I hope you will enjoy this short article is based on period newspaper articles I researched shortly after my arrival in Tucson in 1995. An edited version appeared in both the written and audio editions of Under Sonoran Skies, Prose & Poetry from the High Desert. The author of each piece of poetry and prose narrated their work.
For over four centuries, Tucson has benefited from a blending of ethnic traditions. The contributions of each incoming culture are reflected vividly in our numerous winter holidays:
~ Native American observance of the winter solstice, predating written records.
~ Mexican American celebration of Spanish missionary traditions from the 16th Century of the
Common Era (C.E.).
~ Jewish commemoration of Hanukkah, The Festival of Lights, recalling the rededication of the
Jerusalem Temple following victory over Syrian invaders in 165 B.C.E.
~ Nearly universal celebration of the tradition of gifting children, attributed to the Christian
Bishop known as Saint Nicholas of Fourth Century C.E. Turkey.
~ Asian American traditional practice of greeting the Lunar New Year, introduced to America by
Chinese railroad construction workers.
~ Kwanza, a celebration of First Fruit, a modern American commemoration of traditional African
In the late Nineteenth Century C.E., Christmas was the centerpiece of holidays. For pioneering Tucson, the home was the hub of Yuletide observation, with public events centered in schools and churches. Both Hispanic and Caucasian children attended an adobe school on Congress Street that was divided into two sections since co-education of boys and girls was not approved. On Christmas Eve Day, boys and girls presented separate programs of song and recitation prior to their week-long holiday from school. In the 1879, Anglo, Jewish and Hispanic women planned a special holiday party for all public school children. With a decorated evergreen tree from the Santa Catalina Mountains as a backdrop, the afternoon’s program included presents, supper, games and songs including, “The Italian Brothers Merry Music,” until darkness fell on the late December scene.
As electric lights were not available until 1882, wax candles lighted area Christmas trees. With the ever-present danger of fire, emergency water buckets were kept nearby and most trees were lit only on Christmas Eve and Day. Until rail transport reduced the cost of imported goods, the emphasis was on homemade gifts. In addition to carved spinning tops, corncob dolls, knitted items, a child’s stocking might hold a rubber ball or harmonica, as well as nuts and fresh fruit and candies such as malcoche(a brown sugar taffy) and cubierto (made from cactus juice). For the very fortunate child, a metal hoop (rather like a rolling Hula Hoop with a handle) might peek from behind a Christmas tree.
For many families, the only sight of a Christmas tree was at the original Pima County Courthouse (located at the West entrance of today’s structure) where a prominent merchant of the Jewish faith traditionally played Santa Claus. As there was no synagogue in the Arizona Territory, Jewish holidays like Hanukkah were commemorated in family homes and many of the city’s prominent Jewish leaders participated in Christmas fairs and activities benefiting the children of every faith.
Religious observance centered in area churches, with each faith presenting its processions and special ceremonies throughout the holiday period. From Christmas Eve through Christmas Night, people of every background and economic level paraded through town in their finest clothes. Those who could afford it often rented carriages to visit friends' houses for a sampling of conversation and eggnog, and the exchanging of gifts. Most families enjoyed a feast at home on Christmas Eve or Day, while bachelors and visitors filled the dining rooms of local hotels. Anglo and Hispanic social dances were often held on Christmas night. Wagons of glee club singers and musicians provided caroling through the town and along its outskirts, stopping at homes known to serve refreshments.
Through telegraphic communication, citizens of even small communities like Shakespeare, Arizona, sent greetings to Tucson’s thriving population of 7,007. The Phoenix boys “base ball” club sent a request for a New Year’s Day match with the Tucson club. While ads for Christmas finery, stationery, and toys were few, detailed notices of the annual five-day horse racing events were displayed for weeks. A $25 entry fee for the trotting and running events offered prize purses of $100. Owners, names and descriptions of their horses were all listed in advance to curry the interest of potential participants, the general audience and especially the town’s inveterate gamblers. Many of these gamblers were noted for their Christmas generosity, including donations of wagonloads of food and presents to needy families. The charitable event concluded with a scattering of small change across the empty wagon bed to the delight of onlookers, especially the youngsters who scrambled for the welcome bounty.
Over 33,000 people lived in the rural areas surrounding Tucson. Even isolated ranchers held special dinners and decorated tumbleweed or creosote bushes if evergreen trees were unavailable. With travelers in stagecoaches and Mormon families migrating south from Utah, not everyone had an indoor Christmas. Instead of the roast meat or fowl, tamales, mashed potatoes, home canned vegetables and even gold-edged butter pats enjoyed by urbanites, beef jerky, parched corn, bread and honey might be the only fare available to those traveling the open road. For the lucky, there might be pudding or pie for dessert. But regardless of whom you were or where you lived, there was a general tone of happy intercultural comradeship and congeniality that continues to this day.
If you would like to learn more about Tucson’s colorful past, we recommend you contact the reference librarians of the Tucson-Pima County Library system or the staff of the Arizona Historical Society.
To hear the audio version of the piece, please click the following action button, which will take you to my blog on Website Renewal which features this piece in its middle...
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