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The Garrett Christmas Letters, 1870 by Ros

Word Count 3,153

2nd in the Garrett Letter Series


December 20th 1870
Morro Coyo, California

My dearest Grandfather,

I take pen in hand in the hope that you are in good health and fortune and wish to reassure you of my own. It has now been more than six months since I came here and I feel very much at home with my father and my brother. Presently we are looking forward to our first Christmas together. You will, by now, have received a box from me but I have decided to put pen to paper again with more detail of the season here.

As you know by my earlier letters, we have all had adjustments to make but none so heavy a load that it could not be shared among us. None of us has confided much of our early lives with each other and I confess to some curiosity. Teresa is perfectly willing to impart occasional glimpses into Murdoch’s life before our arrival, through her own eyes, but we know nothing of Johnny’s other than his reputation. However, some of his responses to the Christmas traditions have strengthened my fear that his childhood was not what I would have wished for a brother of mine.

There is a tradition among the Mexican families here called Las Posadas. The children dress up as Mary and Joseph and parade through the streets of Morro Coyo (and other towns I am led to believe), followed by the adults carrying lighted candles. The parade ends at a family house with much singing and rejoicing, ending with a festive celebration for all. The first parade was held on the 16th instant and has been followed every night since. I am told this will continue until Christmas Eve.

Johnny appeared surprised and pleased to have been invited by the Mexican families on the ranch to join them in Las Posadas and returns every night brimming with good spirits. Curious, I joined Murdoch and Teresa in going to view the first parade and enjoyed it immensely. The last parade with culminate in a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, which we will all attend.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, there will also be festivities at the church and orphanage in Morro Coyo. This town is the oldest in the community and traditionally the center of celebrations for Lancer. The orphaned children will enact a nativity play and there will follow gifts and a veritable feast provided for them by Lancer. The entire town and neighboring ranches are invited to this occasion and Jelly Hoskins is excited by the prospect of seeing all of his foundlings there. Johnny and I have found much pleasure in helping Murdoch to arrange this event.

I confess that winter in California is something of a disappointment to me. There is no snow but what falls in the high Sierras, too far from Lancer to even see. The fogs are deeper and last longer as winter sets in. The air is much cooler than the terrible heat of the summer and my brother has taken to wearing a heavier coat and complains of the cold!

As Christmas fast approaches, our dear Teresa has transformed the Great Room of the hacienda into a wonderland of garlands and decorations. Last week, she cajoled Murdoch, Johnny and myself into driving a wagon up to Vista Cielo – a drive of somewhat more than an hour up and another back – to obtain a Christmas tree. She seemed to feel that the experience would bind us together with a sense of family good will.

We started out with some misgiving. Murdoch complained that he had better things to do at home and I was surprised to learn that it was not his habit to involve himself in the organisation of Christmas. Teresa has since informed me that he had only celebrated it for the sake of the people of Lancer and for her. She is of the opinion that it was a difficult time for him as it reminded him that his family was split asunder.

Johnny seemed to be unsure of the whole meaning of the tree and, for my own part, I have never procured a tree in this way, as you well know. That had always been Adams’ task. Nevertheless, we set off with strict instructions for the size and character of the tree. This resulted in several discussions among us in deciding upon the all important choice of tree. Neither Johnny nor I agreed with Murdoch’s first selection, pointing out that it would be smaller than required and would meet with disapproval. Johnny’s selection was tall enough but of such girth that we would have to remove Murdoch’s desk to another room for the duration. I felt my own selection would answer all requirements but Murdoch insisted that the top would have to be lopped off to fit it into the room.

At this point, I fear that Teresa’s plan was at risk of coming undone. Johnny had taken umbrage and Murdoch is not accustomed to argument with his decisions. By the fifth tree, tempers were beginning to fray. It was agreed, with some ill will, that we should just take the next tree and get home before dark and Teresa would have to accept whatever we took her.  

By chance, the next tree was exactly what Teresa had requested. With a sigh of relief, we set to work. Johnny and I secured the tree while Murdoch insisted upon swinging the axe. I appeared to have chosen the better position as Johnny yelped continuously, hit by flying pine chips and complaining bitterly that he would be bruised and possibly seriously injured before Murdoch was done.

The tree was duly felled and removed to the wagon which proved to be another obstacle. The wagon bed was at least three feet short of the length of the tree. When I pointed out that the top of the tree would drag and be damaged, my father merely scowled. At this point, Johnny stepped in, asking Murdoch if he wanted to do this all over again if we returned with a damaged tree. The end result saw Murdoch and me driving home with the end of the tree secured between us up front and Johnny sitting in the back with it. I am pleased to be able to say that good will had been restored by the time we arrived at Lancer and Teresa approved our choice with no idea of the dissention she had created.

There followed a frenzy of activity – installing the tree in the Great Room, decorating it and the room – all under Teresa’s demanding supervision. I would not wish her upon any work crew! She is as strict a task-master as ever I met with a determination to achieve her ends that would ensure success in any business. Johnny and I have agreed that the kitchen will be a place to avoid as the cooking begins for the big day.

The plans for Christmas continue outside the house. Jelly has been assigned the task of fattening a number of turkeys. These will be distributed among the families at the ranch as part of Murdoch’s traditional gift to them. Two more will be cooked for the pleasure of the unmarried hands in the bunkhouse and another will provide our own dinner. We have asked Dr Sam Jenkins and our neighbors Aggie Conway and the Poes to join us for Christmas dinner so it will be a grand celebration.

Gifts are piling beneath the tree. I have completed my own shopping and have watched Johnny’s efforts with a good deal of pleasure. He seems to be much animated by the task of finding something just right for everyone. I have no idea what his choices have been however as he is being very secretive.

In all, the season is a new experience to us all in different ways. I find that it was difficult at first to get the feeling of Christmas without sleighbells and snow. There are no carollers here as we are so far from any town and there is still work to be done at the ranch, despite the season. However, Teresa’s efforts – though we much complained at the time – have brought us together and created the Christmas Spirit in all of us.

I shall miss your presence, dear Sir, when the day arrives and I shall think of you. Please pass on my greetings and best wishes to Adams and Cook and the rest of the staff and our friends.

I leave you now with the very best of wishes and affection,

Ever your devoted grandson
Scott Lancer


January 5rd 1871
Morro Coyo, California

My dear Grandfather,

I write in the hope of finding you in good health and happiness. I received the Christmas gift you sent and find great pleasure in putting my new pen to use in writing this missive.

The season’s festivities are over and I have to say that it was all new and pleasant.

On Christmas Eve, we all attended the Nativity play performed by orphans at the church in Morro Coyo.

It was also an opportunity to meet some of our more remote neighbors. Over the last few months, I have had the pleasure of meeting many of them but for some it was the first opportunity. Johnny and I have been something of a curiosity to many here. Some have known my father long enough to have known of his marriages, others had heard of them, but many had no idea so the sudden arrival of two grown sons created something of a hoopla in the community.

In general, I find that I have received a warm welcome here and am, of course, gratified by it. I sometimes find, however, that there is some reticence where Johnny is concerned. His reputation seems to go before him and taints their perception. I believe some of them expect their lives to be in peril simply by shaking his hand! Even worse are those who take exception to his ethnicity. I personally find these to be repugnant attitudes. For the most part, Johnny disregards it. We spoke of it once and he leads me to believe it is not uncommon and that he pays no heed. I do not entirely believe him and have noted that there is much that my brother feels that he strives to conceal.

As the afternoon passed, his demeanor and affability won most of them over, which is also not unusual, though there are some who continue to snub him. I feel strongly about this and find myself unable to count these people as friends. I can only congratulate him on his handling of it. I have never seen him lose his temper on his own behalf in such a situation, though once on the part of a friend who was so demeaned. I know that Murdoch holds some pride in him for this.

The orphan children were amusing as they took great pains in their solemn roles. Afterward, however, there was great glee with the luncheon provided for them, particularly the sweets for dessert. It is not a common delight for the poor little souls. I was touched to see their smiles and gratitude, far more than I had expected.

I continue to wonder at the attraction children everywhere have to Jelly Hoskins. We know that he is kind and generous of heart from knowing him, yet children seem to sense it quickly despite his gruff and somewhat dishevelled appearance.

The padre had provided a list of the children’s names so that we could ensure that every one received a gift. It was a joy to behold the light it brought to their eyes and I believe I can speak for Johnny as well as for myself in saying that it was a great pleasure to be involved.

We attended the Midnight Mass with the padre at the church in Morro Coyo later that night, after the last of the posadas (which I mentioned in my previous letter) and the next day we all attended the Christmas service provided by the reverend in Green River. Johnny commented that church twice in two days was too much but joined us nevertheless.

Christmas day was filled with family and friends, gift giving and feasting. I found myself wanting only of your company to have made it perfect. I hope that your own was filled with the warmth and joy the season holds.

Johnny took great joy in both the giving and the receiving of gifts. Again I was reminded that this is not something he has been wont to do for most of his life, something that I find difficult to come to terms with. I think of those little orphans and wonder if they are not better off even than he ever was but I do not know enough to state this as fact as he still remains averse to discussing it.

It brought all the more pleasure to the day however. Johnny presented me with a beautifully made rifle boot for my saddle. It is lightly embossed and has two short braided thongs hanging from a silver disc (called here a concho) at the top which is engraved with the Circle L of our brand. It is a beautiful piece of worksmanship, made apparently by an elderly gentleman in Green River.

From Murdoch I received an inkwell, crafted of silver and cut glass with my initials engraved into the silver. Your pen sits neatly on the stand and matches well! From Teresa, I received a very entertaining book by Mr Twain – Innocents Abroad. I recommend it to you. Within the book, she placed a bookmarker, elegantly stitched with my initials and the Lancer brand. I was touched that she had worked it herself so masterfully.

As it happened, I had noted her deft hand with a needle and my own present to her was a new sewing basket. Her own was too small and somewhat in need of repair. For Murdoch I had arranged stationery with the ranch brand as a watermark. He was delighted with it. Johnny was harder to buy for. The man seems to have no real desire for possessions for their own sake. However, he does have a flair for the dramatic when it comes to clothes. While in Monterey recently on a business trip, I purchased a new belt for him. It is of wide leather and inlaid with several large engraved silver conches in keeping with the Mexican style. I was touched that he was so happy with it and he has taken to wearing it almost without exception.

Jelly Hoskins surprised us all with a touching gesture. He is fond of whittling and created a small piece for each of us. They are all horses and all slightly different – the one with head down, the other in full flight. Johnny’s has its head to the wind and mane and tail flying, for all the world reminding me of Johnny’s own palomino.

Ranching demands constant vigilance and we drifted back into our normal routine after Christmas Day, until New Year’s Eve. Murdoch has a tradition here of holding an old Californian style party in the Mexican style, called a ‘fandango’. Our neighbors joined us as well as the ranch hands for a night of revelry. The music was exciting and gay, the dancing spirited, though unknown to me, and I was surprised to see Johnny enjoying it immensely.

At midnight there was much noise and excitement. I suddenly found myself assaulted by a young female, the daughter of one of the older vacqueros. Upon the top of my head was broken an eggshell, spewing forth glittering confetti. My shock brought forth a riot of laughter from those around me, particularly my brother who thrust into my hand a similar egg and pressed me to do likewise back to Lucinda. I was somewhat reticent. It hardly appeared seemly, but with all eyes watching, I did break it over her head.

She laughed gleefully and ran off to crack Johnny’s head with another. Others around us did the same resulting in an outbreak of frivolity you are certain never to have witnessed – all under the watchful eye of the older contingent. Murdoch stood by laughing and talking with old Cipriano, the ‘elder statesman’ among our vacqueros.

It seems that everyone here knows of this old custom. It is harmless fun that dates back to the early days of Mexican California though not practised much now that we are an American state. These days it is only done among the Mexicans and only at parties but it seems that I will have to watch my head until Easter!

The eggs are pricked and the yolk and white drained free, glitter confetti is pushed inside, then it is sealed with wax and decorated. Murdoch has since told us that in the old days, the eggs were often filled with lavender water but this became less and less common due to the stains it resulted in.  Cipriano said that the price of eggs went up out of all proportion during Lent in those times.

Teresa had conspired with Johnny to make their own supply of these ‘cascarones’, and had kept it from me to see my reaction. Johnny had hinted to Lucinda to try me and I am pleased to say that I made it worth their trouble and provided them with much entertainment. But you know me well, Grandfather. You will know I went down fighting, taking my aim at several pretty young females present.  

Next week, Murdoch goes to Sacramento to the first meeting of the Cattlegrowers Association for the year. He is currently president and up for re-election to the position come March. Johnny and I will be staying home on this occasion as there is work to be done but we will attend with him in March.

So now there is naught to tell you but to wish you the best there is for the new year, Grandfather. Rest assured that I am happy and healthy in this new life. I feel that I am thriving in fact. I feel part of something that is alive and growing and cannot explain it more than that. I pray that you understand and forgive my not returning to Boston.

Stay well my dear Grandfather.

Your ever devoted
Scott Lancer




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