Cowboys, cattle and Christmas; the words just flow together – especially in areas with a long history of men – and women – who wear chaps, ride horses and spend a good portion of their time working on a ranch in areas collectively known as “the West”.
Today we visit with singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphey to talk about one of the most enduring traditions of the American West: the Cowboys' Christmas Ball.
If there’s one thing that everyone who has spent hours in a saddle can agree on it’s that being a cowboy isn’t easy. And it’s for that reason, it’s been said, that when it comes to relaxing – or celebrating or having a ball – few can hold a candle to a cowboy.
Which brings us to the Cowboys' Christmas Ball – an event that dates back to 1885. Sitting backstage before his recent performance at the Deadwood Mountain Grand, Michael Martin Murphey talks about the cowboy culture and the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.
“Well, the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball originated in Anson, Texas in 1885,” Murphey explains. “There was a wedding…and Anson was quite a successful town at that time. It was a huge agricultural center. When this wedding happened…around Christmas…they decided to have it as a ball for all the ranchers and cowboys. They all came to town. And Larry Chittenden…who was a New York journalist…happened to be in town visiting his uncle and he wrote a poem called the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”
The poem was published in the New York Times and the London Times, as well as in a book of poetry Chittenden wrote that became popular across the United States and Europe. But Murphey says there’s an irony.
“Understand that they did not call it the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball…the local people didn’t,” Murphey clarifies. “Larry Chittenden coined that term. So, a New Yorker really was the man who created the term “Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” and started a Texas tradition.”
A Texas tradition, notes Murphey, that soon spread to other places across the West.
“It was a dance using all the old frontier dances,” says Murphey. “And dancing didn’t really get separated from communities until the honky-tonks came in later on and then prohibition happened. Dancing was a part of every community.”
And the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball quickly became THE dance that everyone went to.
“Even if it snowed and they had a blizzard in West Texas…people came,” Murphey notes. “On horseback, they came on sleighs, they came on wagons. They got there.”
Once they got there, they did what many cowboys have become known for doing almost as well as they ride horses, says Murphey.
“Dancing was very, very popular,” Murphey explains. “It was universally loved. They would bring in a fiddler and a banjo player. Not big bands, you know. It was all acoustic music, of course. And they would do square-dance calling…some square dancing, stuff like that. And they would do these great old dances like the Varsovienne waltz”.
Since cowboys didn’t have fancy duds, they’d wear their best work clothes to the ball with their spurs on. But the line was drawn at hats – which weren’t allowed on the dance floor; as they aren’t today.
The Cowboys' Christmas Ball fell by the wayside during the First World War and Prohibition, but was revived in 1934. After the success of his "Cowboy Songs" album in 1990, Michael Martin Murphey was invited to play at Anson’s annual celebration. He’s celebrating his 20th year of performing there this Saturday.
In order to protect the traditions of the Cowboys' Christmas Ball, Murphy suggested the town trademark the name. As a result, anyone who wants to hold a similar event using that name – such as the town of Deadwood has – needs to get permission.
“We own those words,” says Murphey. “Having said that, we allow a lot of people to do it…if they go by the traditions. There’s no drinking at the ball, there’s no smoking at the ball, Can’t wear a hat on the dance floor…in Texas.”
Women are encouraged to wear skirts below the knee. But more important than these technicalities, says Murphey, is maintaining the spirit of the cowboy – the hard-working individualist who always took time out near Christmas to gather with friends and family, share in music, dance and laughter and acknowledge the traditions of the season.
“Here in South Dakota - where the snow is known to fall, make sure you keep your cowboy...Merry Christmas one and all!”
Link to Larry Chittenden’s poem “The Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball”
The Cowboys' Christmas Ball – Michael Martin Murphey