The Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball is a nearly unbroken Texas musical tradition held every December in Anson, Texas (in Jones County, roughly 25 miles northwest of Abilene). The event began with a grand ball thrown at Anson’s Star Hotel in 1885 in honor of the cattlemen of the region. William Lawrence “Larry” Chittenden attended that night and was so impressed by the festivities that he immortalized them in poetry. “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” was first published in the Anson Texas Western in 1890 and subsequently in his Ranch Verses of 1893. He describes his Ranch Verses as being “born in the idle hours on a Texas ranch.” Chittenden’s ranch on which he lived for almost two decades was located seven miles outside of Anson. For more information, check out the Texas State Historical Association’s biography of Chittenden.
Chittenden’s “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” was dedicated “To the Ranchmen of Texas,” and paints a vivid picture of a holiday celebration. He describes the hotel as being “togged out gorgeous” and decorated with candles, mistletoe, and “shawls” (which many have interpreted as blankets placed at the windows to insulate the hotel better). Lead by “Windy Billy,” who sang and called the dances, the crowded Star Hotel saw a very “lively gaited sworray” that evening in 1885. Chittenden even describes the original instrumentation: bass viol, fiddle, guitar, and tambourine.
Though the hotel would be lost to a fire in 1890, Chittenden’s poem immortalized the spirit of a cowboy Christmas celebration for generations to come. Many folklorists reprinted his words through the years (including John Lomax first in his Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. Lomax eventually attended the Ball in 1939). Even to this day we see the Chittenden’s poem in pop culture. Anson Texas would see some Christmas celebrations similar to the ball held irregularly in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1934 that the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was reborn.
In 1934, an Anson schoolteacher and local folklorist named Leonora Barrett helped stage the first re-enactment of the 1885 ball in the school’s gymnasium. Once again, people from Anson and surrounding communities joined in to celebrate the Christmas season. Sadly, Chittenden passed away in September of 1934 and would never get to see the ball reborn. Barrett insisted that the reincarnation of the ball retained the original dances, music, and customs of the first ball. This tradition, which includes men removing their hats on the dance floor and women only allowed to wear skirts, is kept to the present day.
Barrett, along with Hybernia Grace (another local historian), meticulously researched the conditions surrounding the original ball and worked diligently to preserve as much local history as possible. For example, another tradition kept to this date is one suggested by Mrs. Ophelia Keen nee Rhodes, whose father owned the Star Hotel in the 1880s. She wrote a letter to Barrett that was then published in the Anson newspaper Western Enterprise of December 19, 1935. Keen remembers that one of the early Christmas balls celebrated a wedding, and so at the ball each year, you will see a newly-wed couple lead the grand march at the beginning of the ball. The grand march is one of eight dances that are traditionally performed at the Ball; others include the Paul Jones, the Virginia Reel, a polka, Schottische, two step, waltz, and ‘put your little foot’.
Soon after its rebirth, the Ball became part of the Texas Centennial festivities in 1936, and in 1938 Anson residents danced on the lawn of the White House during the National Folk Festival. The Ball was expanded from one night to three, with a parade of historic vehicles even being featured in the late 1930s. Because of the Ball’s continued success, Barrett helped to copyright the reenactment, as well as creating a board of directors, who are now known as the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association. Pioneer Hall was built in 1940 as a permanent home of the three day festivities. The Hall was designated a historic site (and the Ball a historic event) by the Texas Historical Commission in 2010, after 75 years of re-enactments.
From the 1940s up until the 1990s, few records exist of the ball. We know it was a successful event based on newspaper articles, as well as the few surviving photographs, film reels, and one amazing ledger. The Southwest Collection is proud to house the original ledger started by Leonora Barrett in 1934 on the occasion of the first re-enactment. Each year she details noted guests, hosts, broadcasts made by radio stations, the leaders of the grand march, and other pertinent details. The ledger was kept updated until 1994 and is one document that allows scholars to see the completely unbroken tradition.
The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was reborn in a sense in the early 1990s, when Michael Martin Murphey began performing in Anson as the annual headliner. In 2010, Murphey began donating his materials to the Southwest Collection’s Crossroads Music Archive. It was also at this time that he put the archive in touch with the organizers of Anson’s Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball. In 2014, Texas Tech professor emeritus Paul Carlson’s book on the Ball will be published through Texas Tech University Press.
Though the music has been electrified and grown beyond four instruments, and historical dress is not required, attending the ball is still a festive step back into an older tradition. Each year, the ball is held on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday prior to Christmas. If you would like to attend this year’s Cowboys’ Christmas Ball, it is this weekend! December 19th, 20th, and 21st. Michael Martin Murphey will be performing on the final evening. For information on tickets, times, and directions, visit the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball website.
by Elissa Stroman, Southwest Collection Audio/Visual Department