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Yuletide Out Yonder

Texans rewind to pioneer days with Christmas festivities

Holiday traditions are deeply embedded in Texas culture. Even though the gifts we place under our brightly decorated trees are likely to be high-tech gadgets of futuristic wizardry, we still treasure the customs of those who came before. Every holiday season, historically minded Texans honor the pioneers who lit candles of holiday celebration along the still-wild frontier.

Old-time Christmas festivities take place all across the state. Last December, I joined folks in Palo Pinto for the ninth annual Frontier Christmas at the Old Jail Museum Complex. The grounds are anchored by the 1880 two-story jail, which held Palo Pinto County outlaws until 1941 and became the area’s history museum in 1968. These days, log cabins with period furnishings populate the site, along with the three-story Black Springs Fort building. During the holidays, the complex is decked with boughs of holly and mistletoe as fa-la-las and children’s laughter fill the air. Last year, the Jailhouse Band, an electrified country-western group, added to the yuletide spirit with lively renditions of Jingle Bells and other seasonal standards. Frontier Christmas is December 8 this year.

Posted inside cabins and on porches, re-enactors in period attire demonstrated quilting, spinning, dollmaking, storytelling, and other pioneer pastimes and crafts. Other frontier fashionistas, such as county sheriff candidate Brett McGuire, strolled about the grounds. McGuire sported a cavalry captain’s uniform, while wife Gail’s blue gown would have made her the belle of any Old West ball. “When you put the clothes on and visit these buildings,” McGuire observed, “you really feel like you’re back in the days before we had electricity.”

Making a rug with her lap loom, Sherry Whitaker of Weatherford invented a persona for her re-enacting. “I’m Abigail Guthrie,” she said as youngsters gathered around her on a log cabin porch. “My husband was a minister who was killed in the Civil War. Folks call me Miss Abbie.” She explained that Civil War-era Texans couldn’t import any fabric from St. Louis because of the federal blockade, so they gathered wool from sheep and dyed it with pecan shells. “You’d boil the pecan shells in water to make a butternut color.”

Quilter Tricia Hopkins of Lake Palo Pinto made me think of the quilts my grandmother used to give us kids for Christmas. “That’s what everybody says; their grandmother used to make quilts,” Hopkins commented. “Quilting skipped a generation, but it’s a time-honored tradition that hasn’t died. Surprisingly, the boys here are just as interested in it as the girls.”

Living-history interpreters Frank and Berta Molinets demonstrated how to make a doll using strips of clothing and acorns from a burr oak tree. He worked the fabric to create doll torsos, and she prepared the acorns to serve as heads. In another cabin, re-enactor Carla Hay-Perdue pedaled her spinning wheel to make bright green yarn. Asked where she learned the pioneer craft, Hay-Perdue paused a beat for comedic timing, then replied, “On the internet.”

Wandering farther into the museum grounds, I heard the high lonesome song of a Native American flute. “I’m of Shawnee heritage,” said flute player Danica Alsobrook, known as Danica Lee. “And I make and play my own Native American flutes, mostly from walnut and cedar woods.” Also a painter and sculptor, she creates and displays paintings and flutes in the White Indian Studio in downtown Palo Pinto.

Frontier Christmas celebrants take hay wagon rides the half-mile or so to the 1880s First Christian Church. Last year, one of the hayride mules was under the weather, so the ride was powered by tractor. The church, restored after sitting vacant for a quarter century, was filled with poinsettias and the spicy fragrances of scented candles. “The bentwood pews and other furnishings are original,” said Joe Maddux, Frontier Christmas volunteer coordinator.

In 2015, the Fort Worth group Buttermilk Junction provided music in the church. A Palo Pinto perennial, the “unplugged” ensemble supplemented its seasonal offerings with such historic chestnuts as When Johnny Comes Marching Home, What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor? and the 1860s version of Yellow Rose of Texas. Buttermilk Junction members played the banjo, wooden flute, guitar, shaker drum, concertina, washboard and harmonica. They also performed with an antique stringed instrument called a “hurdy-gurdy,” which is played by turning a crank with the right hand to drive a wheel that plays notes on the strings, while simultaneously playing a keyboard with the left hand.

Buttermilk Junction’s Christmas concert in the historic church was dedicated to Elizabeth Ann Woodward Cox. The great-grandmother of band member Michael Lee Garrett, Cox was a pioneer schoolteacher in Palo Pinto County. Seeing her photograph at the altar got me thinking about my own gone-but-not-forgotten folks and how they must have marked the festive occasion on the Texas frontier.

Even without direct familial ties, your Christmas spirit will be merrier and more meaningful with a visit to a pioneer-themed holiday celebration. One of these Christmases, I might mosey out to Anson for the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball, which takes place this year December 15–17 at historic Pioneer Hall. The hall was built in 1940 especially for the ball, originally held in Anson’s Star Hotel back in 1885.

Cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey is scheduled to perform at the ball, and you can bet the ranch he’ll do his version of Larry Chittenden’s classic poem, The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball.

I’d also like to head out to San Angelo for Christmas at Old Fort Concho, taking place December 2–4. The celebration sprawls over all 40 acres and through 24 buildings at Fort Concho National Historic Landmark. Merchants and artisans from across Texas and the Southwest will be set up at the fort, most likely with the perfect gift for that eccentric individual on your Christmas list.

The Winter Rendezvous during Christmas at Old Fort Concho promises campsites with a large cast of re-enactors and period traders who bring the 1800s back to life with music, drills and historic displays. Crafts, rides and other activities will keep the kiddos occupied, along with a variety of musical entertainment onstage and on the grounds.

The more Christmas the merrier, so I might also set my compass for the Christmas Open House at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, which will be festooned December 2–3 à la Christmas 1890s. The celebration will include caroling, storytelling and visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

One story told at the 2010 open house grew up to be a book, The Christmas Potato (Tate Publishing, 2011) by West Texas A&M University professor Paula Schlegel. “My oldest son was in fifth grade at the time and commented that the stories were too young for him,” Schlegel said. “He wondered why there were no suspenseful Christmas stories. Within moments, the story came into my brain and out of my mouth.”

And that’s the best kind of Christmas gift.

Gene Fowler is an Austin writer who specializes in history.