Christmas Eve music in Old California (2011)

This post was published Christmas 2009, 2010.  I have added some photographs to the original for this 2011 Christmas.

Christmas in California before the Americans came [1840s] was a season when all the grown people had as much fun as the children do now.  And the children had so much fun that they never got over it and ever after loved play and presents more than work and hard bargaining….

One Christmas Eve, I remember best, there was a full moon.  Over all the ground there was a glittering frost, just enough to whiten everything, yet not enough to even nip the orange trees which at this season of the year hang full of fruit and blossom both….

We had much music–guitars of the Mexican and Spanish type, made with twelve strings of wire, and mandolins.  After supper there was dancing in the patio, coffee and cigaritos on the veranda, and singing everywhere.  Someone said it was a beautiful night for a horseback ride over the valley to the Mission Santa Clara.  The horses in the corral were soon saddled.  There were twenty-five or thirty of us young men and women.  Our horses were the best of the big herds that were attached to every rancho….The saddles, bridles and spurs were heavily covered with silver bullion ornaments, as in those times we put silver on our horses instead of on our dining tables; for Spaniards…live on horseback, and they eat but to live, instead of living to eat.

Riding out of the patio gate it was like a scene from the time of the Moors in Spain.  As our horses snorted in the cold air they spun the rollers in their bits, making music that only the Spanish horse knows [1].

José Ramon Pico, “Before the Gringo Came,” San Francisco Call, December 1899.

Here are some selections of Spanish music with mandolin and guitar.



[1]  José Ramon Pico, “Before the Gringo Came,” San Francisco Call, December 1899.  From Sam Travers, Christmas in the Old West:  A Historical Scrapbook, pp. 171-174.

Mission Santa Clara Asís established in 1777, was located a few miles south of San Francisco.  This mission and adjacent Indian pueblo eventually grew into Santa Clara and San Jose.  The mission is now located on the campus of  Santa Clara University.

Frank Principe, silversmith from Lindell Beach, British Columbia, writes that many of the old California-type bits, such as the Santa Barbara, were designed with Islamic religious symbols.  The symbols included seven buttons, half moons, and starts.  This is traceable to Moorish occupation of Spain until the 1490s, the Cortez expedition to Mexico, and other adventures.  He writes, “For the last one hundred years or so most North American bit makers have been using these designs without realizing their historical significance.”

Sweet Hija (Spanish for “daughter”), my black mare, has King Ranch breeding.  Even today, King Ranch provides ranch horses for Mexican ranches.  Of all my horses, Sweet Hija is the fastest and most energetic.  After saddling Hija, I must run her about the round pen to work off her energy before she is ridden.  She is the most alert and sensitive to her surroundings, spotting deer a half a mile away.  I have to use binoculars to see what she sees.

Spanish Mustang Research Facility.


Filed under Christmas

7 responses to “Christmas Eve music in Old California (2011)

  1. I remember this post and have the same stir of beauty now as then. Jack, you are a master storyteller. I wish you’d compile your stories into a book so the young ‘ins will (when they tire of Crate ‘n Barrel) be able to anchor themselves in the hard work, beauty, and fun of what went before them. Happy Holidays to you and Brenda and family. We leave for New Orleans early Tuesday morning, returning around 4 January…part family, part French Quarter fun and part research.

  2. Hello Jack, your story brings me to think about the Moors in Spain and queen Isabella and king Ferdinand and all the history attached to it, like beautiful Alhambra. I like what José says about the Spanish horse – and about the Gringos – “they eat but to live, instead of living to eat.”

    This black beauty of yours, “Sweet Hija”, must be a wonderful horse – and wise as well. Do you have a photo of her?
    It is a great story, you have told us, and I love the Spanish flamenco and the dancers, who can really dance. I only want to see real dancers and not those helpless amateurs in the reality shows! There was a magnificent Carlos Saura movie many years ago – in the 1980s, “Carmen”. When the movie finished in the cinema that evening, people reacted by clapping their hands. I have never experienced this either before or since. The dance and the dancers in that movie were fabolous.

    Jack, I want to thank you for your generosity and kindness to a little lady from Denmark, who’s often very insecure in her linguistics, but tries to hide it under some over-heartyness.
    I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
    And cheers to “Sweet Hija”. I have also been thinking about Lily now.

    Best wishes
    Grethe from Denmark ´)

  3. Hearing that Sweet Hija has King Ranch breeding is exciting to me. My first view of the King Ranch came from the deck of a boat, passing along the intracoastal and seeing the unfenced wildness in a way not possible for folks traveling to the Valley by road. That’s history on the hoof you have – as you know.

    The description of Christmas – including the ride – sounds very much like celebrations still held at the HK and Keeran ranches down by Victoria. No doubt there are more.

    And I was delighted last weekend to discover the Houston Chamber Choir had incuded a good bit of Southwestern music in their Christmas concert, with accompaniment by marimba, flute and guitar. Most was sung in Spanish – it really was lovely.

  4. What a wonderful post. I loved the phrase;” . . . was a season when all the grown people had as much fun as the children do now.” I don’t think that is how it is now which is too bad.

    Best wishes for a holiday filled family, friends and fun.

  5. Donnie Reno

    What a great time they must have enjoyed. Things were so simple then and not commercially driven as it is today. If we all would just accept that Christmas is all about Chris and praise Him wherever we are in the world, things just might get better for them and our country. Bobbie and I do that in Jacksonville, Texas or wherever we are on that day. Have a great Christmas Jack with your family wherever you and they may roam. Keep the stories coming.

  6. Even while enjoying our snowy winters here in the north, I still remember with much fondness the Southwestern flavor of Christmases we found in Arizona. I love that music!

  7. I believe this is the first post of yours I ever read. Been hooked ever since. Beautiful images.

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