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COWBOYS' CHRISTMAS BALL

COWBOYS’ CHRISTMAS BALL. The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball is an annual event in Anson, Texas, based on a nineteenth-century ballad. A frontier dance at Anson impressed William Lawrence Chittenden so much that he later wrote a poem about the event. He was staying overnight at the Star Hotel, where a Christmas dance was held annually in appreciation of the patronage of ranchers and cowboys. He watched the cowboys and their ladies dance the square, the schottische, the heel-and-toe polka, the waltz, and the Virginia reel. From his observations there, and perhaps at later dances, he wrote his poem "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball."

Some uncertainty exists as to which year’s dance was the model for the poem; the years 1885 and 1887 are the most common dates given by writers. The poem was first published in the Anson Texas Western on June 19, 1890, after the Star Hotel had been destroyed by fire earlier in the year and information about the old hotel was being sought. In 1893 the poem appeared in the first volume of Ranch Verses, a collection of Chittenden's poems. John A. Lomax published it in his 1916 edition of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Gordon Graham, a cowboy folklorist from Colorado, set the poem to music and sang it at the Anson ball in 1946, and it became a common practice to have a soloist sing the ballad before the ball.

The music at the ball in 1885 was from a bass viol, a tambourine, and two fiddles. Both music and vocals have changed over the years, yet ball officials have remained firm that both music and song must conform to the tradition that became clearer over the years. Dances were held at Christmas in Anson at irregular intervals with little regard for the poem for several decades following its publication. In 1934 the event was revived under the title Cowboys' Christmas Ball by Leonora Barrett, Anson teacher and folklorist. This first reenactment was held in the high school gymnasium and continued on an annual basis thereafter. The Anson dancers attempted to retain the old dance customs, steps, and songs. The men bowed and the women curtsied. The music was slow enough to allow the dances to be done in an unhurried manner and with much grace.

Because the Anson group performed dances not done by any other group in the National Folk Festival, they were invited to the festival in Chicago in 1937. Gertrude Knox, Washington folklorist, invited them to the festival in 1938 in Washington; there they danced on the White House lawn. At later dates they performed their folk dances in St. Louis, St. Petersburg, Denver, and various cities in Texas.The Anson group was incorporated in 1937. A board of directors was named, and the event was copyrighted. In 1940, because of increased interest and attendance, Pioneer Hall was built as a permanent home for the ball, which had become a three-day event before Christmas each year.

In the late twentieth century the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball gained greater recognition through the promotional efforts of cowboy music singer Michael Martin Murphey. He recorded the classic song, “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” in 1985 and continued to play at the annual ball through the early 2000s. The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball observed its seventy-fifth consecutive year in December 2009. In 2010 the Christmas Ball and its venue Pioneer Hall were designated as a historical event and site by the Texas Historical Commission and honored with a Texas Historical Marker. The dance has brought dignitaries, writers, and visitors from all over the nation to Anson. The dances are still presented in a frontier atmosphere, and the pioneer steps have been preserved, ratifying Anson’s claim to be the “Home of the Western Dance.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Hall Cannon, “The Open Road: Cowboy Christmas Ball” (http://savvytraveler,publicradio.org/show/features/1998/19981219/open-road.shtml), accessed July 3, 2007. Hybernia Grace, "Larry Chittenden and West Texas," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 13 (1937). Michael Martin Murphey (http://www.michaelmartinmurphey.com), accessed July 3, 2007. Texas Cowboys' Christmas Ball (http://www.ansoncowboyschristmasball.com/), accessed April 6, 2010.

Juanita Daniel Zachry

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Juanita Daniel Zachry, "COWBOYS' CHRISTMAS BALL," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lkc05), accessed July 25, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on December 17, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.