An Old Time Christmas, Arizona Style

CHRISTMAS 1898c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Frontier Gazette magazine.

Amongst historians, there is some dispute as to whether anybody in Prescott had a Christmas tree during the city’s first holiday season in 1863. By the late 1880’s however, Prescott knew full well how to get its Christmas on. In 1886, local newspapers were informing citizens that “Christmas trees are now in order” and published the highlights of Brooklyn Magazine’s December issue for those who could not afford their own copy. Prescottonians also celebrated the coming of the new Prescott & Arizona Central Railroad, which general manager T.S. Bullock announced would make its inaugural run into town on Christmas day. Bullock cheerfully promised the “railroad boys” would celebrate their Christmas dinner in Prescott.

Christmas presents were all the rage, even back then. At Christmas in 1886, mercantile magnate Harry Goldwater presented a handsome cane, made by inmates at Yuma’s Territorial Prison, to the editor of Prescott’s Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner. In the days before WalMart, more common folks shopped at such unique places as Baumann’s Candy Store in the Bellevue Hotel (where buyers could purchase tree decorations and children could visit with Santa Claus), and J.W. Wilson’s place which promised “toys and Christmas goods without end.” Mrs. D.J. Sullivan’s prices promised to be “less than Eastern prices” and with a good selection to boot. J.L. Fisher’s advertised Christmas cards, adding, “There are a few bad places on the Montezuma Street [read: the notorious saloons along Whiskey Row] sidewalk, but, ’tis strange how they will flock up to J.L. Fisher’s for toys, Christmas goods, furniture, etc. etc. etc.” For many years, Aitken’s was the place to go for a pleasing array of candy and fresh nuts.

Some even dared venture down to Joe On Lung’s Chinese and Japanese Bazaar down on Granite Street, directly across from the Union Saloon and Prescott’s red light ladies. Indeed, the grand opening of P.L. Kastner’s new tavern on Christmas Eve in 1888 was no doubt much celebrated. In keeping with barroom etiquette, merchant George Washington Ford recommended a box of imported Key West El Modelo Cigars as a fitting present for gentlemen. At the Fireman’s Ball at Christmas in 1889, however, the fancy affair promised the presence of “floor managers” who would “do everything possible to make the ball a pleasant affair for all who attend.” No riff-raff would be permitted to the dance, which promised music by the Whipple Band, electric lights, and a proper “Ladies’ Dressing Room.”

Likewise, rabble-rousers were no doubt turned away from the beautiful Victorian home of Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Bashford at Christmas in 1894. The Bashfords were leading Prescott merchants who hosted an annual Christmas market and musicale. For twenty-five cents, guests could enjoy refreshments, a several musical numbers and a variety of goods for sale that included needlework, homemade candy and fresh-cut flowers. Despite the inclement weather, the party was deemed a success (An intriguing sidenote: the Bashford’s home was moved to Sharlot Hall Museum in 1974 and today serves as the Museum’s gift shop). Not to be outdone, Mrs. B.H. Smith threw a similar soiree a few weeks later, charging a dollar to gentlemen and fifty cents to the ladies.

Mince pies, Christmas turkeys and Oregon apples graced every table, according to newspapers. An 1891 article recommended the turkey be “as large as possible and fat” and gave an most tempting recipe for dressing that included roasted chestnuts, stale bread and corn muffins, fresh oysters, onion, celery, parsley, cayenne, butter and mashed hard-boiled eggs, all mixed together with the juice from the cooked turkey. More recipes and ideas for home made gifts were available in the Ladies Home Journal, well on its way to being the premier magazine for the lady of the house.

Like today, the wealthier Christmas shoppers thronged in the streets, clamoring for gifts and taking part in numerous celebrations. But also like today, the sentiments among the Victorians of the past still rings true. “One need not be rich to enjoy making Christmas present,” the Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner reminded everyone in 1892. “It is not the value of what is given, but the feeling which prompts the gift that makes the pleasure.” And, there was little sympathy towards the familiar cry of “Is that all I got?” amongst gift recipients. “Perhaps if those who received no Christmas gifts could get those given to people who do not appreciate them,” lectured the Miner in 1895, “everybody would be happier.”

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