1850preview

OUR VERY DIFFERENT CHRISTMASES PAST

Visit Santa Rosa 150 years ago and not much will be recognizable, as you would expect. But people are still people, and aside from their funny clothes and lamentable views on race and gender, the ways they lived and celebrated weren’t all that different. There were still cakes for birthdays, Fourth of July fireworks, a turkey with trimmings on Thanksgiving and in every parlor at Christmas there was a tree with presents underneath. Well, all that’s true except for the Christmas part.

This is a quick tour of Christmases in Santa Rosa and other Sonoma county places in the years around the Civil War. While today it’s a private occasion for families and close friends to draw close, then it was the time of the year for blowout community parties.

Between Christmas Eve and New Years there was a ball or Christmas celebration almost every night somewhere in the vicinity, each promising to be the grandest event of the year. A 50¢ admission was common (in 1876 that was the equivalent of about sixteen bucks today) with children half price. There usually was dancing and an entertainment program, party food (hope you like oysters) and eggnog, spiked or not.

(RIGHT: 1857 ads appearing in Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat)

We can all probably imagine ourselves attending a “Grand Ball” back then; although the doings in Sonoma county surely weren’t as glitzy as what we’ve seen in old movies, there was still a punchbowl, live music, a dance floor and no shortage of young people flirting as if their destinies depended upon it. We would have had trouble recognizing the Christmas festivities, however – as wonderful as they seemed to be, they were unlike anything in our modern experience.

Except for small towns like Geyserville which had no real public gathering space, lodge halls and meeting halls were rented by the town’s different church groups. But it appears there was no religious component in those Christmas festivities; in reviewing 25 years of Santa Rosa and Petaluma newspapers, the only reference I found to religion was one year where the entertainment included “the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer by a number of the infant class.” Otherwise, they were so secular they would have caused Bill O’Reilly to spit nails.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but simply having a Christmas tree was a big attraction. It was always prominently mentioned in the ads and the lighting of the tree’s candles was a key part of the event. In that era, having a tree in someone’s home was so unusual there were newspaper items when it happened. The lack of private trees might have something to do with the danger of lighted candles hanging on the branches of a dead evergreen; years later there was a spate of incidents where men in Santa Claus costumes caught fire – see “The Year of Burning Santas.”

Santa Claus was often in attendance, but we wouldn’t have recognized him either; in Forestville he was seen wearing a swallow-tail coat “looking just as ancient as if he had just made his escape from the catacombs of Egypt after centuries of confinement” (what?) and gave a funny speech after throwing peanuts at the audience.

But the most unusual part from today’s perspective was probably the giving and receiving of Christmas presents in front of the whole community. The gifts which had arrived days before – the newspapers always explained where to drop them off in advance – were handed out as the name on each package was read aloud. Remember, this was not your office’s secret-santa party; all (or much) of the town was there, children and adults, and the distribution could take hours.

Heavy drinking was clearly part of the scene, although not openly at the public events organized by church ladies. At the non-church balls it was a different story; at a Healdsburg dance there were “four jugs of ready-made cocktails for the ladies, while the gentlemen were restricted to whisky straight.”

After Christmas the papers often expressed relief the drinking didn’t get out of hand. “Christmas eggnogs and toddies, we suppose, were drunk, but if there was any one the least boosy, we failed to see or hear of it; and if there were such, they kept off the streets,” it was reported one year. On another, “although the usual libations were indulged in, no rioting or rudeness were manifested.”

That was a special concern because there was always an uptick of violence (including murders and suicides) around Christmas time. In 1857 Healdsburg, a man was killed and others wounded when someone began shooting his revolver at a Christmas dance. The Santa Rosa paper was quick to emphasize “the parties most deeply concerned in the matter were entirely sober” and the real problem was “men who carry deadly weapons, frequently give as their reason for so doing, the necessity of being prepared for self-defense.”

LEFT: 1864 ad (note the spelling of “ladies'”) RIGHT: 1865 ad, both from the Sonoma Democrat

 

During the Civil War there were still balls and Christmas festivals, although sometimes admission was higher because the sponsoring church was using the events as fund-raisers for construction repairs. After the war Santa Rosa’s pro-Confederacy Democrat printed a letter from someone in Sonoma, begging locals to take whatever would be spent on gifts and Christmas dinners and donate it “for the purpose of raising money for the starving people in the South.” Without irony, the author implored us not to be hard-hearted and “blinded by prejudice.” Apparently compassion should be reserved for those “hundreds of young girls in the South-—who are as good and as beautiful as themselves.”

In the 1870s the Christmas celebrations became even more entertainment oriented. The Presbyterian Sunday Schools presented a “Mother Goose” concert one year and another time put on a play, “Waking Up Santa Claus.” Santa was too tired to deliver his gifts, the story went, until the Fairy Queen appeared to help him out. A Presbyterian youth group called the “San Greal Society” was formed to help kids socialize and put on these areligious holiday shows.

The single most unusual Christmas event was the 1876 children’s masked ball in Petaluma. The ad made it seem more like a strange Hallowe’en-Christmas hybrid, with dancing (which probably wouldn’t appeal to little kids) and a visit from Santa (which the teens up to the max age of 16 might have found cringeworthy).

Surprisingly, it seems that the masquerade went off quite well. The 75 children joined in holding up a large American flag as a band played “Hail Columbia,” there was a grand march and quadrille followed by a free-for-all with the lot of them running around the stage in costumes having a grand time. Among the girls there were two fairies, three fairy queens, several “Spanish peasant girls” and Kitty Stanley as “pink of perfection,” whatever that meant. Five of the boys were dressed as firemen, Frank Slugley was a Czar and Jake Bernhard went as a “Ku Klux,” and we all knew what that meant.

The common theme through this quarter century was how much those Christmas celebrations were focused on making children happy. Stores ran large, expensive ads promoting a variety of toys and candies and sweets sure to appeal to kids. The community party with the Christmas tree and gift exchange was memorable, even if it was the one held in a Geyserville storeroom with Santa played by a guy everybody in town saw every day.

ALL of that began changing a few years later. Christmas trees in the home became increasingly common in the 1880s (Sonoma county became San Francisco’s Christmas tree farm) and by the turn of the century we entered an Era of Scrooge, with an emphasis on buying gifts which were practical and useful or “had value” (read: were cheap). Stores advertised juvenile overcoats and flannel nightgowns, not wonderful toys and dolls. Judging from the newspaper ads it wasn’t until 1910 before we seemed to again start buying gifts simply because they were intended to bring enjoyment to children.

I won’t pretend to understand what happened, but it seems as if the generation that enjoyed the happiest Christmases as children somehow forgot how to give that experience to their own children. Maybe it’s significant that it happened when those Christmas trees were no longer such a magical sight, and the gifts were now opened in private, instead of among the community where everyone shared in their joy.

“The Christmas Party” by American artist Robert David Wilkie, 1850

HEALDSBURG, Dec. 27, 1857. The evening of the 24th passed quietly away, and the sun went down on hundreds in Sonoma County, who had matured or were maturing plans to ensure a happy Christmas, and I, in common with the rest, was meditating as to the best mode of acquiring the greatest possible amount of pleasure in a given time, the only obstacle preventing a speedy conclusion being the number of places of amusement. My friend, DAVE, proposed that we should remain in Healdsburg, but when I suggested the fact that we were too well known there to make a splurge commensurate with the occasion, he at once yielded the point. We then discussed the feasibility of hiring a buggy from Messrs. Page & Francis, and visiting Guyserdale and Cloverville, [sic, sic] but the price being eight dollars, we found on examination that our finances were a little short, not having enough by seven dollars—-so that idea was immediately abandoned.

Having heard there was to be a Ball three miles out of town, and tickets only four bits, I proposed to Dave to walk out there and save expense, in which event our funds would be amply sufficient to secure our admittance. My friend was satisfied with this proposition, and as no time was to be lost, we hastened to make our toilet; but “there’s many a slip,” &c., for just as Dave was spreading some castor-oil on his very obstinate hair, an officer stepped in and demanded his poll tax. Here was a dilemma, and when the officer picked up Dave’s coat which was lying on the bed, and declared he would sell it within an hour, my friend’s condition can better be imagined than described. With tears in his eyes, and castor-oil running slowly down his checks, he begged that the case might be postponed—-the officer was inexorable—-my unfortunate friend then offered his promissory note for double the amount with three per cent interest, and myself as security; unavailing effort-—the stern, ministerial agent of the law insisted on the cash or the coat. I knew that something must be done and that quickly, or all our hopes of happiness in the society of beautiful girls, in the enjoyment of good music, and all the solids and fluids that are usually found at a first-rate ball would soon be as the “baseless fabric of a vision.” For one minute and three-quarters I thought intensely, and Dave’s coat was saved! I remembered having seen in the Sonoma County Journal some advice as to the best mode of procedure in such cases, and having said confidentially to the officer (to put him off his guard,) that I would go out and get the money, I ran with all my might to consult with Blackstone Coke, Esq., and in ten minutes more we had served an injunction. Dave was so overjoyed that he invited me to “smile,” and when he had narrated the story to the proprietor and a crowd of admiring auditors, three cheers were given for my friend, and one individual who seemed to have been in a fight, both eyes blacked and an under-bit off his left ear, gave vent to his feelings by throwing down his hat on the floor and poetically exclaiming: “Bugger the hodds, as long as you’re ‘appy.”

We went to the ball, and what we saw and did there will, perhaps, be the subject matter of my next letter. Dave, however, is down on fifty cent balls, and although he is too gallant to express his opinion freely, I think I know the reason of his dissatisfaction. The proprietor of the ball had, very justly in my opinion, provided four jugs of ready-made cocktails for the ladies, while the gentlemen were restricted to whisky straight, and Dave is opposed bitterly to any such distinction being made in a republican, democratic country.
Yours truly, MANZANITA.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1857

DEADLY WEAPONS.—The occurrence that has recently taken place at Healdsburg, in which one man was killed almost instantly, and two or three of our most esteemed citizens, were severely hurt, in a public ball room, in the presence and in fact in the midst of a throng of ladies, old and young, tender and refined, and in fact, such as make up social assemblies—is a matter for serious contemplation. It has been reported that the affray mentioned was caused or at least aggravated by intoxication. This, we are assured, is not the case, but little if any intoxicating liquor having been used by any of the assembly during the evening; and particularly, the parties most deeply concerned in the matter, were entirely sober. On the contrary, this calamity, for a calamity such an occurrence must be regarded, was the result of a practice but little if any less pernicious than that of intoxication—it is the practice of carrying deadly weapons in company. We regard the carrying of weapons about one’s person in the ordinary walks of life, while in a civilized community, as unnecessary and censurable at best; but when a man presents himself in a ball room, to mix and mingle in the society of refined ladies, armed to the teeth with deadly weapons, we think he commits a wrong of the worst kind. No matter how deadly a hatred two men may have for each other, or how much cause one may have for revenge, certainly such a place is least suitable for the consummation of such revenge, or the settling of personal feuds.

Such lamentable occurrences, in fact, have repeatedly come to our knowledge, in California society, which gives it probably the worst feature it possesses.—-Men who carry deadly weapons, frequently give as their reason for so doing, the necessity of being prepared for self-defense in ease of deadly attacks by highwaymen, or those from whom they expect assassination. Within the last two years these reasons have become too ridiculous for a reasonable man to make use of, as there is scarcely an exception to the fact, that every instance in which men have been robbed on the highway, a Colt’s revolver, ready loaded, has been a portion of the plunder, which the brave possessor dared not use when a necessity for its use presented itself. We hope the day may come soon, when the practice of carrying deadly weapons, now so common, will be abandoned, particularly the practice of taking them into assemblies composed partly of ladies.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1857

The Ball. —The Ball at the Santa Rosa House, on Christmas eve, was a remarkably agreeable entertainment. There was a good attendance, and everything passed off agreeably. The supper is said to have been one of the best ever gotten up in the place, which did friend Colgan, with all his former popularity as a caterer, great credit. Colgan is celebrated for his good suppers. If you don’t believe it, just give him a trial.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 30 1858

CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES.–The Santa Rosa Sabbath School will have a Celebration and an Old Fashioned Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve next. All citizens who wish to deposit gifts upon the tree for any person will report themselves to Henry Klute, C. W. Langdon… Appropriate music, vocal and instrumental. Free for all. Tree lighted at 7½ o’clock.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1861

FESTIVAL.–The third Festival, given by the Ladies, will come off at Hewitt’s Hall on Wednesday evening. The programme for that evening is more attractive than any which has been presented. The announcement of a Christmas Tree, is of itself sufficient to attract all the young people. It is the intention we believe to sell a number of toy for Christmas presents.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1863

 

The Southern Poor–Letter from a Lady.

Messrs. Editors: I have been watching with a feeling of deep interest the movement, now being made, for the purpose of raising money for the starving people in the South. I have been anxiously looking for such a step to be taken ever since the close of the war. It appears to me that the good work has not been taken hold of with that feeling of enthusiasm it deserves. While we are thinking and talking about what it is best for us to do, the distressing condition of that unfortunate people is growing worse. Winter is now upon them, and if they are ever to be relieved surely now is the time.

The time is close at hand when our young folks will ho expecting new hats, dresses, toys, candies, cakes, Christmas trees and good dinners, all of which will cost a snug sum of money. Now, if we would explain to our children the condition of those poor children who are crying for bread, and the good that this money would do them, I am confident they would consent to make the sacrifice, and would be made to feel more happy by so doing. And again, if our young ladies, who are thinking that a new dress, hat, shawl, and a number of other little notions are articles indispensably necessary with them, that they may thereby be enabled to keep up with the fashions, would reflect for a moment upon the condition of the hundreds of young girls in the South-—who are as good and as beautiful as themselves-—who have neither clothes nor wood to keep them from suffering with cold and hunger this winter, I think they would content themselves with their present comfortable wardrobes and send the entire sum of money which those articles would cost to comfort some of their suffering sisters, and feel none the poorer for the sacrifice, but, on the other hand, they will feel richer on account of the happiness granted for the charitable act, our young men. and old gentlemen too, show that they can make sacrifices, in their trifling indulgences, that they may give something to the poor. Let them smoke fewer cigars, chew less tobacco, drink not so much wine and lessen the number of their fast rides, and show by their liberal contributions that they hav hearts to feel for the poor. Let the turkeys and pigs that are now being fattened for our Christmas dinners be hastened to market, that the price of them may be forwarded to the starving Southerners. If every man and woman in Sonoma county would deprive himself or herself of only one meal of victuals, and contribute its value to this movement of charity, what a blessing it might prove.

I would ask who is there with heart so hardened, or who has been so blinded by prejudice, as to turn a deaf ear to the calls for help coming from our suffering sisters and their hungry little ones? Let us hasten to their rescue, remembering that words can do good unless followed up by action—-that one good action is worth a whole volume of sympathetic gas.
S.M.N.
SONOMA, Dec 2, 1866.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 15 1866

CHURCH FESTIVAL.— The ladies of St. John’s Church, Petaluma, will hold a Christmas Festival at Hinshaw’s Hall, on Saturday and next Monday evening. An assortment of fancy books and toys suitable for Christmas presents will be offered for sale. On Monday, Christmas Eve, Santa Claus will make his appearance in character, and distribute gifts to all the children of the Sunday School.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 22 1866

CHRISTMAS IS COMING.–The ladies of the Congregational Society are making extensive preparations for the Festival which is to come off at Hinshaw’s Hall on Monday and Tuesday evenings next. If energetic effort is a fair criterion, this Fair will be a decided success. The dinner to be served at  Hinshaw’s Hall on Christmas Day, will be well worth a dollar. Go there, everybody.

CHRISTMAS PARTY.–The young men of the “Petaluma Social Club,” have issued their invitations for an assembly at McCune’s Hall on Christmas Eve. The parties of this Club are well conducted, and this one will undoubtedly surpass any of their previous gatherings, in point of pleasure and sociability.

– Petaluma Argus, December 19, 1867

CHRISTMAS.–The great holiday was duly observed in this city. On Christmas Eve, trees were had by the various Sunday Schools. On the day following, services were held at the Episcopal and Catholic churches, and a good attendance had at each. Dinner parties, the reunion of families, and assembling of friends around well spread tables…were some of the noticeable features of the day. And although egg-nog flowed freely, yet there was no special intemperance, and the day went out, leaving no disagreeable occurence behind, and nothing to remember but that which might be fondly cherished and preserved.

– Petaluma Argus, January 1, 1870

…The town remained very quiet, and although the usual libations were indulged in, no rioting or rudeness were manifested.

– Petaluma Argus, December 27, 1872

 

CHRISTMAS.

Christmas, notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, passed off in a most satisfactory and pleasurable manner. A Christmas tree was erected in the elegant new store room of Messrs. Chritchfield, Sweeney & Lamb, on which was displayed a profusion of articles from a bon bon, to a silk dress. That illustrious personage known as Santa Claus, was represented by your good-natured friend, Mr. E. C. Sacry, who distributed the various gifts of fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and sweethearts to the satisfaction of all present, and sent many a little boy and girl to their homes, notwithstanding the darkness of the night and pelting rain-storm, deeply grateful for his visit to Geyserville.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 28 1872

 

Christmas Tree.

There will be a Christmas tree in the M. E. Church South on Christmas eve. Although given under the management of the Sunday School of that church, it will not be exclusive. All parents and friends of the children are cordially invited to use the tree as a medium by which to make the little folks happy.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 13 1873

 

Christmas at Santa Rosa.

Christmas was observed in this city with more than usual spirit. The general impulse of everybody to be liberal was stimulated by the fine display of holiday goods made by our merchants. There were Christmas Trees at the Presbyterian, Christian, and both Methodist churches, all of which passed off happily. On Christmas night the Santa Rosa Grange had a Christmas Tree and supper at Hood’s Hall, which was crowded with Grangers and thair invited guests. The presents were first distributed, causing much fun and merriment. The Secretary of the Grange, Mr. Obreen, a worthy and accomplished officer, was presented with a very handsome gold pen. After the distribution came a bountiful supper, of everything one could think of to tempt the appetite.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1873

 

Christmas at Forestville.

Forestville, Dec. 25–Supposing that everybody wants to know just how everybody spent their Christinas I will give you a few items from this place. We had a Christmas tree at our school house last evening to begin Christmas with. Everybody was there, old and young. The house was beautifully decorated and lit. The house was filled so there was no room left. The venerable Santa Claus, with his swallow-tail coat and long white hair, looking just as ancient as if he had just made his escape from the catacombs of Egypt after centuries of confinement, made all the little folks happy by sowing peanuts broadcast through the audience, and then delivered quite an original oration to the great amusement of the crowd, who showed their appreciation by their overwhelming applause; then the fun commenced by the various presents being called off by our worthy teacher, Mr. Maxwell, and handed round by the young ladies to the lucky persons, or unlucky, as the joke might be, as somebody was bound to catch it…After the fun was over the young folks adjourned to Mr. Frank Emerson’s, to a social party, where they enjoyed themselves to their heart’s content the remainder of the evening, and to-day everybody is trying to induce his neighbor to take dinner with him and dine on roast turkey, while there still seems to be a large surplus for future eonsumption. I think it would be hard to find a jollier set of good fellows than there is here, and peace and harmony is the order of the day. Respectfully yours, Billy Sildem.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1873

 

SEBASTOPOL BRIEFS
Christmas Tree.

The citizens of this place had a Christmas tree at the Presbyterian Church, on Christmas eve, which was heavily loaded from top to bottom with all the innumerable holiday trinkets invented by man. The house was filled to overflowing with old and young; all were well pleased. All this was done for the benefit of of the Sunday school children. It is proving a success will add largely to the school hereafter, and next year they will have a better time.

Christmas was a very quiet day; nothing worth noting transpired through the day except that a number of boys were playing their antics, which created some amusement, until late in the evening, when the people not forgetful of Wilson’s anniversary ball, began to pour in from all directions by the score. There were quite a number from Santa Rosa. The ball went off charmingly; the supper was, par excellence, and the whole thing was, as Harry intended it should be, a success.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 3 1874

 

Christmas at Ridgway Hall.

The Sunday School of the Methodist Church South, will hold a Christmas festival at Ridgway Hall on Christmas eve. There will be a Christmas Tree for the children, and also one for grown-up people. The presents from the children’s Tree will be distributed at 6 o’clock P. M. Those from the Tree for the grown-up people at a later hour. The ladies of the congregation will serve refreshments in the hall during the evening. A good time expected. Parties wishing to furnish presents for their friends will report to the committee at the hall during the day. Admittance free. Invitation general.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1874

 

Christmas In Santa Rosa.

The weather could not have been more propitious than it was Christmas day. A very light frost was visible early in the morning, but the sun rose clear and bright, and the entire day was as pleasant as the most fastidious weathermonger could have asked. But little business was done in any of the stores, except those where Christmas presents were kept, and in the afternoon nearly every store and shop was closed. The usual Christinas eggnogs and toddles, we suppose, were drunk, but if there was any one the least boosy, we failed to see or hear of it; and if there were such, they kept off the streets. In the evening there were Christmas trees at the Baptist Church, the Pacific Methodist College Chapel, Christian College Chapel, and Third Street Methodist Church, and each was well supplied with presents, and at each were large crowds to witness the distribution of the presents. We think very few children in the city were forgotten or neglected, and a great many of the older people received a memento of love from their friends. Christmas in Santa Rosa this year may be set down as a very quiet, but a very delightful and enloyable one.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 30 1876

 

CHILDREN’S MASQUERADE.
Large Attendance–The Little Folks have a Happy Frolic–The Old Folks Look on–Names of the Maskers–The Lights go out and the Dancers go Home.

…The gallery of the Theatre was crowded at an early hour by the parents and friends of the children, while the young maskers were admitted to the stage at the rear entrance of the building. Shortly after 8 o’clock, the band struck up “Hail Columbia,” and the curtain rose upon a tableau composed of masked children, grouped together, supporting an American flag. The effect of the tableau was good, and as the curtain fell the audience testified their appreciation of the same by hearty applause. Then followed the

GRAND MARCH,

which was participated in by about seventy-five children in costume. As the little ones filed upon the floor, they presented a very pretty and pleasing appearance. The column was lead by four fairies, followed by all sorts and kinds of dress…After the grand march and a quadrille, Mr. Ross told the children to have a good time, when all restraint was withdrawn, and the children romped with all the seeming freedom of a play ground. After the unmasking, Santa Claus put in an appearance and gave every child a present. Just as the older people were admitted to the floor, the gasworks in the rear of the Theatre gave out, and everybody hurried away for fear they would be left in the dark…

– Petaluma Argus, January 5, 1877

 

CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES.
The Celebrations at the Different Churches.

The observance of the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated in fine style in four churches last Monday night.

The Baptist edifice was filled to overflowing. The exercises began at six o’clock, yet some time before that it was impossible to procure seats. The literary exercises lasted a little more than an hour, and then the distribution of the presents from two huge, well leaded trees began. Prof. Dozier and Mr. Baker distributed the gifts that loaded down the branches, making glad the hearts of the young and old. The distribution continued until nearly 10 o’clock, and although the building was crowded and many persons had been on their feet more than three hours, there was not the least sign of impatience nor the least indication of disorder.

The literary exercises at the M. E. Church were very brief. The tree presented a very fine appearance. We noticed that the candies, instead of being fastened to the tree, were attached to a frame behind it, and lighted up both the tree and presents with a flood of light. Rev. E. E. Dodge read the names of those whom the jolly saint remembered, and the presents were distributed by four fair young ladies. A good idea.

M. E. Church South had one tree well loaded. The musical and literary exercises were excellent selections and were well received. The distribution was conducted by Wesley Mock and M. M. Godman. The church was filled to overflowing. One of the most noticeable features of the evening was the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer by a number of the infant class.

The Presbyterians had no tree. The festivities consisted of a concert exercise, followed by the acting tableaux, “Waking Up Santa Claus.” The Superintendent informed the school that Santa Claus had forgotten them, and that he lived in a little bower that had been tastefully fitted up in one corner of the room, and selected three girls to go and see why the omission had occurred. The girls approached the house, and were met by two frightful looking imps, who informed them that Santa Claus was asleep, that he was tired, his reindeers turned out to pasture and all his stock of presents and refreshments were distributed; but the girls persevered until the form of the Saint himself appeared at the top of the chimney. The scene was very prettily finished by the appearance of the Fairy Queen, who, accompanied with the sweetest of music, relieved Santa Claus and the Sunday School from their dilemma.

Mass was celebrated twice by Father Conway on Christmas day. The church was well filled. The Church of the Incarnation was open during the day, and Christmas services observed.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 29 1877

…The Presbyterian Sunday School will not have a Christmas tree, but will have a “Mother Goose” Concert at Ridgway Hall on Christmas eve, under the management of the San Greal Society, an organization composed of the young people of the church and congregation, and organized for the promotion of sociability and good feeling. The concert will be full of new, unique and pleasing features, and will doubtless prove a rare treat to the children….

– Sonoma Democrat, December 21 1878

Read More

1874squeedunks

BIRTH OF THE SQUEEDUNKS

It was a solemn and historic occasion, but all we remember about it today is that some bozos showed up and made fun of everybody.

The event was the Fourth of July 1876 ceremonies held in Santa Rosa. “At an early hour the streets were thronged with carriages, horsemen and well dressed and happy looking men and women,” reported the town’s Sonoma Democrat. The parade formed on Third street; near the head was the Santa Rosa Brass Band and judges and dignitaries in carriages (including Bear Flag veterans with their famous flag). In the parade were also carts or displays representing local businesses, among them a wagon loaded with coal from the Taylor Mountain Coal Mine. “The procession marched through the principal streets which were gaily decorated with flags,” the paper continued, before returning to the grandstand on Santa Rosa’s plaza.

Gaye LeBaron wrote about the notable event that happened that day in “Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town,” but the version that appeared in her 1998 column was a bit more concise:


The Squeedunks made their first appearance in Santa Rosa in 1876, on the occasion of the Centennial Independence Day. When the county’s honored “First Citizen,” General Mariano Vallejo, ended his long oration (in Spanish, with a translator) and the formal portion of the celebration drew to a close, a band of masked men in outrageous costumes seized the podium and began a mock-heroic “Oh Ration,” an extemporaneous and outrageous send-up of the venerable Vallejo’s speech.

It’s a fun story and often retold – except none of it happened quite that way.

This was not the debut of the “Squeduncques” at a Santa Rosa Fourth of July celebration but at least their third appearance. Their “comical uniforms” were mentioned in a review of their 1874 showing so yeah, it’s probably safe to assume they were also dressed up two years later, although nothing about it was mentioned. Those are quibbling points, tho.

(RIGHT: Sonoma Democrat ad, June 26, 1874)

But in no way did they seize the stage following Vallejo’s speech to ridicule him. They were a scheduled part of the program at the end of the celebration, which wrapped up with the Squeedunks presenting the mayor with a wooden sword as “the thanks of every member of this beer destroying gang.” And before they went on stage they presented their own parade which mocked that morning’s procession. Where earlier the Sonoma Democrat was carting around a small printing press turning out programs for the day’s events on the fly, for example, they had the “Dum Oh Krat Steam Press.” Once they were at the podium they continued making fun of the original program with “intejuicery” (introductory) remarks, a “poim” (poem) and “Oh Ration,” which was a sendup of the town’s foibles and failings. All of this is transcribed below – complete with comic spellings as they appeared in the newspaper – but here’s a sample:



Look at our big brick depot, that we haven’t built yet nor never will. Look at our grand school houses for the edification of the hoodlums of generations yet unborn. Look at all these and say are we not mighty in ourmightiness? Then let the proud eagle squawk; let the great American Jack bray and proclaim in stentorian tones “Erin go unum, E pluribus Bragh.”

Nor did General Vallejo even speak at the event. As described in the paper, he sat onstage as his speech was read by Charles E. Pickett, a well-known (and somewhat notorious) orator.1 The Sonoma Democrat didn’t indicate whether it was in Spanish or English although it was likely the latter, as the paper commented the speech “was listened to with deep attention by all.” The entire address in English appeared in the Democrat the following week.

Even delivered in English by a popular orator the Vallejo speech was a real stemwinder, which probably added to the anticipation for the Squeedunks’ part of the show – the paper reported before they appeared the large crowd “seemed by this time to have grown a thousand or two stronger.” It’s easy to understand their appeal; much of the irreverent humor still holds up today, 140 years later – and works particularly well if you can imagine Groucho Marx reading it. For some in the audience, however, their antics probably had a nostalgic appeal; the Squeedunks were part of a long American tradition on the East Coast better known as the “Fantastics.”

The Fantastics – sometimes “Fantasticals” – began in Colonial times (and can even be traced farther back to British mumming) were mainly young men dressing up, sometimes in women’s clothes or wearing blackface while noisily mocking propriety and figures of authority. Think of it as trick-or-treating for adults, not children, and it happened at Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other holiday except Hallowe’en. Also: They wanted you to give them booze, not candy. More about the origins can be read here.

Needless to say, our more sober ancestors were not approving of their young men carousing drunkenly in costumes four or five times a year. (Did I mention firing guns in the air was also a big part of the custom?) Apparently starting in the 1830s, restrictions began to be imposed limiting the partying to the Fourth of July and requiring the costumed revelers be enrolled in some sort of organized group. The earliest example of this I can find is an ad in the June 27, 1839 Baltimore Sun that calls for members of the “Eagle Fantastical Club” to attend a meeting for the upcoming parade.

For about twenty years on either side of the Civil War, parades of Fantastics were to be found all over the East; there’s a mention from 1843 which suggests the Fantastics were long part of the Fourth of July celebrations in Maine and up to the start of the war their shenanigans were particularly popular in Pennsylvania and Maryland, Georgia and South Carolina. From the New York Sun, November 27, 1885:


Fantastic processions burst out all over the town in unusual abundance and filled the popular eye with a panorama that looked like a crazy-quilt show grown crazy and filled the popular ear with the din of thumping drums and blaring trumpets. Thirty-six companies of fantastics had permits to march around making an uproar, and they did it with great success. Local statesmen went around.with the down-town paraders and helped them whoop things up. There were lots and lots of fantastics who hadn’t any permit, and who didn’t care either. They were the thousands and thousands of small boys who put on their sisters’ old dresses, smeared paint on their faces, pulled on red, yellow, brown, black, and indiscriminate wigs, and pranced round their own particular streets, without the least fear of police interference.

Why our local “patriotic hoodlums” chose to call themselves “Squeduncques” instead is not known for certain, although in the early 1870s a squeedunk was the name of a homemade noisemaker that made a particularly horrific screeching sound.2

The Squeedunk tradition continued in Sonoma county for decades, spreading to Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Cloverdale and other communities. The last great ballyhoo in Santa Rosa was in 1908 (see “SQUEEDUNKS ON PARADE“) but attempts at revivals popped up occasionally in later years. How sad to have lost the custom of celebrating our old bums, lunch eaters, and scalawags.


1 Charles E. Pickett was then 56 years old and well known as an eccentric who claimed his profession as “philosopher.” Despite a complete lack of legal training he was long a gadfly concerning the state supreme court, insisting the system of selecting judges was corrupt because the governor could appoint someone to fill a vacant seat until the end of the six year term of office. Thus a justice who was elected in 1870 and died or resigned the following year would be replaced with a politcal appointee until 1876, despite the opportunity for voters to choose a new justice in two general elections during that span of time. (Or at least, that’s my reading of the confusing rules – see more details here.) In Pickett’s view this meant the entire court should be impeached and as a new session began in August, 1874, he stormed the bench during opening ceremonies and took a seat himself. An uproar ensued and he was ejected, fined, and served over a year in jail for his unusual contempt of court.



2 Squeedunk (usually spelled Squedunk) came to be used as a joke town name, similar as Podunk, Skunktown and many others. Sometimes it was meant as the name of a place where backwoods yokels lived, othertimes it was just the name of a a hypothetical town. See: H. L. Mencken, The American Language, 1936. In the early 1870s, however, a squedunk was the name of a popular homemade noisemaker with a teeth-rattling sound created by drawing a violin bow or a waxed string on the rim of a tin can. Thus by calling themselves Squeedunks, the joke could have been either proclaiming themselves to be proudly “backwards country folk” or intending to be really, really annoying. Or both.

The Squeduncques, a distinguished band of imps, devils, patriotic hoodlums and screachers, will parade the streets of Santa Ross on the Fourth of July.

– Russian River Flag, July 2, 1874

 

…The fantastical display of the Squeduncques, which took place in the afternoon, drew to their stand, at the Court House, a vast assemblage. Their officers were: Captain, George Dunnegan; President of Day, D. H. Shahan; Orator, M. S. McClaire; Poet, L. W. Boggs; Reader, T. Woodward. Their burlesques, local hits and comical uniforms created shouts of laughter, and added much to the pleasures of the day. The Squeduncques were generally pronounced a success…

– Sonoma Democrat, July 11, 1874


CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION.
Santa Rosa, July 4th, 1876.
 
Oration by hos. H. Burke — Historical Address by Gen. M. G. Vallejo – Poem by F. M. Dimmick — Bear Flag Men – Veterans — Squeduncques — Grand Sword Presentation to Mayor Neblett

The celebration of the Centennial Fourth of July in the city of Santa Rosa was one of the grandest demonstrations ever witnessed in the county…

[..]

HISTORICAL ADDRESS.

At the close of the oration Mayor Neblett announced that Gen. M. G. Vallejo had arrived on the morning of the fourth in Santa Rosa, having concluded to accept the invitation of the committee sent from Santa Rosa some days previously to invite him to deliver his historical address here, the managers of the Sonoma valley celebration having concluded to omit this feature from their published programme. The large audience hailed the General’s advent [illegible line of microfilm] with much enthusiasm. His well prepared history of the early settlements of the north side of the bay of San Francisco, and other incidents, was read by Mr. Chas. E. Pickett of the city of San Francisco, a pioneer of 1842, was listened to with deep attention by all. At his close three cheers for the General were called for and loudly given. This instructive, graphic and exact historical sketch, with characteristic comments by the author, will appear in the weekly issue of the DEMOCRAT.

[..]

SQUEDUNCQUES.

At four o’clock in the afternoon the ancient and honorable order of Squeduncques suddenly made their appearance. The crowd which was immense in the morning seemed by this time to have grown a thousand or two stronger and greeted the appearance of the Squeduncques with cheers and shouts of laughter. They were headed by the old He Sque Dunk as Grand Marshal, and he was followed by the Drum Corps, who discoursed strains of discordant music which the pen of no living man can fully do justice to. Suffice it to say that the music department was a most distracting success. After the band came a line of vehicles which looked as though they once belonged to Noah’s family and had seen rough usage since his death. These were drawn by horses who had the appearance of being in their Centennial year and for a long time strangers to oats and corn. Then came burlesques on the Water Company, the Dum Oh Krat Steam Press, the Fire Companies, the New Depot, the Street Sprinkler and other things; which we find we have not descriptive powers sufficient to do justice to and therefore cannot attempt it. The procession was followed by large crowds and cheered all along the route. When the pavilion was reached and the Officers of the Day, Orator, Poet and Reader, accompanied by the Drum Corps ascended the platform, the rush and jam of that vast crowd to get near was awfully sublime. The intejuicery [sic all misspellings below] remarks of the President of the Day, the Poim the Reading of the Declamation, the Oh Ration, and the

GRAND PRESENTATI0N

Of a magnificant sword (wooden) to his Honor Mayor Neblett, who was called to the stand. The grand gyascuius of the Squedunques then addressed him as follows:

Most potent, grave and reverend Seignor. Oh, thous noblest Roman of them all. Oh, ubiquitous chieftain of all patriotic emblems that adorn our American Eagle domain. Open your port-holes and hearken to the words that will immortalize you forever.

For over nine million years it has been the custom of this lunch destroying band ever to recognize merit in the human family. Our four fathers, ants and sisters, were celebrated for a looseness in this disgusting familiarity of Freedom.

For many sleepless nights we have watched the bursting character of your patriotic bosom. We have seen it swell–heave and pad out with a grandeur which few bosoms can ever expect to reach.

For tendering us the use of this lumber pile, and for aiding us in the rescue of our hungry recesses, by the donation of the sum of one hundred dollars, accept the thanks of every member of this beer destroying gang.

We are overflowing with gratitude but we can beer it all times. In order to make a proper showing of our inside feelings towards you, we present you with this beautiful sword. In other hands a club of this character would prove a very dangerous weapon. May you never entertain suicidal notions, for it won’t do to get reckless in order to provide free rides for old bums.

Take it–Hang it up in the cellar where it can never rust, nor become mortified by bad use. And when your beaming head shall have assumed the radiance of a white-wash bucket, and when telegraphing shall have been supplanted by the lightning speed of Fortson’s street railroad, may you be rolled up in the emblems of eternal ease, surrounded by limburger cheese, and beer, and with this shining blade buckled to your majestic form may you march on to Fame and Glory, and find sweet repose in the happy hunting grounds of our Honorable Order.

[ .. non-Squeedunk description of fireworks and late dinner ]

– Sonoma Democrat, July 8, 1876
 
SQUEDUNCQUE OH! RATION

FELLOW SQUEDUNCQUES: One hundred years ago to-day the booming of patriotic cannon awaked from their heroic slumbers a band of ancient Squedunques. That Cannon has never ceased to boom from that day to the present. You hear it now, you have heard it all day.

Why, Fellow Squedunques, is all this grand parade? Why all this vast assemblage of old bums, lunch eaters, and scalawags? Why all this tootin of horns banging of drums and squallin of “nest hiders?” It is, my fellows in iniqnity, to remind us of the fact that he who fit and run away has lived to fite another day.

Yes, my Fellow Dunks, we have cause to squelch over our misdeeds. Aye, and in Santa Rosa, too.

“For not a town go far and near,
That does not find a rival here!

I ask you, Squedunques, are we not great in our greatness? Compare us today with Santa Rosa one hundred years ago. Look at these sombrero oaks, which within the hundred years from little acorns grow. Look at these beautiful maidens who a hundred years ago were clad in homespun linsey and tow linen. How are they now? Wrapped in silk and satins from the Injins, bedecked with laces from Crapean and Deutchland adorned with gold and silver from Som Evaders, pinned back till the hump raises on their backs equal to the Camelias of Arabia. Look at our farms where a hundred years ago, notight was heard but the war whoop of the Digger and the wild screech of the Coyote, now blossoming and blooming with mustard and dog fennel. Look at our bankin institutions. There’s the Anti Roses Bank where every Squedunque can borrow all he wants, if he leaves two dollars in the place of every one he borries. Then there’s the Shavings Bank with millions in it saving up for the widders and orphins of deceased Squedunques, to be divided a hundred years from to-day. Then there’s Long Pillars’ Pharaoh bank that declares a divy every night, if you only copper the loser and go straight up on the winner. Ain’t that improvement?

Then look at our young bucks, gay fellers with kid gloves and high-toned mustaches–they are away up. They are all great and grand, but each one presents some splendid exemplification of some singular qualification. One, a perfect Dick Nailer, fascinates his lady love by simply stroking her hair until in ecstacy exclaims, “Oh, how sweet!” While the Spring Valley man contents himself with playing with cotton pads while his dulcina holds the reins in an afternoon ride. Ain’t that fastness? But, feller Squedunques, that is not the climax of our progress. Look at the great financial ability we display! A common weaver, without a loom, without any filling, without any warp, comes to our town, opens an ox-eyed-dental, wears a big bonanner and takes in the keenest and shrewdest mercadores of the town, even the Maccaroni and Crown Princes could not get away with him; even the great Southdown who for 20 years has been chief, and who saved him from the dungeon chains, and assisted him in escaping the wrath of his fellow dunks, cries out, “he [illegible line of microfilm]

Once more: Look at our great array of Policioners and County Deficients, who have entrusted us with their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors. Don’t they give up the jail keys valiantly and nobly; did they not a few weeks since with pistol and club arrest a powerful gang of marauders, put them in prison and save the life of an innocent criminal? Who cares for $1,500 reward?

Then look at our defences! Don’t we keep a cannon, always loaded full to the ‘nuzzle, parading our streets from rosy morn to dewy eve, guarding the destinies of all good and worthy gin slingers?

But this is not all, old bums! Look at our broad gouge railroads that President Don’t-know-who has built clean through our county and down among the switches and hazel brush to Stumpville, with only $300,000 and the right of way to help him. Look at our big brick depot, that we haven’t built yet nor never will. Look at our grand school houses for the edification of the hoodlums of generations yet unborn. Look at all these and say are we not mighty in ourmightiness? Then let the proud eagle squawk; let the great American Jack bray and proclaim in stentorian tones “Erin go unum, E pluribus Bragh.” Happy proud Squedunques the lightning of tarantula juice has yielded to your animosity, let not the temptations of mint juleps and sherrey cobblers seduces you from the paths of sobriety. Fare you well.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 8, 1876

Read More