Yuletide on the Texas Frontier
Bonham Daily Favorite, December 20, 1992
The rigors of frontier living probably precluded any type of extensive observation of the Christmas season in those founding years of Fannin County. Even in the fledgling villages along Red River and Bois d'Arc churches did not make an appearance until well into the 1840's. Religious services were at a premium because of the dearth of ordained ministers and only on rare occasions was a minister available to conduct services in someone's home.
In actuality mid nineteenth century America paid little attention to the celebration of Christmas other than as a religious observance. A commercial Christmas as we experience today was unheard of at that time. There were of course certain isolated pockets of Christmas traditions observed by immigrants from Europe but these in general had not been assimilated into the general culture.
The nineteenth century polyglot culture of Texas society did introduce certain Christmas traditions that ultimately became a part of our 155 year celebration of the season. Particular customs can be identified somewhat by a knowledge of the origins of those settlers into different areas of the state. Fannin County, for example, had four major feeder states each of which had their traditions tied to a British or German heritage. The state producing the most immigrants was Tennessee, followed by Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Certainly the Spanish were the first to introduce observance of Christmas among the natives of the region. THe Roman Catholic faith promulgated by the succession of missionary priests laid the groundwork for those religious rites. The French made their presence known with an observation of the season by the men of LaSalle's expedition. Both the Spanish and French influences were sufficiently minor to have had any effect on celebrations in north Texas.
With the lessening of Indian attacks in the 1840's a more peaceful atmosphere was evident along the Red River valley so we can assume that the settlers by now ushered in the Christmas season in a more traditional manner. Dances were some of the more popular activities, at any season, for a dance offered the opportunity for neighbors near and far to gather together in fellowship. Christmas dances often lasted two or three days accompanied by as much feasting and drinking as a frontier larder could provide.
At any celebration noisemaking was the rule. Gunpowder was in fairly abundant supply since any trading post or established general store was certain to insure a bountiful supply once clearly defined trade routes were established. It was gunpowder that supplied the most common and popular method of celebrating the season with noise, notably firearms. Those communities with a blacksmith or two or the more affluent farmer could supply anvils for eagerly awaited anvil shoots. Gun powder was spread over the top of one anvil, a fuse placed on that, and then a second anvil placed over the first. The fuse provided the combustion for the gunpowder which when ignited erupted with a terrible earth shaking roar. This customs still is practiced in some communities today.
Our still practiced custom of shooting off fireworks at Christmas is most likely an off shoot of the old firearms/anvil shooting custom. These noise makers did not appear in Texas until after the by Chinese laborers who were brought to this country to work on railroad construction.
Gift exchange was also relatively unknown on the frontier. Despite the influence of those immigrants of German and British heritage this custom was slow to be accepted. A small girl might receive a cornhusk doll or a small boy a new homespun shirt, but generally any gift at all tended to be practical in nature. Store-bought toys were practically non-existent at area trading posts.
One charming custom long practiced in Fannin County, and on rare occasions you still hear it today, came into being when gift exchange became more wide spread. Instead of the now common "Mferry Christmas" greeting, it was more usual upon meeting someone to call out "Christmas Gift."
It is generally agreed that the "Christmas Gift" greeting had its origins on the cotton plantations of the deep South and was brought to Texas from that region. The slaves on these plantations were rewarded by household members if they were the first to be greeted in that manner. And it was expected that the person receiving the greeting comply with a small gift, usually a small coin or token which had been prepared in advance.
Practical jokes and antics were often incorported into seasonal celebrations. In many communities these cranks took the form of what are standard Halloween activities today. Wagons were put on roof tops, privies overturned or moved to strange locations, and other similar activities inflicted on an unsuspecting populace.
One humorous incident was reported in Grayson County one year. Early in December a widow with two grown daughters had moved from Jefferson to Whitemound. The widow decided to give a ball (possibly looking for eligible suitors for the daughters). Invitations were sent to a select group, a situation unheard of in an area where the host of a dance could expect any and all comers to take advantage of his hospitality.
The next morning after the ball first light revealed that practically all the hens and roasters owned by the hostess had been tied to a picket fence and were completely plucked of their feathers. A large pasteboard sign was mounted on the fence with the legend, "Here is your damned picked crowd!" The young men of the area who had not been invited had the last word.
Gilbert Trusler, a young Indian who had come to Bonham seeking his fortune probably best summed up the prevailing attitude toward Christmas celebrations in an 1851 letter to his family. "Christmas is over here and it was about as dry a Christmas as I ever passed in my life. Their was nothing transpired worth noticing in sellibrating the day of Christs birth." He also lamented that "I hav been here some eight months and I hav never had my arm around a galls waist." [spelling as in original]
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas