By Parker Anderson
Since Prescott was established as the capital of Arizona Territory in 1864, it has observed and celebrated the Christmas season. In the early 20th century, Sharlot Hall (founder of the museum that bears her name) sought out the last pioneer citizens of territorial Arizona who had been there at the beginning in order to record their memories of what it was like. Some of their recollections touched on the first Christmas celebrations in the newly formed little village of Prescott.
Sharlot, who arrived in Prescott in 1884, described in her writings that the Christmas of 1864 as a very small and somber affair. There were campfires at individual mining camps and snow on the ground. But according to Sharlot, there was universal Christmas cheer, even though there were no official celebrations on Christmas Day.
Things began to change by the following year, with Christmas festivities taking place at the Governor’s Mansion. An article believed to have been written by Sharlot, recounting Christmas of 1865 and taken from the memories of the early settlers, reads:
“By Christmas of 1865, the young wife of Sec. (Richard) McCormick had arrived and become the first mistress of the mansion. Already she had made friends with the few families and all the people in the little camp. She proposed and helped with the first Christmas tree, which was set up in the front room of the governor’s house. Everyone was invited and there were great numbers of homemade gifts. The women had been meeting in Mrs. Ehle’s home to make little things, little pincushions and tiny handbags with drawstrings for the girls and wristlets and scarfs for the boys, and the new Mrs. McCormick divided up her pretty wedding handkerchiefs among the women. The women had baked dozens of little cakes to go in the bags and in place of candy there was brown sugar from Mexico in cakes….”
Research by local historian Drew Desmond has established that the first Christmas tree on the Courthouse Plaza was decorated in 1916, while the current courthouse was being built. To celebrate the occasion, choirs sang, and gifts were given to the children.
1954 marked the first year the Yavapai County Courthouse was festively decorated with lights, a tradition that continues today. In 1989 Governor Rose Mofford designated Prescott as “Arizona’s Christmas City” due to the festivities the city now hosts, including the courthouse lighting.
In 1996 the Sharlot Hall Museum began a new event that is now a tradition---Frontier Christmas. That first year and for years afterward, the public was invited to come to the museum following the courthouse lighting ceremony, where they would see costumed interpreters from the Museum’s Living History Program and Blue Rose Theater recreations of the 1865 Christmas in the Governor’s Mansion that Sharlot wrote about.
Frontier Christmas at the museum continues today. It is an evening of classic holiday merrymaking. On Saturday, Dec 2nd from 6:00-8:30 pm, immediately following the courthouse lighting ceremony, the Sharlot Hall Museum will provide the public a beautifully holiday-decorated campus with luminarias lining walkways, the odor of fresh baked goodies wafting from the Ranch House, hot cups of cider, and Living History interpreters, including a visit from Father Christmas. There will be plenty of Victorian-inspired crafts, and people will print their own holiday greeting cards on the Print Shop’s 1865 printing press. Once again, the Governor’s Mansion tree will sparkle with nostalgic vintage trimmings from days past. Tickets are $5 adults, free for youths 17-under and Museum members. Come celebrate the season.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1 The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at email@example.com for information or assistance with photo requests