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Preserving “Good Order and Public Decency” at Christmas in Nineteenth-Century San Antonio

December 22, 2011
Broadside of an ordinance passed by the San Antonio City Council, December 29, 1856.

Broadside of an ordinance passed by the San Antonio City Council, December 29, 1856.

The above ordinance, issued by the San Antonio City Council in 1856, offers a glimpse into nineteenth-century Christmas celebrations in the Alamo City. An examination of historical San Antonio newspapers in the DRT Library’s collections did not reveal what specific incident(s) might have spurred this ordinance. However, the fact that city leaders felt compelled to expressly forbid public rioting, fighting, and drinking seems to indicate that locals had witnessed, felt threatened, and were appalled by their neighbors’ “offence(s) against the rules of good order [and] public decency.”

That this ordinance was passed at Christmastime is probably not a coincidence. In his work The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (1996), historian Stephen Nissenbaum examines Christmas’s carnival origins.

In northern agricultural societies, December was the major ‘punctuation mark’ in the rhythmic cycle of work, a time when there was a minimum of work to be performed. The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing it for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals – meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled (5).

Within this context of seasonal leisure and surplus, writes Nissenbaum, Christmas long involved ritualized behavior that “most of us would find offensive and even shocking today – rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes” (5). Combining “carnival rowdiness with urban gang violence and Christmas-season riots,” such behavior, Nissenbaum argues, became “even more threatening” in early nineteenth-century cities and gave rise to Americans’ embrace of a “new-styled Christmas that took place indoors, within the secure confines of the family circle,” and focused on children and consumerism (x-xi).

Nissenbaum’s study concentrates on New England and, to a lesser extent, the coastal Southern states, and he admits that Christmas rituals “changed over time and varied from one place to another” (5). Moreover, residents within the same community celebrated Christmas differently. As the Western Texan, a San Antonio newspaper, noted on December 23, 1852, “With some [Christmas] will be a season for sober, moral reflection, with others a season of merry-making.” A thorough exploration of primary sources would hopefully uncover more detailed information about the history and evolution of Christmas celebrations in San Antonio.

Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that, while Christmas in San Antonio had to some extent become domestic and consumer-focused by the mid 1800s, a rowdier and more public celebration of the holiday also persevered. For example, in her book Christmas in Texas (1990), Elizabeth Silverthorne writes that “between 1875 and 1881 the Christmas Eve midnight mass was suspended in San Antonio by edict of the Roman Catholic bishop” (30). At the time, the San Antonio Express reported that “persons stay up, ramble about the streets and get drunk and noisy and then go to the Midnight Masses, rendering them instead of occasions of quiet holy joy, scenes of disorder and unrighteous conduct.” According to Silverthorne,

during the years of the ban, Christmas masses were scheduled at 6 a.m., when it was hoped, the paper reported, that ‘disorderly and boisterous persons, idle critics and spectators who come but to calumniate, ridicule or condemn will be kept away.’ In 1881 when the midnight masses were restored, the Express issued an editorial warning: ‘The church is no place to smoke or be boisterous, or guilty of ungentlemanly conduct. Father Genolin feels humiliated in having to call public attention to these points, and only does so after patience and forbearance almost equal to Job’ (30).

For Further Reading

Another ordinance passed by the San Antonio City Council on December 29, 1856 ordered that “each and every Public Bar Room, Billiard Room and Dram or Drinking Shop where intoxicating liquors are sold either by retail or by the bottle shall be closed at half past 10 o’clock P.M. and shall continue so closed till sunrise on the next ensuing morning.”

A second possible context (beyond the scope of this post) for understanding the above ordinance pertains to the municipal elections held in San Antonio during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. While preliminary research has not uncovered any specific information about these local events, Mark W. Brewin writes in Celebrating Democracy: The Mass-Mediated Ritual of Election Day (2008) that American elections were historically days of raucous “public celebration” marked by parades, “large gatherings of citizens and other residents to both observe the casting of ballots and the accumulation of returns, the treating of voters and supporters, often at the bar or tavern, and most certainly, fistfights, riots, gunfire, and general urban violence” (2).

Special thanks to Donna Guerra, archivist at the San Antonio Municipal Archives & Records Facility, who searched City Council minutes for additional information about the ordinance

Click here for a full citation of the documents and images included in this entry.

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