Christmas Under the 6 Flags of Texas

Christmas in 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.

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 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 Shepherds) 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 shepherds 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 shepherds 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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Busiest Travel Day of the Year

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In 1992 I moved back to Austin. I wasn’t there a couple of weeks before I was given a job offer back in the media from Metro Traffic Networks. The network provided traffic reports for all most all of the local radio stations. Soon after I went to work for them, I was asked to fill in for the normal airborne reporter, “Buck Naked.” I don’t remember why he couldn’t fly but it fell on me to take his seat in the airplane next to the pilot.

We flew two sorties each day. We were in the air at 5:30 in the morning and would land about 9. We would return for the afternoon shift and be back in the air about 3:30 and stay there until about 7pm.  It seemed as though there was an adventure every day. On the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving in 1992, the afternoon flight was going to be a bit different. Traditionally, the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year. More people fly and even more hit the road to get to destinations near and far on that day than any other single day of the year. It is that day in the year where almost everyone sets out “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.”

Our job was to watch the traffic patterns on the streets and highways of Austin. As road blockages or problems became evident our job was to report the incidences and offer alternate routes. As you can imagine there were a lot more cars on the roads that particular afternoon and evening. Lots of folks try to get out of town early. You can see a steady increase in the volume of traffic from noon on. The later into the afternoon you get, the heavier it gets—a trend that continues well on into the evening.

My favorite time to fly was late in the afternoon heading toward twilight. There was something magical about watching Austin go from day to night. It was the lights on the buildings, street lights and the landmarks like the capitol building or the University of Texas tower. It was spectacular and thrilling to be a part of all that.

After the sun set it was fascinating to watch these little “ants” with lights travel the various roadways. It wasn’t hard to see the correlation between the human body and the traffic patterns. I remember thinking how these little cars on the roads resembled blood carrying capillaries, veins & arteries—side streets, main roads and the interstate. It was captivating flying over the city. As we crossed over downtown Austin the main body of traffic was traveling north and south. As you cross I-35 going east as I looked out the left side windows, it was primarily two lines going north and two going south. As you look north it is a solid 2-lane line of red tail lights and a solid 2-lane line of headlights. A glance out the right window would show the same thing only moving in the opposite direction.

As we make our various orbits over the city, you could see where all the police cars, ambulances or fire trucks were that were out on calls just by seeing the flashing lights.

The one instance I recall from that night was an accident at Northbound I-35 and Hwy 290. There was a wreck and it backed up the traffic. What was interesting to me was that visual. Our operational altitude was between 1,500 and 2,000 feet. From that height, if you looked up and down I-35, you could see all the way to Georgetown to the north and San Marcos to the south.

The visual I was referring to was looking to the north where the wreck was that solid red line going to the north stopped cold at the wreck site. Nothing was moving and that solid line now showed a huge gap up to near Round Rock showing virtually no traffic. Pretty stark.

So now traffic is seriously backed up. Thousands of people are virtually stuck at a standstill. So I report the wreck and suggest to avoid getting caught up in that mess, drivers could take Lamar Blvd to the north and get past the wreck. I offered a couple of other alternate routes. It was amazing to see hundreds of cars start to pull out of the logjam and head to the suggested alternative. It was like a thousand people got the exact original idea at the same time. That was visual proof that people were listening to us.  It is quite fulfilling to know when your work or efforts make a difference.

In about 30 minutes the wreck was gone and the heavy traffic resumed its migration. Today is the busiest travel day of the year. Please be safe while you’re out there. And remember, that other guy is out there to get ya so stay alert. Happy Thanksgiving to you & yours.

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In Memory of Charlie Yates, A Real Texan

It is with great sadness that I tell you of the passing of my friend, Charlie Yates unexpectedly left the chains of this earth this past week.  When I had a question about Texas, I could count on him to set me straight about all things Texan. He was not only a great resource but a good friend as well. I admired and respected the heck out of him. I cherish every moment of time I spent with him. I was so excited when her agreed to let me interview him for my new book, Texas in Her Own Words, Second Edition. We met at the Cheddar’s Restaurant on I-10 in West Houston and spent a couple or three hours together talking abut our favorite subject:  Texas.  In honor of Charlie, I want to share his interview in the book with you.

Charlie Yates

(This is Charlie at one of the Texas Revolution Reenactments.)

Charlie Yates is deeply rooted in Texas. I think I learn something new about Texas every time I talk with him. His Texas roots go back to the days of the Republic of Texas. He is very knowledgeable not only about the state’s history, but the things that make Texas and Texans tick. He has been a longtime member of the Texian Legacy Association. They are a group of Texan Revolution Era reenactors who recreate how life was lived back in the day of the Texas Revolution. They quickly impress you with their authentic costumes, firearms, cannon, and knowledge.  These people are very passionate about what they do. They become a living history of the era. Charlie always seems to have a smile on his face as he did when he shared his insight with me.

Charlie: I was born in Laredo, Texas. Many, many, years ago, my dad was a federal law enforcement officer and we lived all over South Texas with his job. I grew up and graduated high school in Runge, TX

Tweed: I guess I have known you for at least eight or nine years. My first encounter with you was at the Texas State Cemetery. I had never been there before. The Texas reenactors provided some of the ceremony elements out there on Texas Independence Day. That was the first time I saw you and I was greatly impressed. As it turned out, we became friends over those years. I admire greatly what you do.

Charlie:  Thank you Tweed, I appreciate that. The Texas State Cemetery is the hidden secret jewel in Austin. It is a beautiful place with an awful lot of history buried out there. There are 60 odd veterans of the Texas Revolution buried there. A lot of the Civil War Confederate dead are buried out there. It’s a history of Texas. Just recently we had a celebration there for Stephen F. Austin’s birthday. He is buried there. Several years ago, we decided since we had that so close at hand in Austin that we need to remember those people. So we use it quite frequently. The cemetery people are very happy to have us come out there and bring attention to that area.

When Bob Bullock was still Lt. Gov. he invested about $5 million in that place to renovate. They did a beautiful job on it.  It’s just gorgeous. You can walk through there and see the whole history of the state.

Jay Johnson started “Celebrate Texas” in 1999. Jay passed away a few years later and I eventually became president of the organization. We put on the Texas Independence Day parade, and a 5K run. We have the ceremony out at the State Cemetery.  We have an Alamo ceremony on the south steps of the capitol and there is a rotunda ceremony that we take part in, so we have an awful lot of things going on around March 2 for the birth of Texas.

Tweed:  How did you get involved with the reenactors?

Charlie:  Ha Ha.  A friend of mine and I heard that they were having a ceremony at Washington on the Brazos Park on March 2. So we wanted to go and we figured if we dressed up in period costume that they would let us in free, so when we got there, the guy in the parking area told us, “Because you all are dressed up, you just park right up front.” We thought, “Well that’s pretty cool.” Then that’s when we found out they didn’t charge anybody anything to get in it. So we wound up there dressed like a couple of people from 1836 and Carrol Lewis who was a general of the Texas Army invited us to join in and we just went from there. In 1996, I became a colonel in the Texas Army and have been involved in Texas history up to my armpits ever since.

One of the things I tried to bring home to people is that all of these historical people and not just in Texas history, but George Washington, Winston Churchill, and the rest; they were people just like you and I and they had the same hopes and dreams for their children. They had a goal in life to make it better for their children than they had. In studying how they did that, it gives us a kind of road map to help us deal with things that we have to deal with. The problems, what few there are in my life, I’m not the first one to have those. There are other people had those problems. That’s a major reason for me to study history and try to pass that on.

Tweed:  I have always considered the Texas Revolution a microcosm of the American Revolution except maybe our people were a little more colorful.

Charlie:  Well it was. There are an awful lot of similarities. If the early United States didn’t have help from France, we would not have won the revolution. If Texas had not had help from the United States, we would not have won the revolution. Up until the opening few months before the first shots of Lexington and Concord, the vast majority of the people of the United States were loyal British subjects. That turned relatively overnight into a rebellion. The same thing happened in Texas. The Texas Revolution lasted nine months, which is a very short period of time. Stephen F. Austin went from a loyal Mexican subject in 1835 to being the Commander-in-Chief of the Texas Army in latter 1835. There was a lot of change in a very short period of time.

Tweed: Charlie, I know you are a great student of history and you have lived here your whole life. What, in your estimation, makes Texas special?

Charlie: You know, that question has been argued for 200 years. To me, what makes Texas special—it’s the land of the great second chance. If you look at Houston, Travis, David Crockett—they all came here after failing someplace else. In Texas, I believe it has a genetic memory for folks like that. Even if you get as recently as the refugees from Vietnam who came here and started with nothing. Many of them have become very, very successful. And what it boils down to is if you have not been a success someplace else, and you come to Texas, and you’re willing to work hard; assume personal responsibility for what you do; that you do exercise some personal initiative individually; have courage, be able to sacrifice for the long-term goals and in essence throw in with us, you’ll find you will be very, very successful, because there’s a lot of us who have experienced that or whose family has experienced that. My people came here in 1832. In fact, we had one group that came here when it was still Spanish territory, prior to 1821 so they were starting over. They had nothing. Some had failed businesses or relationships. Things like that back in their states and they needed a clean slate to start over with—and Texas gave them that. It’s not easy of course. But I just don’t see that type of opportunity elsewhere. Goodnight and Loving out in West Texas when they started the cattle drives, there was a lot of risk involved not only monetarily, but physically. I don’t see where you can do that in many other places particularly today. So without using the phrase, “the land of opportunity,” it’s a land of opportunity.

Tweed: I have often joked that Texas was settled by golfers. Think about it—all these people were looking for mulligans. They wanted do overs.  Moses Austin, Crockett, Bowie, Travis, they were all looking to start over and I submit that that was the rule rather than the exception.

Charlie: That’s absolutely true, and it carries forth with a lot of the other people who came to Texas. After the battle of San Jacinto, the Texians captured about 600 Mexican soldados. A great number of those old soldados went back home with the Texans and worked on their plantations and their descendants still live in the Houston area today. There was nothing for them in Mexico. They needed a place to start over. And Texas was the place.

Tweed: What does it mean to you personally, to be a native Texan?

Charlie:  Well it’s a double-edged sword. There’s pride involved of course, but if you look at the people who came here that gave me my foundation early on, some of them weren’t pillars of the community, ya know. And so you have to balance this. I’m a sixth generation Texan near as I can figure. It’s a source of a great amount of pride. It gives me an anchor. I’ve known people from other places that don’t have that benchmark to go back to. And they wonder at it, you know. They don’t really understand and I’m not sure I understand it. It’s kind of a hard thing to describe.

Tweed: In my conversation with Liz Carpenter, we talked about the Texas State Cemetery. She pointed out there were a lot of heroes buried out there. There were a lot of scoundrels buried out there and a bunch of them were in the same hole!

Charlie:  Ha Ha. That is very true. That goes back to what I said a while ago. These were humans just like you and I, and they had their frailties, their oddities, their issues, and their demons just like we do; and that to me is why it’s very unfair to judge someone solely on one part of their heritage. You have to take the totality by even someone as great as Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or George Washington, who may be the marble man on the pedestal, but they had their issues; and it doesn’t mean they are less of a great man, it just means the bar is set very high for the rest of us. So I guess what it is, is they are playing the cards they were dealt, the absolutely best way they knew how. You can’t fault anybody for that. You can fault somebody for not getting in the game, or you can fault somebody for just throwing the cards; but if they give it an honest effort and play the cards the best they’re dealt, it’s just very hard to fault somebody for that

Tweed: I have often said one of the beauties of Texas is that if you fall down and fail, no one will hold it against you. All you have to do is get up, dust yourself off, and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Now how do I make it happen?”

Charlie: That is, in my mind, the key. If you fail and you don’t get out and dust yourself off, then you got a problem with folks. But if you get yourself up, climb back up on that horse—give it a good shot again, no one’s going to fault you for that.

Tweed: One thing I have learned is that Texans are “how” thinkers. “If” never enters into the equation

Charlie: Lee Roy Cullen, who was a pillar of Houston economics and business, made and lost I don’t know how many fortunes in the course of a lifetime. He would go down to dead broke and then make it all back and somehow lose it all again and make it all back again. He was the king of getting back up on that horse. People in Texas respect that. They may not think they are people that they absolutely want to imitate, but they will respect it. That is a huge part of the Texas persona—respecting other people, other people’s property, ideas, and things like that.

The Alamo is such a special place, I had the privilege of reading Travis’s letter in the shrine about midnight one Sunday night. It took me a couple of times to get through it. I know how this sounds, but there are still many of those people that are still there. I could feel him standing beside me. It was a very unique and eerie feeling, but it is a very special place. I just wish they had not put it downtown because the parking was a bear. Even Santa Ana had trouble with parking. Ha Ha. It’s not an odd situation.

About preserving the Texas values, I think that is something that’s important. I think it will continue as I see young people coming up all the time who epitomize that. I don’t think that there’s any danger of the Texas character going away. It may manifest itself in different ways from what we’re used to.  We have different challenges than we had in 1950 or 1850 for that matter. Really, to tell you the truth, once you get out of the cities, that’s when you start seeing the people who really manifest those characteristics like personal responsibility. If you do something wrong, you stand up and say it—I did something wrong.

I used to worry about our Texas heritage going away. It’s going more and more, and into other things. It can’t help but to do that because technology, increasing population, and people coming in from different areas, from different parts of the world. But I believe if those people give a little thought to the Texas character and what it’s made up of, they’re gonna find out that they share a lot of those same characteristics.

My favorite story along that line was Mirabeau Lamar. He got here two weeks before the battle of San Jacinto. He joined the Texas Army as a private and the day before the battle of San Jacinto he was involved in a cavalry skirmish with the Mexican Army; and he saved a man’s life who had been surrounded by the soldados. Lamar rode in and got them extricated. The next day, Sam Houston made him a colonel, so he went from private to colonel in one day and only being in Texas two weeks. Later on, he was the second president of the Republic of Texas. The moral of the story is, if you come here and you throw in with us we will not only support you, we will promote you; but to use your words, you have to buy in. You have to assimilate. You can’t come here and enjoy the fullness of Texas without taking part. If your home is still someplace else then you’re not going to get the full benefits of everything. The diversity is amazing. I really enjoy the Texas characters. The ones who are just famous or infamous, however you look at it. So I just love them to death. They’re like potato chips—you can’t get enough of them.

One thing, the pendulum always swings and I think that’s another thing that Texas has a tendency to do. They have a tendency to look at the long term, the long game, not just instant gratification. If my family had been interested in instant gratification, they would never come here. Any of them. I had one great, great, great grandmother who gave birth just outside of Galveston Harbor when she was coming from Germany. That’s tough duty you know, particularly back then in the 1840s. There again, you have this genetic memory that’s passed down from generation to generation. And that’s not solely a Texas thing, but it seems like it’s a commonality in Texas more than any place else. You don’t get that same common history out of Indiana, Idaho, or places like that.

We were talking to some folks the other day. 2011 was a horrible year for Texas with the drought. There were people who actually thought it would never rain again (Author’s Note:  Kind of like Elmer Kelton’s book The Time It Never Rained.) I lived through that in the 1950s—late 50s. We knew it was going to rain again, but when was the big question. You just hang in there. You just kind of have to roll with the punches in Texas. Just because it’s this way now doesn’t mean it’s gonna be this way tomorrow or the next day or 10 years from now. If you don’t like the way things are, just wait around a couple hours.

Another thing that is characteristic of Texas, is many different ethnicities, and as many different places of origin to the people we have, as many different ideologies, religions, attitudes, [still,] we have always found some way to get along. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had our problems, but we’ve never turned into 1970 Lebanon. We’ve never had a situation where everybody’s just fighting everybody. We’ve always found some way to come to some kind of common ground or accord, which is something you can’t say about every society. So that’s something else. It adds to that Texas pride. We’ve never torn ourselves apart over our differences. I think that’s tremendously important. We sacrifice to get here and everybody did, I guess. That’s one reason why nobody wants to throw it all away.

I think it’s important because of the things that we’ve talked about—it gets passed on to the kids. I just think it’s an important part of life to have the knowledge of where we came from as a people—not only Texas, but America—even people around the world.

We were once our own country and we had whipped the largest military force in North America at the time, but also something else. It figures into that we were on the losing side in the Civil War. We were an occupied country after the Civil War. The federal government took over everything. But as the only state in the Confederacy that had fought in a war against a larger force, [well] that figured into the psychology of losing the Civil War. We had won prior to that and we could use that as some source of pride. The other states of the Confederacy did not have that, so it became very important to Texas, psychologically, to say, “Look at Travis, look at Houston, look at these other people and hold them up as paragons of virtue. They were all six foot four, blonde headed Greek gods. Ha ha. It’s very interesting. The historiography of Texas, that as history changes through the ages and the interpretation of it. Up until [and] after the Civil War, nobody cared about Texas history or the Alamo; nobody cared about San Jacinto. They were too busy surviving and then afterwards [dealing with] Reconstruction. It was very hard to get a foot up on the federal government who wanted to keep the Southern pride down, but then after Reconstruction, you see this blossoming in Texas. (It was Gov.) Colquitt that brought Joanna Troutman from back in Georgia. She never once set foot in Texas. He props her up and brings her to Texas.  [Author’s Note: Joanna Troutman is considered the “Betsy Ross of Texas.” She is credited for designing the first Lone Star Flag.]

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If you would like to have your own copy of Texas in Her Own Words, Second Edition, go to http://www.TejasPublishing.com.  In closing, as Charlie would say, “God & Texas!”

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Against All Odds

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It’s April again. In Texas that means bluebonnets and San Jacinto Day. Today is the 180th 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 Ana set his sights on handing Sam Houston and his ragtag army the same fate. As Santa Ana 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 left their homes to stay one step ahead 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 Ana 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 Ana at arm’s length—never directly engaging the main force. Santa Ana 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 Ana 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 Ana had 1,400.

What is amazing is that Santa Ana 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 Ana’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 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!

Lady of Liberty Flag Battle of San Jacinto 1836

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Against All Odds

It’s April again. In Texas that means bluebonnets and San Jacinto Day. Today is the 179th 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 Ana set his sights on handing Sam Houston and his ragtag army the same fate. As Santa Ana 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 ahead 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 Ana 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 Ana at arm’s length—never directly engaging the main force. Santa Ana 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 all 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 Ana 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 Ana had 1,400.

What is amazing is that Santa Ana 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 Ana’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 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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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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