The Crestone Eagle • December, 2020

A season of hope Christmas stories to warm your heart and make you laugh

by Mary Lowers

In the northern hemisphere, winter solstice celebrations, whether called Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, have been part of the landscape of tradition. These holidays give us the hope that the worries and woes of the world will indeed disapate, of the light returning slowly but surely to the world and of the simple blessing of family, friends, home and hearth. Some years it is much easier to be of good cheer then in others, such as 2020.

Christmas 1918 was pretty glum, too. WWI had been raging in Europe for four long years and the Spanish Flu Pandemic was killing people worldwide. During the seven weeks prior to Christmas 1918 Prudential Insurance Company had paid out more civilian death claims due to the Spanish Influenza than the number of claims from the war dead. In his article “1918 Hard Year for the Entire World,” Robert Johnson says, “With worldwide losses building towards thirty million, few families escaped being touched by death.”

In efforts to combat the influenza, local health departments in 1918 ordered schools, play houses, dance halls, picture shows and other gathering places off limits. This included closing houses of worship. Traditional gatherings and celebrations could not take place. A dark depression settled  in for the season. Johnson points out, “between losses in the war and deaths caused by the influenza, the community needed the comfort more than ever that only came through gathering with others and sharing one another’s pain and burdens.”  Humans are social animals. The isolation forced by contagion was widespread, as it is for us here at Christmas 2020.

The Craig, CO Empire said in a December 1918 edition, “The real sorrow, the terrible affliction that has befallen the land is the plague of Spanish Flu, which has already claimed twice as many victims as the war, baffling medical science. It is the frightening scourge that has befallen the land that prevents Christmas 1918 from being the happiest the US or the world has ever known.” In times like 1918 and 2020 humans look high and low for the true spirit of Christmas that will bring us some much-needed light and hope.

The last building in the old town of Cottonwood was the Emerson home which was recently torn down.

San Luis Valley Christmas stories

So here are a few short tales of Christmas over the years in our neighborhood which smack of hope and good cheer. On December 24, Christmas Eve 1899, Charity Strong wrote in her journal out at Cottonwood, a little mining and farming settlement that flourished then in the area of Cottonwood Creek at the turn of the twentieth century. “Mostly fair and quite warm, thawing some. Well Christmas Eve has finally come and presents has been distributed and everyone seems satisfied. Had nuts, popcorn and music for the evening.” Simple pleasures of warmth, music, family, friends and food.

Early winter of 1897-1898 was exceptionally hard in the San Luis Valley. Along with bitter cold, the ground was blanketed with snow of great depth. Huge snow drifts made travel difficult. Stores were out of supplies. With the food shortages in the Crestone area, jackrabbits were a principal source of holiday dinners. Jack Harlan in his wonderful Crestone and northern valley history book, Postmarks and Places, shares a story Nellie Emerson told about that Christmas. “Walter Parker and Ed Rice hung their stockings on the fireplace mantle. As a practical joke, each filled the other’s stocking with rabbit feet and skins. And it was told that on meeting each other the two cousins would get on all fours and hop like rabbits.”

Harlan relates a winter tale: The Herard family, who had homesteaded on the Baca Grant, found out in 1875 that they could not get a clear title to their land. Young Ulysses Herard and his father founded Medano Park which included Medano Ranch. The ranch became a large-scale Hereford operation when the white-faced cattle first came into the SLV. Well, the Herards were known for their hospitality. The door to their cabin was never locked and firewood, coffee, and canned goods were well stocked inside. Even when Ulysses was not home, travellers were welcome.

The story goes that one Christmas John Wilburn of Crestone and his family experienced the gracious hospitality of the Herard cabin in a desperate moment.  John, his parents and sister from the Walsenburg area were travelling over Medano Pass on horseback, heading for Liberty where they planned to spend Christmas with his grandparents, the J. S. Mayers.

They left the town of Gardner on the east side of the Sangre de Cristos in the late afternoon. A full moon would light their way. Near the summit of the pass, the horse John and his mother were riding broke through the ice covering a beaver pond. As their mount floundered to reach solid ground, John and his mother were drenched. Luckily the Harvard cabin was close by and soon all were sitting by a warm fire with hot coffee. The welcoming cabin and Ulysses Havard’s trust and generosity saved that Christmas.

Christmas saved

In her folksy history Drillin’, Loadin’ and Firin’ Gladys Sisemore tells a Crestone Christmas story from the 1950s. “Crestone was in a quiet period in its history.” No one had much and the main employment was at the Baca Ranch which was then run by cattleman Alfred Collins.

This Christmas season the town had spent many hours preparing for the Christmas Party and Pageant to be held in the little church. “Treats were bagged and presents were wrapped. Crepe paper costumes for elves and angels were ready to go.” As the hour of the festivities drew near, the schoolhouse bell used as a local fire alarm began to peal out. Somehow coals had escaped from the woodstove and the little church was ablaze. “As buckets of water were passed from hand to hand up the line the little church burned to the ground.”

Gladys says, “ In the little close-knit community Crestone was then, grievances were forgotten.” Local men passed the hat for contributions to buy treats, Mrs. Collins sent a check to cover replacement gifts and two nights later the Christmas gathering was held in the old schoolhouse.

Gladys relates another Crestone Christmas tale told by W.J. Hutchinson, who had moved to the mining camp of Lucky out by the stone huts along Spanish Creek in 1897 when he was nine years old. “The social event of the year was Christmas when all the people would gather in the Wilcox cabin up in Wilcox Gulch for a big Christmas dinner. Each year two men were appointed to bring in a venison for the occasion.” One year, to everyone’s consternation, they could not get a deer for dinner. Hard to believe with all the deer around here these days. They ended up butchering a young burro. “Everyone enjoyed the dinner the same as usual, but little did they know they were eating burro.”

This year let’s try and make this season of cold darkness one when we and our little community reach for light. Looking toward a brighter future for the world and each other. Happy Holidays folks. Don’t be uptight . . . bring back the light.