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August 14, 2012 > History: Pioneer Holidays

History: Pioneer Holidays

Christmas celebrations were brought to California by the Franciscan padres when they began building missions along the coast. The first celebration of Christmas was probably a simple mass at Mission San Jose when it was only six months old.

Americans who came to California brought with them the customs of their homes and towns. Their first Christmas at Mission San Jose was very different because the adobe mission buildings were run down and inhabited by survivors of the mission system and a few homeless American newcomers.

Later, when the American settlers had formed communities with schools, churches, lodges and business houses, Christmas became the biggest celebration of the year. Schools and churches put on programs highlighted by decorated trees, candy and presents for children and a visit by Santa Claus. They also had public and private parties, gatherings, shows, dances, dinners, caroling and religious services. Church bells rang, schools were usually dismissed for the holiday season, and merchants advertised "immense bargains and elegant Christmas cards." All of these events had an effect on buyers.

Americans brought 4th of July celebrations to California before it was a state. By 1848, they were held under the American Flag throughout the state and were "glorious anniversaries" by 1858, with bands, long speeches that included reading the Dedication of Independence orally, and cannon blasts that were heard for miles. An 1879 picnic was memorable for the target shooting contest.

A centennial celebration in 1876 featured special centennial poems and songs followed by foot races and sack races. A public "pyrotechnic display" at Alvarado included a demonstration of "shooting the anvil "where a huge anvil was placed on another one, filled with black powder and lit by a fuse. Observers described the explosion as "a most satisfying, hell-roaring sound."

Some years, enthusiasm waned and some towns had no patriotic events. A local 1929 paper said simply "business will be closed in observance of the Fourth of July." The Centerville Lions Club brought Independence Day back in 1934 with a Washington High School Fair. Events included a grand ball, queen contest, musicals and a giant parade.

Easter was one of the greatest events at Mission San Jose because it celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A custom that intrigued people was the ceremonial "hanging of Judes" in the street in front of the Mission.

American pioneers brought a variety of Easter customs with them including dress clothes, special services, floral decorations, Good Friday services and choir performances. Advertising gradually became a part of Easter. Fashionable cards were described in 1882 as "more beautiful than ever." A local paper reported in 1912 that "For the most stylish Easter Millinery you must go to Coneys Store." Later ads featured suggestions for Easter breakfast, brunch and dinner. Good Friday has been designated as a legal holiday.

Memorial Day was set aside to honor those who gave their lives in the Service of our country. It is also a special day to honor deceased family members and friends.

Word War I increased attention toward honoring our veterans. Niles citizens held a program in May 1921 with a luncheon, parade and tree planting. A plaque at the base of the town flag pole was dedicated to William Crane, John Franco and Marion Soares who were killed in the war. The new Veterans Memorial Building was dedicated in 1930 and services led by American Legion Post 195 in each town. The 1942 Memorial Day was darkened with the grief of World War II. Our Memorial Day observances have changed over time but were always intended to honor people.

Americans brought Thanksgiving traditions with them to Washington Township. Local papers reported on the proclamations, church services, programs, school holidays and how this special day was spent visiting and eating. The high school began a tradition of having a party for the entire school in 1897. Merchants gradually became more involved in our Thanksgiving celebration.

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was set aside as a special legal holiday to recognize working men and women. School calendars were often designed around the day.

President's Day was designated to honor George Washington's birthday, February 22, but has been changed to meet current needs. Martin Luther King Jr., Day has recently been set aside to honor this great leader. Appropriate celebrations developed to properly reflect our history.

California was admitted to the Union September 9, 1850 and the event was celebrated with huge parades, balls and fireworks but did not become an official state holiday until 1889. Teachers were required to explain to their students why it was a school holiday, but it was too close to Labor Day and the beginning of school to be a big celebration. It is no longer a great event for many local residents.

Pioneers took time to enjoy being together for New Years Eve Day even though cows had to be milked and animals fed. Parties and dances included conversation, games and refreshments.

That's the story of our holidays.

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