Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas on the Frontier

By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn

It’s not every day that men are asked to check their spurs at the door before they can enter a party or social gathering. But for three nights every December in the small West Texas town of Anson, checking your spurs is a must-do if you want to gain admission to one of the region’s oldest and most celebrated festivities – the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.

The frontier dance, held in Anson as early as 1885, earned its title after New York poet Lawrence Chittenden visited Anson in the late 1880’s. Chittenden stayed at the Star Hotel which was the site for an annual Christmas dance held by hotel operator M.G. Rhodes in appreciation of the region’s ranchers and cowboys. Chittenden was inspired by the colorful scene and traditional dances to later write a poem: “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”

Anson’s Texas Western published Chittenden’s poem on June 19, 1890, after the Star Hotel was demolished in a fire. Though the dance was shelved for several years after the hotel fire and during Prohibition, its legacy was preserved by Chittenden’s poem, which slowly gained wider recognition. In 1893, it was published in the first volume of Ranch Verses, and also in the book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910.

More than 40 years after the Star Hotel was destroyed, local teacher Leonora Barrett revived the Christmas Ball and hosted a reenactment of the original dance in a high school gymnasium. In 1940, Pioneer Hall was constructed as a project under the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, and the dance has been hosted at Pioneer Hall ever since.

It wasn’t until 1946 that “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” was set to music by Gordon Graham, a cowboy folklorist from Colorado. He sang it at the 1946 ball and it became a tradition to have the ballad sung before the ball every year. Grammy-award-winning cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey, who recorded the song “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” in 1985, has sung the ballad at the dance nearly every year since 1993.

Today no detail is forgotten in the effort to reenact the 19th Century ball. The 22-member Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association, which sponsors the dance and owns Pioneer Hall, strives each year to create a setting that transports guests back to the frontier days from the moment they enter Pioneer Hall. Men bow and women curtsy. The hall is decorated with quilts and cedar boughs. Association members don matching outfits with the men in black vests and cowboy attire, and the women in Victorian blouses and taffeta skirts over hoop petticoats. There is a strict no-jeans policy for women, and men are still required to check their hats, spurs and guns at the door.

This year marks the 75th consecutive re-enactment of the original dance. From December 17-19, families will gather to dance, enjoy pot luck dinners, and socialize at Pioneer Hall. The ball is commenced each night with the traditional Grand March, led by a newlywed couple. There are seven approved original dances: the waltz, Paul Jones, Cotton-Eye Joe, polka, Virginia reel, Schottische, and square dance.

Thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of Anson men and women spanning more than a century, the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball is a unique Texas tradition that has been preserved with great detail and is sure to be enjoyed for years to come.

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