By Anita Zeller 

(Editor's note: This Days Past story was originally published on December, 20, 1997.)

Memories are a big part of the Christmas season. They link the past with the present, preserving tradition in the heart, as well as the mind. While memories may not always record history with pinpoint accuracy, they can offer an overall view of a time now gone, and give warm insight into the nature of the person who is recalling and translating the past.

In doing the research for this article, I found some memories that I felt needed to be shared. The language and the imagery of those recollections seemed to me both graceful and vivid. They captured early Prescott at Christmastime in a way I could never hope to do. 

In those pioneer memories dwelt the Ghost of Christmas Past, and he lead me to the edges of an untamed land wrapped in the untamed winters of more than 130 years ago. Sights, sounds and smells mingled around me. As I read, the Christmases of 1863 through 1865 became as much a part of my reality as the walk I had taken earlier that morning. 

In December of 1863, Roman Catholic Archbishop Lamy was traveling the Arizona portion of his diocese in the company of a military reconnaissance under the command of a Major Willis. Some time before Christmas, they arrived in the Prescott area. Three years later, Lamy turned in the following as part of his report to the Central Council: 
"On Christmas Day we were able to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice, to which 20 or 25 persons assisted, kneeling on the ground still covered with the snow which had fallen the day before. We were on the slope of a mountain, surrounded by forests of oak and pinion, silver leaf and cedar trees. The altar, placed in the shadow of green, had been improvised with the material on hand, consisting of trunks of trees. Some old boards which had done service, were used as seats and tables. At that time there were only two miserable huts. Today you find in this place the capital of Arizona." 

The pioneer residents of that Arizona capital later shared Christmas memories with Sharlot Hall when she conducted a series of interviews with some of Prescott's early settlers. In an article printed in the Prescott Evening Courier Miss Hall describes Christmas in Prescott, 1864, as she visualized it based on those conversations: 
"Streets, there were none, but where Gurley now runs a rutted and snowy road was passable for army wagons, if there were enough mules in front. Trails worn by saddle and packhorses, mules and burros, and human feet, wandered here and there from cabin to cabin and out toward the edge of the forest and the scattered camps of gold miners. In the very center of the bit of flat, where the plaza now lies, campfires burned under trees, tents and shelters stood haphazard, and a few wagons with dirty canvas covers drawn close to keep out the snow, were pulled up under the best tree shelter their owners could find. Little bells tinkled from the necks of grazing animals all hobbled to keep them from wandering too far. Through the window shutters of whipsawed boards the light of fireplace or candles filtered out to cheer late travelers. There was not a glass window in Prescott that year, not even in the Governor's 'Mansion'. But there was Christmas cheer even if no windows reflected it." 

There was a Christmas celebration at the Governor's Mansion that year, and another the following year. A short article from the Christmas files in the museum's archives describes the latter as follows: 
"By Christmas of 1865 the young wife of Sec. McCormick had arrived and had 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, a very little real candy from San Francisco" 

Each year in December the Sharlot Hall Museum holds its Frontier Christmas festivities. They include open house at the Museum Center as well as the Fremont and Bashford houses, and you can enjoy music and light refreshments around a roaring fire in the Sharlot Hall Building. If you missed Frontier Christmas this year, be sure to mark it on your calendar for 1998 (or any future year). Come share with us "An Arizona History Adventure." 

Happy Holidays from all at the Sharlot Hall Museum. 

Anita Zeller is a Curatorial Assistant at Sharlot Hall Museum.

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (pb150f2i25)
Reuse only by permission.

In 1865, more than a year since Prescott had been the capitol of the Arizona Territory, a Christmas tree stood in the Governor's Mansion for the first time. No photos remain of those Christmas festivities, but now each year the museum holds Frontier Christmas festivities for the public and a Christmas tree is put in the mansion again. Christmas fills each of us with memories just as this photo from an unidentified Prescott home in 1925 surely has left an indelible mark on those who shared it.