure subject to the ideal, there is a tinge of romance that would well repay the researchers of a literary explorer. Their impromptu ballads alone would make an interesting collection."

The celebration of the Lord's birth has often brought different peoples together. The first anglo Christmas of 1853 was no different. 

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Founding a Wilderness Capital: Prescott A.T. 1864. By Henson, Pauline. 1965 by Northland Press, Flagstaff, AZ. Library of Congress Catalogue No. 65-17578, pp. 17, 21-24.

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