By Elisabeth F. Ruffner

Before Prescott’s Santa Claus arrived by helicopter, he rode into downtown Prescott on a gleaming red fire truck.  His visit on the Plaza in 1952 was promoted by The Prescott Chamber of Commerce as an ongoing gesture of goodwill for the region. The Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza has been the center of business, charitable, cultural, government and social life since the founding of Prescott as the Territorial Capital in 1864.

A variety of such community events is an essential part of the Chamber’s activities today.  Collaboration with other groups, churches, organizations and city and county government has been the watchword of our community’s generous, giving spirit since the beginning of the founding of a wilderness capital.

The first Christmas observance in the Prescott area was celebrated by Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy beside Granite Creek on Christmas morning in 1863.  In the spirit of generosity which has always been our hallmark, the Bishop and his party had been sheltered overnight in a rude miner’s cabin during a raging snowstorm upon their arrival from Santa Fe, the former Territorial Capital and the home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of the Territory.

The second Christmas celebration, December 1864, centered on the new Governor’s Mansion, but families offered all comers a meal prepared over fires in their newly constructed cabins and tents, and on the Courthouse Plaza.  The recently-arrived families celebrated Christmas by sharing their scant provisions with the miners and prospectors.  Plentiful game provided by those men added to the feast.  An American flag flew over the Mansion from the top of a pine tree, shorn of the topmost branches.

The following year, Mary Catherine Leib planned a celebration with a Christmas tree and mistletoe boughs and gifts for the children as a secular as well as religious observance. Recently widowed, she came to the area in late 1863 with her husband Charles, Assistant Surgeon for the Fort Whipple founding party, and later organized a Sunday school. This celebration was probably held in the earliest seat of Territorial government in a structure on West Gurley Street in the first block west of Cortez, constructed in 1864 to serve both branches of the Territorial Legislature.

By 1867, the first County Courthouse having been constructed on North Cortez Street in the present location of the Masonic Lodge building, a Christmas celebration, again a gift of a caring community, was held.  This building was the site of many public gatherings (including church services) over the years until the second Courthouse and jail was built on the Plaza in 1878.

The community spirit of giving held constant over the years, with Christmas being an annual gathering of great importance to visitors and residents alike.  Contemporary observances on the Plaza were inspired in the early 1950s by a first Christmas display, produced by the Prescott Chamber of Commerce, augmented by numerous service clubs and individuals. The Business and Professional Women’s Club initiated the lighting of the Courthouse in 1955.

There followed a carousel display in the bandstand, establishing another tradition that continues today.  Both city and county governments have played a crucial role in Christmas on the Plaza.

In 1962 Prescott was officially declared Arizona’s Official “Christmas Town” by Governor Paul Fannin (then “Arizona’s Christmas City” by Governor Rose Mofford in 1989), and in 1963 an official register of visitors was initiated, recording visitors from forty-two states, Canada and three foreign countries. Statistics today reveal that visitors provide the highest source of income for all of the Central Arizona Highlands.  The Prescott Downtown Partnership has joined the Chamber and government and service groups, merchants and individuals, to present to the world the epitome of community Christmas observance on Arizona’s Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza.

Sharlot Hall Museum continues its part in this uniquely Prescott holiday tradition by hosting the annual Frontier Christmas Open House on Saturday, December 5. The museum’s Living History volunteers will be in period costumes while interpreting what life was like back in the territorial past.

Delicious holiday cookies and hot cider will be served and there will be various forms of entertainment. Admission is only $5 for those 18 and over, free for Museum members and those 17 and under. Hours are from 6:00 pm until 8:30 pm. Come join the fun right after the Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Prescott’s Courthouse Plaza!

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlothallmuseum.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.