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Christmas in Early Los Angeles

Mexican Fandango

1869 lithograph by C. Castro & J. Campillo, "Trajes mexicanos, un Fandango." The New York Public Library.

Although we are pretty sure that the earliest residents of Los Angeles celebrated Christmas and did so in the traditions of Spain and Mexico, we found no recorded description of the holiday in the city until after the American period began. Even then, most of the city's population had been residents from when California was still Mexican, so Spanish and Mexican traditions still continued to prevail. These were mostly events in which the larger community participated, such as religious observances, dances, feasts, and entertainment. Nevertheless, a new and growing population of non-Latino American migrants were beginning to introduce their own Christmas traditions, imported from the eastern U.S., England and Northern Europe. These, at the time, were still the pre-commercialized version of Christmas and, unlike the more community-festive Hispanic version, were more centered around the home and immediate family.

The earliest description found by the Almanac of a Christmas holiday in Los Angeles was published on December 28, 1854, in the Southern Californian1 (L.A.’s second oldest newspaper). Footnotes are ours to provide some explanation for terms and people who may not be familiar to us today:

Doings of the Week. The past Week has been one of festivity and rejoicing. The time-honored customs and usages of home have been revived in our midst, and are prevailing to a very flattering extent with our American population.

Christmas passed off with many evidences of the great estimation in which this anniversary is held. The night previous was enlivened by the constant discharge of fire-arms, which gave our citizens a foretaste of the morrow, which proved to be one of the finest days of the season. Not-withstanding that many of our citizens had gone to the races at the Mission,2 a sufficient number were left to pay ample attention to the good cheer which the hospitality of some of our friends had provided.

We had the honor, in common with many others, to partake of a sumptuous entertainment set out by “mine host” of the Bella Union,3 who ever evinces a nice perception of the true object of holiday festivities. The catholic portion of our community were out in their gala dresses, adding to the general joy and hilarity of the day. We heard but one accident--that of a young Californian accidentally shot by the careless discharge of a small cannon; not dangerously however.

Amongst other pleasing sights which we noticed during the day, was that afforded by the bevy of little girls composing the school under the direction of Miss Hays.4 Gathered beneath the hospitable roof of B. S. Eaton, Esq.,5 they improved the passing hours in the innocent amusement of the occasion.

In the evening, a respectable audience at the amphitheater6, witnessed the wonderful feats of the French Hercules,7 who displayed his strength in tossing cannon balls into the air and catching them upon his head, making an anvil of this carcass, wrestling with a diminutive Wild Cat, supporting and discharging a cannon weighing nine hundred pounds, etc.

The races at the Mission passed off with much eclat. The weather was fine, track in good order, and racing excellent. We understand that one of the parties beat the race, but was himself beaten in Judges.”

A week later, on January 4, 1855, the city's competing newspaper (and L.A.'s first newspaper), the Los Angeles Star,8 published their own summation of that same Christmas and New Year season:

The Holidays. The Christmas and New Year's festivals are passing away with the usual accompaniments, viz: Bull fights, bell ringing, firing of crackers, fiestas and fandangos.9 The reunion of the b'hoys10 at San Pedro was a spirited affair, and passed off with the usual good feeling. The Christmas cotillion11 party at the Monte,12 we learn was well attended by the elite of that thriving locality, and the dancing and feasting, and gymnastic exercises continued till morning. In the city, cascarones13 commanded a premium, and many were complimented with them as a finishing touch to their head dress. Upon the whole, we believe it rather an auspicious commencement of the New Year, and sincerely hope it will be a happy one to our friends and patrons.”

1) Southern Californian - Newspaper published weekly from 1854 to 1856, in both English and Spanish.
2) Races at the Mission – Spanish and Mexican Angelenos had long seemed to live in their saddles as horses were vital to getting around the vast, open spaces of Southern California. The region had a deeply-ingrained horse culture. Horse races where typically incorporated into festive occasions. The Almanac was not able to determine what mission this referred to, whether the Mission San Gabriel or the Mission San Fernando.
3) “Mine host” of the Bella Union – The Bella Union was one of L.A.’s earliest hotels, open by 1850, and an important social center at the time.
4) Miss Hays - Louisa M. Hayes (later Griffin), 1821-1888. Originally from Baltimore, she became principal of the girls department of the first school opened under the newly formed L.A. City School District. She was also sister to L.A. County’s first district court judge, Benjamin Hayes.
5) B. S. Eaton, Esq. - Benjamin S. Eaton, 1823-1909. A Harvard-educated lawyer from New England who served as L.A. County’s District Attorney, County Assessor, and as a county judge. He was Catholic and a Spanish-speaker. He was one of the founders of Pasadena and is the namesake of Eaton Canyon in Pasadena.
6) Amphitheater – The Almanac was unable to identify additional information about this venue.
7) French Hercules – Perhaps one of the many travelling strength performers of the 19th century, typically identifying with mythical heroes.
8) Los Angeles Star - Newspaper published weekly from 1851 to 1879, in both English and Spanish. 9) Fandango - An animated Spanish/Mexican dance event, in triple time, involving dancers in twos.
10) B’hoys – Period slang for rowdy working-class young men.
11) Cotillion – A formal social dance or ball involving dancers in groups.
12) The Monte – The El Monte settlement, established 1849-1850 by white southern migrants, 12 miles east of Los Angeles.
13) Cascarones – A Mexican tradition for festive occasions of hollowed-out decorated chicken eggs, typically filled with confetti. The description of these as a “finishing touch to their head dress” is probably a pun on the custom of smashing these on the heads of unsuspecting people.

L.A.’s First Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree by Winslow Homer, 1858
Among the things missing in these early descriptions of Christmas in L.A. are Christmas trees. These weren’t a Mexican custom and they were then just beginning to be introduced in American culture. It didn't take long, however, for a decorated tree to appear in Los Angeles.

Las Posadas, Christmas, Olvera Street, Los Angeles

The Las Posadas procession at Olvera Street today. This Mexican-originated Christmas custom has been held there almost every holiday season since 1930. It always begins at the oldest remaining house in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Almanac photo.