Leadville history offers good tidings
LEADVILLE – With the advent of electricity to dispel the darkness, Christmas moved into the modern era, but the traditions behind today’s holiday glitz hark back to the dim past of early Christian and Pagan times.
“The custom of gifts was probably a relic of barbarism Christianized,” said an 1879 Leadville newspaper, adding that the singing of carols dates to the Second Century. The idea of traveling from house to house singing songs took a bacchanalian turn 100 years later, and became thoroughly decadent during the 13th Century.
By 1562, caroling put on a more solemn face.
Christmas trees were a custom adopted from the German culture, and in Victorian America, St. Nicholas was believed to drive his train of reindeer over the rooftops. From his lofty landing place, he climbed down the chimney to leave gifts in the stockings of well-behaved children. For the bad kids, he left sticks, suitable for punishing mischief-makers.
To travel back in time for a Christmas visit to Victorian Leadville would not be completely unfamiliar, except during the lean frontier years of the 1860s.
“Christmas could hardly be spoken of as a holiday,” a Leadvillite said in 1894, recalling the early years in the mountains. “The fat turkey, the succulent bi-valve and the luscious mince pie were luxuries that found no place in the menu of the hearty hunter for gold.”
By 1880, however, Leadville was civilized.
“Yesterday, and up to a late hour upon the eve of Christmas, the stores were crowded with purchasers, and many a heart was made happy,” said a Leadville daily on Christmas Eve in that year. “The variety theaters, gambling houses and other places of public resort were well-patronized last night.”
Dancing was a common form of entertainment around the holiday, and numerous balls were held each December.
In 1879, the Protestant Episcopal Church of Leadville held a reception at the Central Fire House, located on State Street. Square dancing was the principal event, since the pastor didn’t approve of other forms of dance. However, the clergyman relented when the young ladies from his flock pleaded to be allowed to waltz, promising they would not dance with strangers.
Many local saloons and restaurants threw open their doors at Christmas to offer fine smokes, hot drinks, games and reasonably priced meals.
“Holiday shopping don’t keep lovers of the ball and cue from playing a social game at the Pioneer, West Second Street,” said the press of the day. “Before “swearing off’ at the commencement of the new year, try some of that old whiskey at the Board of Trade Saloon, 305 Harrison – whiskey much older than the average “Young America’.”
On Christmas, 1879 in Leadville, despite the 30-degree below zero temperature, feasts were given at the Clarendon and Grand hotels, the Tappan and Sprague houses, as well as the Commercial, Manitou and IXL restaurants. The Tappan house offered 115 different delicacies accompanied by 17 varieties of wine. A “masque” skating carnival was held at a local ice rink.
During Christmas a year later, the press said “Miss Lillie Parrish looked charming and captivated many hearts,” Leadville sent an $1,800 Yule check to Ireland, and Mine Manager Joseph Uhl was given the gift of a $40 meerschaum pipe and cigar holder by the employees of the Pendery-Glass Mine.
On Dec. 25, 1885, free wine and a grand Christmas repast were offered at the Pacific Slope Restaurant, the Original Dollar Store at 427 Harrison contained a large stock of goods for the holidays, the local undertakers were getting discouraged because of the absence of “stiffs,” and turkeys were sold for 17 cents at Blohm’s Grocery.
“Every other fellow one met last night on the street was lugging a turkey home with him,” said the Chronicle in that year. One turkeyless Leadville man named “John Doe” was arrested on Christmas Eve for stealing a goose, but the case was dismissed the following day, when no goose was found in his possession.
Many of the weaker Leadville roofs splintered and collapsed under the weight of the Christmas 1884 snow, and Tingley Wood and Colonel R.E. Goodell spent the holiday snowed in at Marshall Pass.
Crowded stores, skating carnivals, holiday balls and gambling retired from Leadville long ago, but in 2003, the spirit of Christmas still survives unchanged high in the silver-encrusted mountains of Lake County.