“Where lonesome, tawny prairies melt into airy streams, While the Double Mountains slumber, in heavenly kinds of dreams; Where the antelope is grazin’ and the lonely plovers call It was there that I attended ‘The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.’”
—William Lawrence Chittenden
If an authentic Old West experience suits your Christmas fancy, don’t step into the past. Dance. Just be ready to check you six-shooters at the door. That’s what William Lawrence Chittenden did in 1885. And his experience at the original Cowboys’ Christmas Ball at the Star Hotel in Anson, Texas—and subsequent poem of celebration—is the impetus for an event that this December will celebrate its 80th consecutive re-enactment.
Chittenden was born in New Jersey. He worked some as a New York newspaper reporter before heading west on a borrowed sum of $50. He worked as a dry goods salesman and as a journalist, sending stories of the West back to New York publications. When he first visited Anson, his family already owned land in Jones County. Eventually he went into the ranching business with his uncle, establishing a ranch northwest of Anson.
Today, as it was over 100 years ago, Anson is a little West Texas farming and ranching town near the Double Mountains—mentioned in Chittenden’s poem
The ball aroused Chittenden’s poetic tendencies, and he penned “Cowboys’ Christmas Ball,” which the Anson newspaper, the Texas Western, published in 1890—the same year the locally famous Star Hotel burned. In 1893, Chittenden included it in his Ranch Verses, a book that stayed in print through several editions. In 1904, Chittenden moved to Bermuda, never again to live in Anson. Later in his life, he moved back East, wintering in Christmas Cove, Maine, where he established a significant library of autographed books. Among them, these verses from his time dancin’ in Anson.
Where lonesome, tawny prairies melt into airy streams,
While the Double Mountains slumber, in heavenly kinds of dreams;
Where the antelope is grazin’ and the lonely plovers call
It was there that I attended ‘The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.’
Though gone in person, it was Chittenden’s poem-turned-ballad that preserved the memory of the quintessential 1885 ball and turned it into something of a legend.
Then, in 1934, amid America’s interest in all things rooted in the lives of the common man, Anson schoolteachers Lenora Barrett and Hybernia Grace began making plans for a folk dance festival when they heard of Chittenden’s death, inspiring the ladies to revive the long-lapsed Cowboys’ Christmas Ball. The economy was down. The event lifted spirits. Some original guests attended, including some named in the poem. They kept coming.
“A very interesting character the last night was Windy Billy from Stanton, who did the calling in Chittenden’s ballad,” wrote Barrett in her 1938 account of the Christmas Ball. “T-Diamond, W. J. Bryan of Abilene, is a regular attendant. His name is in Chittenden’s ballad.”
As the 1930s drew to a close, even with war clouds building like a distant thunderstorm, Anson saw the completion of Pioneer Hall, built of native stone, 1938–1940, by the Work Projects Administration. The hall, 71 by 121 feet, gave the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball a permanent venue.
Also in 1940, painter Jenne Magafan’s mural went into place in the lobby of Anson’s new post office. High on the east wall, her dancers still swirl across a plank floor, enforcing the town’s connection to its legendary past.
By 1941, World War II was casting a shadow over the future of the ball. Organizers worried attendance would drop.
“On account of tire and gasoline rationing, some faces are missing this year,” Barrett wrote in 1942.
But the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball proved to be perfect entertainment for soldiers stationed at Camp Barkley in nearby Abilene, less than 30 miles away. The visiting soldiers hailed from all over the country, boosting attendance and translating into widespread fame for the Ball. Many must have carried their memories to distant lands and then home again.
The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was firmly established, destined to keep happening through war and peace, hard times and prosperity. Today, Anson and the ball are tied straight together by colorful history with a taut lariat rope. The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball is for real. It belongs to Anson, and they’re not letting go.
Children grow up with the event, living the tradition. Their earliest memories may include “dancing” at the Christmas Ball, held in mother’s arms. Some girls surely never forget gliding across the polished floor of old Pioneer Hall with their feet atop their dancing fathers’ boots.
By the time they’re teenagers, they’re old enough to work the checkroom at the entrance, where one sign reads “Gents, check your six guns.” Another says “Positively no drinking allowed.”
The “no drinking” rule is no joke. (Neither is the one regarding firearms.) Alcohol isn’t allowed at the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.
Other rules also maintain the tone and authenticity of the event—no hats for the gents on the dance floor, no spurs, long skirts or dresses for the women, no split skirts. Period 19th century attire is preferred: the fancier, the better.
Even Michael Martin Murphey, headline cowboy singer for the event for the last two decades, leaves his fine hat behind when he steps off the low stage to take his wife, Karen, for a spin on the hardwood while his Rio Grande Band plays on.
Any lady who happens to arrive improperly attired is offered a choice of skirts from the Pioneer Hall collections of loaners, the way some fancy restaurants offer loaner neckties. Not even the occasional outsider female photographer in jeans is allowed to break the rules.
Suanne Holtman, secretary-historian of the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association, believes the rules keep the event true to its past.
“That’s the way you have to carry it on with these young ones or nobody is going to keep it the way it has to be,” Holtman said.
The ball is a three-night affair. Whether it’s Murphey’s night to play or the house band, Muddy Creek, takes over, protocol prevails. Every evening opens to a Grand March. Attendees link arms in a convivial procession that moves to “The Eyes of Texas.”
The original Cowboys’ Christmas Ball honored a cowboy and his new bride; hence, the newest wed of the newlyweds always lead the Grand March. Everyone else falls in line as satins and taffetas swish and shine in the warm incandescent glow of the lights of Pioneer Hall.
“Home on the Range” comes next. As the music-makers play on, their playlists include traditional cowboy dances, some of the square dance variety with a caller. The Paul Jones, the Virginia Reel, the Cotton-Eye Joe and the Schottische are standards.
Whether sung by Michael Martin Murphey or recited by someone like the Muddy Creek’s Karen Shellnut, the many-versed text of Chittenden’s “Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” is part of the evening. The words remind everyone of that candlelit night of lively merriment back in 1885.
From the 1890s into the 20th century, cowboys sang the verse to a traditional tune around their campfires. Murphey himself recorded the ballad years before he started playing in Anson. It supports his belief that American cowboys have a special place in America’s observances of Christmas.
“The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball is the only authentically American tradition of Christmas,” Murphey said.
He admits he hasn’t always known the whole story and was caught off guard in mid-1993 when first invited to play in Anson. His response:
“You’re kidding me. It still exists? I’ve been putting on cowboy Christmas balls all around the country and never knew the real one still existed. I’ll be there with sleigh bells on.”
The rest is history. Murphey always takes part. The Ball has embraced him, happy to have a spokesman of his Grammy-winning renown.
“The man who made the ball famous came from New York City,” Murphey said, rightly crediting the so-called “poet-ranchman” Chittenden for being the first to secure the ball a place in history and cowboy literature.
If Murphey himself hadn’t long ago read Chittenden’s work, he might have scratched his head in hesitation as he looked for Anson, Texas, on the map when he got that first call to play. (Anson’s just north of Abilene, Texas.) Now he’s at home in Anson, if only for one night in December.
Murphey’s not the first person of national stature to discover Anson. In the 1930s and 1940s, amid a nationwide interest in folklore, guests at the Christmas Ball included musicologist John A. Lomax and cowboy folklorist Gordon Graham, who wrote his own tune for the ballad and performed it. Anson took the Christmas Ball on the road too, accepting invitations to the National Folk Festival two years in a row, traveling to Chicago in 1937 and Washington, D. C. in 1938.
Murphey, his own brand of folklorist, strongly believes cowboys and Christmas go together—more than some traditional pairings.
“What does a cowboy have to do with Christmas?” he asks. “As much as a nutcracker.”
Nutcrackers and such belong in the category of Christmas traditions borrowed from Europe, particularly Victorian England, he points out.
Cowboys, by contrast, aren’t borrowed from somewhere else, and they’re a natural fit with Christmas.
“The first men to get the news were watching livestock in the field, even if they were sheep,” Murphey said, citing the Biblical account of the Savior’s birth.
The Anson event is a vibrant combination of Christmas and Americana, notable for being cowboy-centric.
“No other American folk icon is involved in any Christmas tradition,” Murphey said.
Murphey doesn’t make his sweeping statements lightly. He’s done some thinking and takes himself seriously.
“I live in places of solitude intentionally so I will have time to think,” he said. “I carry a little notebook.”
He’s studied a broad swath of history: Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, and Cowboy. Indeed, it was Murphey’s scholarly bent that prompted him to draw the attention of academics at Texas Tech University, in not-so-distant Lubbock, to the Cowboy’s Christmas Ball.
“We’ve got to preserve this somehow,” he told them. “Why don’t you guys come?”
He got their attention.
“I’ve never seen historians jaws drop open,” he said.
For the last few years, Tech’s Monte Montgomery, associate archivist, and Paul Carlson, author and emeritus professor of history, have become regulars at the Ball, taking pictures, dancing with their wives and gathering documents, photographs and other memorabilia for safekeeping in Texas Tech’s Southwest Collection. Texas Tech University Press just published Carlson’s latest book: Dancin’ in Anson: A History of the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.
The foreword, written by Murphey, includes these lines:
Whether read by lantern light in a horse camp or in an easy chair, you’ll enjoy this adventure into a genuine, nineteenth-century cowboy dance that now boasts an international reputation. In the folksy vernacular of cowpunchers captured by Larry Chittenden as he spoke of Windy Bill Wilkerson, the original dance-caller at the Ball: ‘Oh, Bill I won’t forget yer, and I’ll oftimes recall / that lively-gaited sworray—the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.’
Even though Carlson’s book and Monroe’s archives are key to documenting the history of the Ball made famous by Chittenden, it’s the inherent appeal of the occasion itself, that gives it a loyal following year after year.
But it took a place to make it so.
“We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us,” Winston Churchill said in 1943. He spoke in the context of a war-torn England, wishing to see a restoration of the House of Commons.
Even though Pioneer Hall isn’t a restoration of the long-vanished Star Hotel, its built-in rusticity and name exude a sense of heritage and history, shaping generations of Anson residents, giving them a sense of place and ownership of a legacy.
The 2014 Cowboys’ Christmas Ball marked a special milestone, a diamond jubilee of sorts. It’s the 75th year that folks will make the Grand March in Pioneer Hall. The old building has become part and parcel of the ball.
Wood predominates inside, from the hardwood floor, laid on the diagonal, to the exposed beams and cross-timbers overhead. Horizontally grooved medium-dark wood veneer walls lend an ambience of the log cabin variety, if on a grander scale. Old-style solid wooden bleachers offer rows of seating along one side. Like a dais at the end of a great hall, a stage elevates the musicians over the dancers, giving each a view of the other.
Through the years, the building has acquired not only the patina of time but also roof leaks and other problems that come with age. Waxing the floor is as much a tradition as the dance—not just to keep the surface up to dancers’ standards but also to help protect the wood from moisture damage.
“The first Saturday after Thanksgiving we wax the floor,” Holtman said, and volunteers are always welcome.
In the spirit of all things Chittenden, Holtman and her decorating crew make sure all holiday embellishments match the intrinsic historical ambience of Pioneer Hall. They take their cues from his poem, hanging native mistletoe and mountain cedar and draping shawls in the north windows and blankets from the beams.
The room was togged out gorgeous—with mistletoe and shawls,
And candles flickered frescoes, around the airy walls.
The candles are left to history, making Pioneer Hall less likely to suffer the eventual fate of the Star Hotel.
But other salient elements of Chittenden’s poem—describing the ball in such a natural vernacular that cowboys didn’t realize it didn’t come from one of their own—are carried out both by the setting and the ways the evening unfolds.
The interesting twist, of course, is how a wandering man of the world—through his words—created an event with unrivaled permanence in the West.
Would the romantic poet be surprised to know the event is still a Christmas tradition in Anson? Perhaps not. He recognized the magic of the evening long ago.