If you are out and about almost any evening between Thanksgiving and New Years in old Bisbee you cannot miss the town’s glowing symbol of Christmas: a brightly decorated tree which seems to float in the starlit sky. That tree has watched over Bisbee Christmases for many years from its perch just below the crest of Bucky O’Neill hill.
Christmas has been part of Bisbee life almost from the beginning. The first celebration in the late 1880’s was held in the Miner’s Exchange at the entrance to Brewery Gulch. The miners collected $100 and asked Bisbee’s first schoolteacher, Miss Clara Stillman to get a tree and gifts for the town’s children. The tree came from Juniper Flats but Miss Stillman and her friend Mrs. Secom had to trek over to Tombstone which had real stores and more to offer. It took all day by stage and they arrived after closing hours. However, the spirit of Christmas prevailed and the merchant when he learned of their errand opened up his shop. Money spent, they returned to Bisbee on the morning stage with packages of treats for the kids.
At the Miners Exchange the tree was festooned with strings of popcorn and red berries. Candles, donated by the mines, provided just about the only light in the room. Parents and children packed the hall for the festivities which began with carol singing and a short program.
The curtain was pulled back to reveal a tableau depicting the first Christmas in Bethlehem. The drama was real. Little Margaret Savage, just two years old had been cast as an angel and was tied on a shelf overlooking the stage setting. She was a hit with the audience. But in the second act as the curtain opened, there was a collective gasp as Mrs. Savage, Margaret’s mother cried out, “My Baby!” The angel was asleep and was slumping precariously in a lop-sided position. She was about to become a fallen angel. The noise woke her up screaming until she was rescued and handed over to Mom.
There was more drama outside. The Indians, a frequent threat in the early days of the camp, were shooting and raising a ruckus up in the hills. Several men, carrying Winchester rifles, left the program to ward off a possible attack.
Following the pageant, Santa Claus appeared handing out Christmas candy to eager children and probably a few eager adults. Santa brought his own drama as his whiskers brushed too close to a lighted candle and caught fire. There was a moment of crisis; the whiskers came off, the fire put out and Santa kept right on giving out candy. Apparently no one was bothered that he was suddenly and miraculously beardless.
The tradition of Santa giving out candy continued through the years. In 1905 the J.E. Thompson theatrical company brought Santa along and he handed out goodies all over the district. Crowds of kids and grownups followed Santa from old Bisbee through Johnson Addition, Lowell and on to Don Luis. Over 6000 bags of candy and nuts filled a decorated wagon pulled by four horses.
Over the following years, the candy tradition continued. Santa would arrive on Saturday morning riding the oldest fire engine in the city’s fleet. He stopped in Bisbee at the Post Office tossing red mesh stockings filled with treats to the waiting crowd, rode on to the plaza in Lowell and on to Warren where other crowds waited. Those were memorable and happy moments as Bisbee celebrated the season.
Christmas seemed to rival only July 4th for festivities. Typical was the busy Christmas of 1909. The day started with services in many churches where gifts were distributed to needy children. Curiously, Central School was in session though most of the learning took place around a big tree as Santa visited to hand out more candy.
There were a lot of events including horse racing at the new Bisbee Country Club. Betting was officially forbidden so it is possible, though not likely, that no money changed hands. A Rugby match was played by miners from England and at the YMCA, today’s Gym Club Suites, an athletic carnival was staged featuring Cornish wrestling, gymnastics and weight lifting. The Warren-Bisbee trolley ran all day to transport townspeople to the many activities.
And there was a crisis. A Christmas Eve boiler explosion at the gas plant cut off service to many homes resulting in Christmas dinners postponed for a couple of days.
The Orpheum Theatre at the mouth of the Gulch presented future silent movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in a comedy called “The Man from Boston”. A reporter for the paper gave it a rousing review. Following the performance, the cast and crew celebrated their Christmas onstage with a tree and gifts, many from Bisbee fans. Almost every woman in the cast received a Teddy Bear—still all the rage even though its namesake, Theodore Roosevelt had been out of office almost a year.
And what would a celebration be without guns! Several young men stationed at the Queen Mine blasted away with six-shooters. They also sang, though apparently not well since the Bisbee Daily Review reported that “they made the night hideous…”.
For many years, Christmas Eve on Main Street was an event. In1907 a headline blared, “Thousands of Christmas Shoppers Throng Streets”. Lights were strung from side to side festooned with garlands and a big red bell hung in the middle. There was music and laughter coming from every store and club and in those days when everyone shopped locally, Bisbee merchants met the challenge assuring all would have the merriest Christmas—especially the children.
Now, though the town is smaller and quieter, Christmas still plays an important part in Bisbee’s cultural and community life. A variety of shops still feature brightly decorated windows and today Main Street is often crowded with visitors discovering the charms of Christmas in an old mining town.
Looking down from its spot on Bucky O’Neill, the tree still beams brightly, a symbol of Bisbee’s enduring traditions and unique history.