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Ghosts of Christmas Past II

HUERFANO — Much like today, Huerfanos of bygone times spent a lot of the pre-Christmas season deliberating over the perfect gifts for their loved ones, while at the same time anticipating the fun they would have at the various festivities traditionally enjoyed at this time of year. Some of these festivities enjoyed in yesteryear would be strange to folks today, especially the younger set. Imagine, for instance, your child’s reaction to receiving one gift, just the one, and that probably handmade, or even, perish the thought, a remade hand-me-down. Except for the more affluent, lavish gifts were unknown, though parents usually made an effort to provide the kids with at least one present he or she could show off and share – a doll or dollhouse, a sled or wagon, Nor was there a Christmas tree in every home. Most towns had a community tree, decorated as extravagantly as possible and in a public square or street where everyone would pass it and marvel. In fact, “Christmas tree” had an entirely different connotation. It was an event, not just an ornament. Back in the 19th century, a Christmas tree was an indoor celebration combining thoughtful and beautiful decorations, gift giving, holiday music and sing-a-long, perhaps a pageant or play by the children, a nativity scene, lots of edibles and perhaps a visit from

Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Some towns actually formed special committees to plan each facet of the celebration. These events were usually held in a church with members of other denominations invited for what was called a union Christmas tree, and the churches took turns hosting. Local merchants often provided small toys, candy and fruits for the kids, and people were invited to wrap their own gifts and place them on or under the tree as well. Rural residents held their parties in the local schoolhouse, usually after the students had provided a holiday program of some type. The coal camps were the same. In 1910 alone, in Walsen Camp, 350 people attended the Christmas tree and saw the distribution of 225 pounds of candy, two barrels of popcorn balls and two boxes each of apples and oranges. Since these were truly community events, those not present because of illness or bereavement were never forgotten, and the needy were also remembered with cash, food, clothing and gifts for each family member. For many, the highlight of the season was the school program. These came in every flavor, as it were, from religious to playful, sometimes in the same production. One of the odder traditions way back when was the Christmas Eve masquerade ball. Since most everyone had gone to the Thanksgiving masquerade just a month before, today we must suspect these people just liked to dress up and act silly. Masked balls were so popular that many merchants and tailors kept a supply of costumes on hand, though most were probably handcrafted, such as the Blatz beer bottle one man wore to win first place back in the day. Some masquerades were fancy, but many were themed Hard Times, Apron and Overalls, Poverty and even Calico Balls. Whether plain or elaborate, the dances called for the employment of the best band available, often from Pueblo, Trinidad or Alamosa. Tickets were available in advance and generally sold out before the event. Often, the proceeds were earmarked for a community project, a certain family in need, the fire department or a new carpet for the church. Refreshments, usually called “lunches” were served at midnight. A Grand Festival Ball took place in Walsenburg in 1881 to raise funds for a union (nondenominational) church. This one was so carefully planned and advertised to generate interest it was scheduled for two nights. Those coming from out of town were promised free transportation from the train depot to the hall. Attendance was in the hundreds, most of whom also enjoyed the supper. Bachelors were fond of giving Christmas bashes, especially in La Veta. These are not to be confused with the activity at the local saloons where other young men made merry with “songs, jigs and clog dancing”. Another odd one was the Christmas Day turkey shoot. Did they have time to clean it and prepare it? Maybe they saved it for New Year’s. In rural areas, schoolhouses once again did double duty, hosting either Christmas Eve or Day dances. Presumably, the children were invited. Many of the men of these areas also had an annual holiday rabbit hunt, killing more than 200 in one. In the early 1900s various social and fraternal organizations began sponsoring the holiday dances. These included the Eagles, Slovene societies, the Pansy baseball club, Elks, the clerk’s association. There were also charity balls given by some organizations, such as the Red Cross. Around 1910, with the advent of moving picture theaters, the Christmas Day matinee quickly gained popularity that lasted decades. In 1931 the feature was “The Champ” starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. In 1948 it was “Triggerman” with Johnny Mack Brown in person. Most of the people who wish for a white Christmas don’t live in Huerfano County, Colorado. In 1940 some six feet of snow had arrived before the holiday, crippling shoppers and revelers, and in 1947 a November blizzard paralyzed some parts of the county for almost six weeks. In 1973, a 30-hour blizzard on Dec. 23 brought two feet of snow and hundreds of stranded travelers bunking down in the churches. To add to the mess, one to three more feet arrived on Christmas Eve, depending on where you lived. On the other hand, in 1970 Cucharans were hoping for snow to insure the grand opening of the new Barranca de Cuchara ski area on Christmas Day. However, 1964 had a “brown Christmas” with dust storms causing highway accidents and short tempers. A December 1981 snowstorm made possible the long-awaited opening of Panadero ski area for Christmas Day enjoyment. Some things don’t work out no matter how well planned. The Spanish Influenza epidemic in 1918-19 caused many deaths, and when Mrs. Daniel Williams succumbed to it just before Christmas, she left eight children and a husband to miss her on their favorite holiday. All those Christmas gatherings, actually, often spread diseases that were rampant in winter, notably scarlet fever, and more than one holiday season was ruined by quarantines. After four years of war and little gaiety, Christmas 1946 should have been a happy one. But, while the decorations and lights were shining on homes and businesses, the government decreed ornamental lighting wasteful in the midst of a coal shortage due to a government freeze and miners’ strike. Out went the lights, but when the miners returned to work, the freeze was lifted and the lights went back on in time for Santa’s visit. In 1947 there was a rash of counterfeit $10 bills floating around, which made more sense than the phony dimes that plagued merchants a year later. By the 1980s, the ski area had introduced candlelight parades on skis, Walsenburg inaugurated the living nativity scene, and one of the best gifts to the county were the many new restaurants and shopping outlets. A merry Christmas wasn’t guaranteed, but there were many modern opportunities instead of masked poverty balls.