Christmas Under the Six Flags of Texas

The oldest holiday celebrated in Texas is Christmas.   As Texas grew under the six flags each nation brought their own customs and traditions for celebrating Christmas. You would be hard pressed to name another holiday that enjoys as many traditions as Christmas. With the season upon us again it’s only fitting to look at some of these customs, where they come from and who was responsible for them.

.Christmas in Texas

Spain 1519-1685: The Spaniards came to Texas in 1519 and brought Catholicism and Christmas with them. The first indication of a celebration by the Spaniards came in 1599. They held a Christmas pageant near present day El Paso. It included roles for men and women and some of the local Indians. It is believed that the tradition of the piñata dates back to this period. The paper mache figure is filled with candy and small toys. A blindfolded player tries to break the piñata with a stick so that the treasures spill out. This sweet-filled tradition continues to this day.

France 1685-1690: Although France ruled Texas for only five years, it left its mark on Texas’ Christmas traditions. Also strongly rooted in the Catholic religion, the French brought the celebration of Epiphany into the holiday. Epiphany was also known as the Twelfth Day. It takes place the twelfth day after Christmas (January 6th) and is symbolic of the time the Three Wise Men bestowed their gifts on the baby Jesus. Although France ruled a short time, the heaviest French influence would come about 150 years later during the Texas Republic period. The French opened the French Legation in Austin for their diplomats. Christmas as it was in 1841 is celebrated there each year with traditional dress and customs. The French version of Santa Claus, Pere Noel, always makes an appearance.

The French also liked Christmas trees. The early Texans would decorate them with assorted cookies. It is thought they were to symbolize communion wafers. If Christmas was being celebrated, you could count on seeing a “crèche” nearby. That is the French version of the Nativity scene. How can you mention the French and not mention food?   During the yuletide season they would bake a chocolate cake and then roll it up to look like a Yule Log.

 

Spain 1690-1821: For the next 131 years Spain ruled Texas. It was during this period that all the great missions were built. The priest worked tirelessly to convert the Native Americans to Catholicism. It was common for the priest to put on pageants, festivals and great feast at Christmas to show the Indians to benefits of the church. San Antonio seemed to be particularly active in this regard. About 1731, a group of settlers came to the town from the Canary Islands. They brought a custom they called, “Las Posadas”. It means “The Inns”. The custom plays itself out as a group of families go from house to house singing Christmas carols. At each house they get turned away until, finally, they are invited in and pray at a nacimiento—the Spanish Nativity scene. Shortly afterward, a party breaks out.

At about the same time America was declaring it’s independence from England, another tradition took root, again, in San Antonio. A play called “Los Pastores” (The Shepards) was performed. It is still performed each year at the Mission San Jose where it was first performed in the 16th century. This play portrays the story of the shepards as they try to make their way to Bethlehem.

Another custom that grew out of the 1700’s was the Spanish “luminaries”. The Spanish Texans would light a series of small bonfires. It is thought that they would symbolize the fires the shepards would build each evening of their journey—some even suggest that it could allude to following the light of the North Star. With the influx of more Americans into Texas, paper bags came into use. This is where the custom of burning a candle inside the sand filled bag came into vogue. It is still a popular custom to this day.

 

Mexico   1821-1836: By 1821, Mexico had won its revolution from Spain and in so doing, became the ruler of Texas. Because of its rich and deep heritage with the Catholic Church, it became law that no Protestant Churches could be started in Texas. Almost all of the new settlers from the United States were protestant. Conflict was inevitable. To get around the law, one man went so far as go up to Illinois, form a protestant church there and moved it to near present day Bastrop. In 1834, they held the first legal Protestant Christmas celebration in Texas.

Another Christmas symbol you’ll recognize comes from this time period. The American government had its eye on Texas for some time. It sent Joel Poinsett to Mexico with the purpose of purchasing Texas for the United States. Why not? Jefferson got a deal on the Louisiana Purchase. While in Mexico he saw flowers that the Mexicans called “The Flower of Christmas Eve”. He took some home with him. Before long Poinsettias became popular plants that are synonymous with Christmas.

These were hard times for the settlers that continued to stream into the future republic. These for the most part were not rich people. They did all they could do to coax a subsistence living off the land, cattle or tiny retail establishments. There were not many luxuries. It would be a good Christmas if they could find eggnog or even fresh milk.

The Mexicans would enjoy a Christmas meal, which included tamales. Tamales have become a tradition especially in Texas and the southwest. The cornhusk-covered delight is covering more geography each year. This is also the time when the Midnight Mass became popular.

 

Republic of Texas   1836-1845: Up until the Republic of Texas was established, Christmas was really focused around the church. Once Texas became a nation, it was no longer illegal for Protestants to form churches and celebrate to their own liking. This is when more activities away from the church began to surface. Balls, dances, hops and square dances were held wherever people gathered. For the most part the people were poor and could not afford much in the way of gifts.

While the Republic of Texas took root, people of various ethnic backgrounds where moving in—bringing their homegrown customs with them. There were the Germans, the Czechs, Irish, Scotts, Poles and others—all adding to the tapestry of Texas. Although the French used Christmas trees in their observance of the holiday, it was the Germans that held the Christmas tree very close to their hearts. Although the earliest use of “Christmas trees” goes back to the Druids of England (who did not celebrate Christmas), the Germanic people somehow came up with a connection between the “Tree of Knowledge” in the Garden of Eden and apple trees. Since apple trees are bare during the winter, they used evergreens and put apples on them for decorations—later it would be roses—eventually, decorations of various types would be used. These trees were often placed on the table. The floor to ceiling jobs were strictly an American custom.

Ironically, the first artificial trees came from Germany too.

Gifts given during this time were usually quite practical—scarves, socks and other homemade toys or crafts. The United States received a gift during the season of 1845. The Lone Star became the 28th star on the flag of an ever-expanding nation.

 

Antebellum Texas   1845-1861: The period of statehood between it’s joining the union and the Civil War is known as the Antebellum period of Texas. It was during this period when Santa Claus first appears in Texas. The real St. Nicolas lived in Turkey during the 4th century. He is reported to have died on December 6th. This is the date that many Czech and Polish Texans celebrate his day. Most Americans today got their first real look at the jolly old elf through Clement Moore’s famous 1822 poem, “A Visit From St.Nicolas”. You probably know it better as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. In the poem he had eight tiny reindeer. Rudolph, a strictly commercial addition, would not show up for about 120 years. By mid the 1800’s, stockings were hung with care on fireplaces all across Texas (and America for that matter). By now, people of all ethnic backgrounds were observing many culturally diverse traditions like Yule Logs, popcorn strands, wassail punch, mistletoe, and general revelry. The holidays would take on a different light over the next five years as Texas became part of the Confederate States of America.

 

Confederate Texas   1861-1865: These were extremely tough times in Texas. Constant shortages made gift giving and eating, at times, challenging. People out of necessity had to be self-sufficient. Many resorted to making their own shoes and clothes. They would send what little they could to their family members off fighting the war with little guarantee they would ever receive the packages. Wars end however; the Civil War was no exception.

 

United States   1865-Present: The Reconstruction period right after the war was particularly harsh. Most southerners felt they were being punished for the war. Shortages continued as the people tried to reestablish their lives. In time, things did get better and Texas began to flourish. Christmas cards, an English invention, caught on—a tradition we joyfully continue to this day. Christmas seals first appeared in 1907. The world famous fruitcake came from a bakery in Corsicana in 1896. It was a German recipe and it’s still being made there today. Texans now celebrate the holiday according to their own customs and desires.

If you would like to find out more how Christmas was celebrated under the six flags, you might consider reading, “Texas Christmas As Celebrated Under the Six Flags” by Elizabeth Dearing Morgan.

I  hope you have a wonderfully joyous holiday season. However you choose to celebrate, may it be all you hope for. Remember the reason for the season and keep Christ in Christmas.   Merry Christmas from our home to your home.

 

 

 

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An Improbable Day That Created a Country

178 years ago today Texas was born. I thought I would share an article I wrote a few years ago for a magazine. I have updated it to reflect today. I love history, I am passionate about Texas. I cannot think of a more improbable set of circumstances that led to such an extraordinary event. Enjoy.

Against All Odds

It’s April again. In Texas that means bluebonnets and San Jacinto Day. Today is the 178th anniversary of that momentous event. The Battle of San Jacinto is one of those stories that almost sounds made up. It is an improbable chain of events that resulted in the birth of a nation.

There are many fine accounts and histories of that event. There are plenty of sources in the library or bookstore that will tell you anything you want to know about this decisive battle. My purpose here is getting you to reflect a moment on how fortunate we are as Texans. At face value, Sam Houston didn’t have a chance of winning this battle. Think about it.

In the 51 days between the battle at the Alamo and the confrontation at San Jacinto, an interesting set of circumstances began working toward an unlikely climax. After his crushing victory at the Alamo, Santa Anna set his sights on handing Sam Houston and his ragtag army the same fate. As Santa Anna moved north to catch Houston, fear and panic spread throughout the general population. Men, women and children were picking up everything they could carry and leaving their homes to stay one step of the invading Mexican army. This was known as the ‘Runaway Scrape.’ The Texas government abandoned Washington-0n-the-Brazos and made their way to Galveston.

Sam Houston and his army appeared to be on the run. Houston was at times accused of being a coward because he wouldn’t stop and take Santa Anna head on. President Burnet was about to bust a vein over his frustration with Houston’s apparent refusal to fight. Houston managed to keep Santa Anna at arm’s length—never directly engaging the main force. Santa Anna made some tactical mistakes. He split up his forces into several smaller units each going to other places. One force was under General José de Urrea, who defeated the Texan force near Goliad on March 27th, Palm Sunday. Santa Anna ordered the captured men put to death, resulting in the executing almost 350 Texans. Only 28 men survived the massacre, three of whom would later fight at San Jacinto.

Sam Houston was dumb like a fox. He knew his army only had one battle in it. He could not afford to go head to head with the self proclaimed ‘Napoleon of the West.’ He had to maneuver Santa Anna into a position of weakness. The situation presented itself at San Jacinto. First analysis would indicate the Mexican general had the high ground—but it prevented a clear view of the prairie between himself and the Texas army. Both armies were in place on April 20th. Houston was outnumbered by almost two to one. Houston himself said his army numbered about 750. Other accounts say 900. It’s widely recognized that Santa Anna had 1,400.

What is amazing is that Santa Anna knew that Houston was just 1,000 yards away but never figured on the possibility that Houston might attack HIM. Santa Ana had already made up his mind to finish Houston’s army off on April 22nd. Houston was familiar with the Mexican custom of the siesta—the mid afternoon nap time. After discussing his battle plan in the morning with his council, he found most wanted to wait for Santa Anna’s attack. Houston had another idea. Houston ordered the burning of Vince’s bridge. It was the only means of escape for both armies. The question of Texas and the Texas revolution was going to be settled once and for all on the battlefield of San Jacinto.

It would appear that Santa Ana was so confident or arrogant that he didn’t order the posting of sentries. As a result, when the Texas army crossed the open field about 4:30 in the afternoon, they were able to get within a few yards of the Mexican army before they opened fire. They caught the Mexican army by surprise during their siesta. To the cries of “Remember the Alamo and Remember Goliad,” the Texas army cut a swath through the Mexican ranks. Chaos and confusion ruled the hour. The carnage was overwhelming. Over 650 Mexicans were killed or drowned as they tried to escape through the surrounding marsh. The actual battle lasted for 17 minutes, although the killing went on long after that. Only nine Texans died as a result their injuries.

In the end, Santa  Anna was captured, signed the Treaties of Velasco, in which he agreed to withdraw his troops from Texan soil and, in exchange for safe conduct back to Mexico. He agreed to lobby for the recognition of Texas in the Mexican government. He would renege on the agreements. Mexico never did officially recognize the Republic of Texas.

The Republic of Texas would not have happened without some remarkable and improbable circumstances coming together at a precise moment in time. What if Houston had been forced to go up against the Mexican army before he wanted to? What if he had decided to go and support the Alamo? What if the Mexicans had posted the sentries at San Jacinto? The fact remains; some remarkable, courageous men made a charge against all odds and created a nation. Texas was forged out of a steely resolve—a trait that exist in Texans to this day. For that we should forever be grateful. Texas Forever!

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Ah, Texas.

As we celebrate what my friend, LeeRoy Garrett, calls “The High Holy Days of Texas” it is a time to reflect on Texas and what it means to each of us.  I was asked recently why Texans have so much pride in their state. The short answer is “Read my book, Texas in Her Own Words and you’ll understand.” Frankly, I wanted to know the answer to that question too. That’s why I researched and wrote the book. I have always felt that Texans were different. I believe they have an extra gene. I called it the “T-Chromosome” and I set out to find it. After crisscrossing this state several times I can tell you, I found it and I can give you some definitive answers and here they are.
When you get right down to it Texans share at least four distinct traits no matter where they live in the Lone Star State. The source of that pride comes from four distinctly different entities. First and most prevalent is the fact that Texas was once its own country. No other state can legitimately make that claim and make it stick. Hawaii was once a constitutional monarchy that was annexed (under rather dubious circumstances) turned into a territory and later a state. There was the “Bear Republic” in California. C’mon that lasted for about a cup of coffee. Texas was a Republic that lasted almost ten years and was recognized as a nation by England & France. The fact that Texas was once its own country is a huge part of a Texan’s identity. It’s who they are. If a native Texans doesn’t think you know that; you will only have to wait for six or eight minutes before you WILL be duly informed. Again, it is an intrinsic part of their being.
The next two traits are very closely related. The second trait is the Texas education system. Texas is one of the few states where the state history is so heavy mandated by the public school system. It is the law in Texas. Children will get Texas History in the fourth grade, again in the seventh grade and some school districts elect to teach it in the 11th grade. You will not graduate from a state college without a semester of Texas Government and you will not teach in Texas until you have taken that course. The third trait that relates to that comes from within your own families.
If your family’s Texas roots go back two, three, five, seven generations; whatever, it is a no-brainer. Children grow up hearing these stories from within their own families. They heard the stories about their great, great uncle (fill in the blank) who (fill in the blank). They realize and learn that someone in their family helped make Texas, Texas. They grow up with this intense and internal pride. It is a natural process. These young people grow up knowing they are part of something special…not that they are better but they do know that somehow, they are different. It’s like they’ve been cut out of a different herd.
Finally, all Texans share the Alamo. Texans admire and respect that place and what those men did who died there. What happened there is not unique in history. In fact, people have fought to the death in virtually generation ever since man started to record history. What is unique here is that a country was forged out if it. This is where that rugged individualism comes from. Texans to this day admire people for standing up for what they believe in…even in the face of insurmountable odds. They know they might get knocked on their asses but they don’t care. If they fail, they’re just going to stand up and dust themselves off and say, “Well hell, THAT didn’t work. Now HOW do we make this happen?” Did you catch that? They ask, “HOW do we make it happen.” One thing about Texans…they are HOW thinkers…not IF thinkers. If never enters into the equation. That goes to the very source of the Texas character. It explains why they are the way they are where all that attitude comes from.

For them, NO is NOT an option. As a result of that the cattle industry was started and blossomed here. The oil industry started here and when Texas discovered oil it changed the world. The first computer chip was invented in Texas. Not one of these things were accomplished by accepting the concept of NO.
For sure Texas can be polarizing but I can tell you why. Most of the people in other states do not carry such an intense pride of where they are from. They just don’t understand how anyone can feel that good about where they are from or where they live. Every state has its pride and it should wherever you’re from—whether it’s Hawaii, Vermont or even little Rhode Island.
No other state displays its pride like Texas. I drove from Texas to Maine a few years ago. Once I left Texas, the only time I saw a state flag it was in front of a state building or on the side of a government vehicle or a police car. Here you will find the flag on cars, mailboxes, marquees, barns, roofs and the list goes on. I often close my Texas speeches by admonishing people, “If you don’t believe Texas is special…name me any other state where you can find tortilla chips, ice cubes, sinks, swimming pools or even a waffle iron shaped like THEIR state.” Perhaps my friend Roger Moore said it best, “There are ex-husbands and ex-wives. There are ex-ball players. There are NO ex-Texans.”
Texas is about Pride & People. It is a place where people still believe in God and Friday night football IS a religion. Ask any Texan where you find it and they won’t need a map. It is at the intersection of their heart & soul.

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“Pop”

Father’s Day is here again. It is a time I reflect on the memories of the man I knew as my dad. He was my step dad but he was my father in almost every sense of the word. My mom passed 15 years ago. “Pop” passed 4 years later. I miss him a lot. I gave the eulogy at his memorial service. This is that eulogy. I can think of no better way to honor him this day.

Hal Oldham

Everyday in America, we lose 1500 World War II veterans. On November 14th, another one quietly passed.

Harold B. “Pop” Oldham was 77 years old. He was a remarkable man. He was my Dad. I’ve been told—any man can be a father but it takes someone special to be a daddy. He was special—not only to me but also to everyone who knew him.

It’s still fuzzy to me as to when I first met him but what is still crystal clear to me is what he meant to me. Pop could not have entered my life at a better time. I was 14 or 15—an age when there were just some things a boy cannot talk to his mother about.

 My mother loved me. I knew that. But there were gaps in our communication with each other at times. Hal always knew what I needed. I needed a man to take an interest in me—to help me sort out growing up. He was there. The evening dinner in the big gray house on Lincoln Street was always special to me. We would always have candles burning and soft music in the background. It was Pop’s idea—a touch of class. When dinner was over and the table cleared, Pop and I would have long conversations about politics, the stock market, current affairs and the Vietnam War.

He taught me how to think for myself—to believe in myself—to have self-confidence. That was his gift to me. The day after high school, I left for the Navy. He and mom tried to do the same thing for 127 other kids. They turned their home into a refuge for kids who were not as fortunate as me. Over those 30 years I gained brothers and a sister. Mom & Pop never really had the proverbial pot—because they gave everything for the kids. They may have lacked money but they never ran out of love for the kids. It was tough love at times but we’ll all tell you they made a difference in each of our lives.

I recently spent 11 days with him at the Franklin Hospital at the end of September and the first few days of October. The diagnosis was in and it was terminal. Over those 11 days we had some remarkable conversations. We talked a lot about Mom and what she meant to him and how much we both loved her. He would vacillate between reflecting on the past and his limited future. He spoke of the things he never did and knew he would never do. It was surrealistic at times. We laughed. We cried. We made plans.

I cannot tell you how many times he tried to apologize for not being able to do more for me when I was growing up. I told him, “Dad, your job and Mom’s job was to raise me to become a good person. You’ve done that. You owe me no debt. It’s the other way around. Thank you for all that you have done for me.”

 Pop loved all the kids and grand kids. He loved Briana. She was Mom and Pop’s great project. As his life was drawing to an end, he remained deeply concerned about her. He said he was sorry that he couldn’t be here to watch her grow up but expressed great hope for her future. To him she was his grand child every bit as much as Whitney & Tyler, Cynthia or Ian.

 

Dad’s other major concern was for his best friend at the Veteran’s Home, David. Pop called him “Mother” because he was always looking after Pop. At one point, he broke down into tears because he didn’t know what David would do when he died. Here he was facing the end of his own life and yet, he was still concerned about others.

You couldn’t question his work ethic. He worked hard his entire life. He learned how to cook as a young boy. He cooked for the family as he grew up. Through that experience, he became a chef. The places he worked in the Lakes Region reads like a Who’s Who of 4 and 5 star cuisine of the Lakes Region—King’s Grant Inn, Playhouse Inn, St. Pierre’s, 18 years at the Lakes Region General Hospital and finally, Ames Farm. He made a lot of money for other people. Most people in town never knew his name but they certainly enjoyed what he put on their table.

  Hal was a patriot. He loved this country. He marched in every Memorial Day parade he could until he lost the use of his legs then he would ride on a Veteran’s float. He was a mover and shaker in both the VFW and American Legion. He believed that his fellow veteran’s deserved a fair shake—a point that often put him at odds with the powers that be at the Veteran’s Home. He just wanted to be sure that his fellow veterans got the respect that they deserved.

Most of you knew Pop. As complicated as he might have seemed at times, he really wasn’t. For Hal the world was black & white—there where no gray areas. He was blunt and to the point. He would call an ace an ace. Often that would hurt some feelings. I don’t think he really intended to do that—it just sort of worked out that way sometimes. 

He could be absolutely hard headed. Make no mistake; he was a man of his own mind. He was also genuinely funny. He brought tears of joy and laughter to all of us. Pop and I were always scamming mom. We once busted her. She had severely sprained the ring and little fingers of her left hand. Her wrist was in a cast with two protruding splints that got in her way. So she kept working on them until she was able to pull them out.  She would pop them back in just in time for Pop to come home from work. One day she forgot to put them back in. Pop found them on the kitchen counter. He was not a happy camper. He told me to get a hammer and a nail. I had no idea why. Pop climbed up on the chair and nailed the splints to the top of the living room doorframe. They looked like two crossed skis. Before long, Mom realized that she didn’t have the splints in the cast. Now she couldn’t find them. She was trying to be cool but I could tell she was panicking. Pop let her sweat. After some time, Hal pointed to the doorway. Pop and I broke out laughing. Mom didn’t. I can’t say what she said here but I trust you have a good imagination.

When I was growing up, he often said to me, “When I die—bury me in Chicago.” 

“Why?”, I asked. 

“Because I want to continue to vote.”

 I always laughed at that. But a couple of years ago, he told me that when he died he really wanted to be taken out to sea. He entrusted me with that honor. As his son, I am proud to fulfill his request.  

It has been a privilege to be his son. He always called me ‘Son #1’. I was proud of that. Still am. A friend asked me to tell him about my Dad. All I could tell him was, “He was always good to me…and he loved my mother. Nothing else matters.”

This night is the last time we will be this close to him. Soon he will be taken aboard the USS Rentz, an active duty naval vessel in San Diego. The ship will take him on one final cruise. He told me several times that he spent some of his happiest days aboard ship. They will escort him to his final resting place in the Pacific where he served a thankful nation in WWII.

Pop, thank you for your service, your friendship, for sharing your life with us. Most of all thank you for all the love. You will be missed.

Everyday in America, we lose 1500 World War II veterans. Tonight, we say farewell to just one.

Harold B. “Pop” Oldham, Chef, Husband, Father, Grandfather, Friend and Patriot–Permission to come aboard. Your orders for your final cruise have been granted. 

Carry on sailor. You are dismissed.

 

 

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Remember the Alamo!

Today we celebrate and honor the lives of true heroes who gave the most precious gift of all; their lives. 176 years ago this day, nearly 200 men fought to the death on the walls of a broken down old mission in San Antonio. Their sacrifice was instrumental to the birth of the Republic of Texas.
As I state in Texas in Her Own Words, “If there is a common house of worship in Texas, it is, without a doubt, the remains of a broken down, old mission in San Antonio. It is the most cherished piece of ground in all of Texas. The Alamo is the shrine all Texans accept as the symbol of their hard won independence. The Alamo is the crucible of Texas liberty. It is a very real part of a Texan’s psyche. Texans quickly speak of the sacrifice that took place there followed by the unquestioned appreciation they have for the price paid. They may not dwell on it long but they certainly recognize its value to Texas’ heritage and the role it played in the very existence of Texas. It is a personal place for them even if they have never been there.” It symbolizes everything great about Texas in the minds of many people.
Won’t you join me in giving a prayer of thanks & gratitude for their sacrifice? I want to thank them for all they endured during those 13 relentless days. Their sacrifice made it possible for each of us to live in this wonderful place called Texas; a place we proudly called HOME.

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Speaking of Food: Is It Chili In Here?

   When you live in Texas, you eat your share of Mexican food–more commonly referred to as Tex-Mex. The phrase Tex-Mex didn’t appear in print until the 1940’s. The term is a combination of the words “Texan” and “Mexican.” It’s thought to be an adaptation of Mexican peasant food with Texas farm and cowboy influences but it really is broader than that. Definitions quickly blur. The cuisine, once considered a regional phenomenon, is now found throughout the world. One of the more interesting things about Tex-Mex is how much of it is not Mexican at all. Before you bite into that burrito, have you ever thought about the origins of many of your Tex-Mex favorites?

 

  Chili, the official State Dish since 1997, goes back to the Aztecs and Mayan cultures. They made beans served in a spicy tomato sauce. The “con carne” (with meat) appears to be a Texan additive. Chili con carne is believed to have been invented in San Antonio shortly after the civil war but grew in popularity with the development of chili powder in New Braunfels in 1902. There was a “San Antonio Chili Stand” at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. 

 

  The first printed references to enchiladas in America came in 1885. Described as a tortilla stuffed with various fillings of meat, cheese, chili sauce, chorizo sausage, and other ingredients, it was considered to be “a Mexican dish prepared more for turista [tourists] than for local consumption. The dish is now a staple of Mexican-American restaurants.” This is according to John Mariani the author of Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink.

 

  For many Texans, the most common and popular taste pleaser is the everyday taco. Taco is the Mexican-Spanish word for “wad” or “plug,” referring to a light meal or snack. In Mexico the taco refers to a stuffed and folded tortilla but across the border a taco is a crisp fried tortilla shaped into a U and filled with various stuffings. Arguably, the most famous tacos in America are found at Taco Bell, started in Downey, California by Glen Bell in 1962.

 

  Tamales have a long and illustrious history. Mexican rulers were eating Tamales long before the Spaniards appeared on the horizon. The American Heritage Cookbook from 1964 says, “It is said that tamales saved Hernando Cortes and his men from starvation in Mexico. When the Aztecs realized that the Spanish soldiers were not (as had been thought) high priests from Quetzalcoatl, the god of plenty, they stopped giving the invaders food. Cortes; however, had won the love of a woman named Malinche and told her he would have to leave if his men could not obtain food. Malinche told Cortes to storm the gates of the city on a certain evening. He did, and Malinche led a group of friends who bombarded the Spaniards with tamales.”

 

  Tamales are often prepared for special occasions. You’ll find them as part of any Christmas and All Saints Day celebrations. For many families, making the tamales is a deeply felt tradition where each member of the family has their particular place in the assembly line process.

 

  The food that has always mystified me is refried beans. For the longest, I couldn’t figure why you would refry beans if you didn’t get it right the first time. I’m not alone in the confusion. The term “refried” is actually a mistranslation from the Mexican “frijoles refritos,” which means “well-fried beans,” a distinction first mentioned in Erna Fergusson’s Mexican Cookbook (1934), but “refried” has remained in common parlance with regard to this dish.” Well, if at first you don’t succeed.

 

  What do you call a Tex-Mex dish without salsa?  Bland! The origins of salsa can be traced directly back to the Ancient Aztecs, Mayans and Incas. In his book, Foods America Gave the World, A. Hyatt Verrill says, “Long centuries before Columbus landed on the shores of the New World, the tomato and the peppers had spread from the land of the Incas to Central America and Mexico where they were cultivated by the Mayas. The Aztecs who called the tomato “tomatl,” which the Spaniards under Cortez corrupted to the name by which the fruit is known to us today.

 

  They believed salsa held medicinal value as well. “The Spanish first encountered the tomato after their conquest of Mexico in 1519-1521. Sahagun was the first European to make written note of “tomates.” He claimed Aztec lords combined them with chile peppers and ground squash seeds and consumed them mainly as a condiment served on turkey, venison, lobster, and fish. This combination was subsequently called “salsa” by Alonso de Molina in 1571.” That’s according to Andrew F. Smith in his book, Souper Tomatoes: The Story of America’s Favorite Food. Recently, I learned something surprising from Jim Ullrich, one of the owners of Anna’s Unlimited, the producers Ana’s Salsa. He says, salsa has now surpassed ketchup as the number one condiment in the United States. Salsa on fries? Ummm.

 

  Fajitas are anything but Mexican. Once again, John Mariani has an explanation. “The word derives from the Spanish faja, for “girdle” or “strip” and describes the cut of meat itself. There has been much conjecture as to the fajita’s origins, though none has been documented. Grilling skirt steak over mesquite coals would be characteristic of Texas cooking since the days when beef became a dominant meat in the American diet. But the word “fajita” did not appear in print until 1975. In 1984, Homero Recio, of Texas A & M, obtained a fellowship to study the origins of the item. He concluded two years later, ironically, it was his grandfather, a butcher from Premont, Texas, who may have been the first to use the term “fajita” to describe the pieces of skirt steak cooked directly on mesquite coals for family dinners as far back as the 1930s. Recio also hypothesized that the first restaurant to serve fajitas–though under the name “botanzas” (appetizers)–was the Roundup in McAllen, Texas. But Sonny “Fajita King” Falcon claimed to have opened the first “fajita stand” in Kyle, Texas, and in 1978 a “Fajita King” stand in Austin. The popularity of the dish certainly grew after Ninfa Laurenza introduced it on her menu at Ninfa’s Restaurant in Houston Texas, on July 13, 1973. It was under the name “tacos al carbon,” The item flourished as a “fajita” after it was featured at the Austin Hyatt Regency Hotel, which by 1982 was selling thirteen thousand orders per month.”

 

  The proliferation of Tex-Mex cuisine is undeniable. It’s everywhere. This is good. Now you don’t have to travel very far to get your fix. The only problem now is deciding which restaurant is first? With as many Mexican food eateries available in Texas, you could go to a different Tex-Mex place for every meal of the day and not get to all of them in a year, maybe ten. Speaking of which, I feel a taco salad with a little guacamole on the side coming on. Pass the salsa por favor. Adios.

 

 

  

 

 

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Christmas Under the Six Flags of Texas

Christmas is upon us once again. Each family has their own family traditions as it should be. Have you ever thought why we celebrate Christmas the way we do here in Texas?  I’d like to share with you how each of  the six flags over Texas had an influence on how we celebrate the holiday.

Christmas Under the Six Flags Over Texas

 The oldest holiday celebrated in Texas is Christmas. As Texas grew under the six flags each nation brought their own customs and traditions for celebrating Christmas. You would be hard pressed to name another holiday that enjoys as many traditions as Christmas. With the season upon us once again it’s only fitting to look at some of these customs, where they come from and who was responsible for them.

Spain 1519-1685:  The Spaniards came to Texas in 1519 and brought Catholicism and Christmas with them. The first indication of a celebration by the Spaniards came in 1599. They held a Christmas pageant near present day El Paso. It included roles for men and women and some of the local Indians. It is believed that the tradition of the piñata dates back to this period. The paper mache figure is filled with candy and small toys. A blindfolded player tries to break the piñata with a stick so that the treasures spill out. This exciting tradition continues to this day.

France 1685-1690:  Although France ruled Texas for a short five years it left its mark on Texas Christmas traditions. Also strongly rooted in the Catholic religion, the French brought the celebration of Epiphany into the holiday. Epiphany was also known as the Twelfth Day. It takes place the twelfth day after Christmas (January 6th) and is symbolic of the time the Three Wise Men bestowed their gifts on the baby Jesus. Although France only ruled for five years, the heaviest French influence would come about 150 years later during the Texas republic period. The French opened the French Legation in Austin for their diplomats. Christmas, as it was in 1841, is celebrated there each year with traditional dress and customs. The French version of Santa Claus, Pere Noel, always makes an appearance.

The French also liked Christmas trees. The early Texans would decorate them with assorted cookies. It is thought they were to symbolize communion wafers. If Christmas was being celebrated, you can count on seeing a crèche nearby.  That is the French version of the nativity scene. How can you mention the French and not mention food? During the yuletide season they would bake a chocolate cake and then roll it up to look like a Yule Log.

Spain 1690-1821:  For the next 131 years Spain ruled Texas. It was during this period that all the great missions were built. The priest worked tirelessly to convert the Native Americans to Catholicism. It was common for the priest to put on pageants, festivals and great feast at Christmas to show the Indians the benefits of the church. San Antonio seemed to be particularly active in this regard. About 1731, a group of settlers came to the town from the Canary Islands. They brought a custom they called, “Las Posadas”. It means “The Inns”. The custom plays itself out as a group of families go from house to house singing Christmas carols. At each house they get turned away until, finally, they are invited in to pray at a nacimiento—the Spanish Nativity scene. Shortly afterward, a party breaks out.

At about the same time America was declaring its independence from England, another tradition took root, again, in San Antonio. A play called “Los Pastores” (The Shepherds) was performed. It is still performed at the Mission San Jose where it was first performed in the 16th century. This play portrays the story of the shepherds as they try to make their way to Bethlehem.

Another custom that grew out of the 1700’s was the Spanish “luminarias”. The Spanish Texans would light a series of small bonfires. It is thought that they would symbolize the fires the shepherds would build each evening of their journey—some even suggest that it could allude to following the north star—following the light. With the influx of more and more Americans, paper bags came into use. This is where the custom of burning a candle inside the sand filled bag came into vogue. It is still a popular custom to this day.

Mexico   1821-1836: By 1821, Mexico had won its revolution from Spain and in so doing, became the ruler of Texas. Because of its rich and deep heritage with the Catholic Church, it became law that no protestant churches could be started in Texas. Almost all of the new settlers from the United States were protestant. Conflict was inevitable.  To get around the law, one man went so far as go up to Illinois, form a protestant church and then moved it to near present day Bastrop. In 1834, they held the first legal Protestant Christmas celebration in Texas. Another Christmas symbol you’ll recognize comes from this time period. The American government had its eye on Texas for some time. It sent Joel Poinsett to Mexico with the purpose of purchasing Texas for the United States. Why not? Jefferson got a deal on the Louisiana Purchase. While in Mexico he saw flowers that the Mexicans called “The Flower of Christmas Eve”. He took some home with him.

These were hard times for the settlers that continued to stream into the future republic. These, for the most part, were not rich people. They did all they could to coax a subsistence off the land, cattle or tiny retail establishments. There were not many luxuries. It would be a good Christmas if they could find eggnog or even fresh milk.

The Mexicans would enjoy a Christmas meal, which would include tamales. Tamales have become a tradition especially in Texas and the southwest. The tradition is covering more geography each year. This is also the time when the Midnight Mass became popular.

Republic of Texas   1836-1845:  Up until the Republic of Texas was established, Christmas was really focused around and in the church. Once Texas became a nation, it was no longer illegal for Protestants to form churches and celebrate to their own liking. This is when more activities away from the church began to surface. Balls, dances, hops and square dances were held wherever people gathered. For the most part the people were poor and could not afford much in the way of gifts.

While the Republic of Texas took root, people of various ethnic backgrounds where moving in—bringing their homegrown customs with them.  There were the Germans, the Czechs, Irish, Scots, and others—all adding to the tapestry of Texas. Although the French used Christmas trees in their observance of the holiday, it was the Germans that took the Christmas tree very close to the heart. Although the earliest use of “Christmas trees” goes back to the Druids of England (who did not celebrate Christmas), the Germanic people somehow came up with the connection between the “Tree of Knowledge” in the Garden of Eden. Since apple trees are bare during the winter, they used evergreens and put apples on it—later it would be roses—even later decorations of various types. These trees were often placed on the table. The big floor to ceiling jobs is strictly an American custom.

Ironically, the first artificial trees came from Germany too.

Gifts given during this time were usually quite practical—scarves, socks and other homemade toys or crafts. The United States received a gift during the season of 1845. The Lone Star became the 28th star on the flag of an ever-expanding nation.

Antebellum Texas   1845-1861:  The period of statehood between its joining the union and the Civil War is known as the Antebellum period of Texas. It was during this period  Santa Claus first appeared in Texas. The real St. Nicolas lived in Turkey during the 4th century.  He is reported to have died on December 6th. This is the date that many Czech and Polish Texans celebrate his day. Most Americans today got their first real look at the jolly old elf through Clement Moore’s famous 1822 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicolas.” You probably know it better as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” He had eight tiny reindeer. Rudolph, a strictly commercial addition, would not show up for about 120 years. By the mid 1800’s, stockings were hung from fireplaces all across Texas (and America for that matter). By now people of all ethnic backgrounds were observing many culturally diverse traditions like Yule Logs, popcorn strands, wassail punch, mistletoe, and general revelry. The holidays would take on a different light over the next five years as Texas became part of the Confederate States of America.

Confederate Texas   1861-1865:  These were extremely tough times in Texas. Constant shortages made gift giving and even, at times, eating a challenging situation. People had to be self-sufficient.  They made their own shoes and clothes. They would send what little they could to their family members off fighting the war with little guarantee they would ever receive the packages. Wars end. The Civil War was no exception.

United States 1865-Present:  The Reconstruction period right after the war was particularly harsh. It was felt by all southerners that they were being punished for the war. Shortages continued as the people tried to reestablish their lives. In time, things did get better and Texas began to flourish. Christmas cards, an English invention, caught on—a tradition we joyfully continue to this day. Christmas Seals first appeared in 1907. The world famous fruitcake came from a bakery in Corsicana in 1896. It was a German recipe and it’s still being made today. Texans celebrate the holiday according to their own customs and desires.

If you would like to find out more about how Christmas was celebrated under the six flags, you might consider reading, “Texas Christmas As Celebrated Under the Six Flags” by Elizabeth Dearing Morgan. From my house to yours I hope you have a wonderfully joyous holiday season. However you choose to celebrate, may it be all you hope for.

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