Word Count: 2125
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. Relying upon the accounts of several eyewitnesses, I’ve cobbled together the events that occurred in Virginia City on Christmas Eve 1859.
Abigail Myers, formerly Jones, organizes the caroling every year. She sorts each volunteer by vocal range from bass to soprano and selects both a baritone and a soprano for a solo. No one is surprised that she always chooses Adam for the baritone solo and she announces herself as the soprano soloist. Her parlor is filled with singers and fresh-baked treats during the weeks leading up to Christmas. More often than not, the sounds emanating through the lacy curtains nestled in the windows are more akin to cats with their tails caught under rocking chairs than a well-tuned chorus.
Hoss is again chosen to portray Santa Claus as he has successfully played this part for the past three years. Diplomatically, Hoss had suggested Hank (Miss Abigail’s husband) might want a turn, but Miss Abigail said no one else had the right build for such an esteemed personage. As Santa, it’s up to Hoss to surprise the children as the rest of the company serenades them with Christmas carols. This year, his plan was to enter the orphanage through the chimney and then announce his presence by joining the caroling from behind the children.
To paraphrase the immortal Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.
The afternoon of the event saw the Cartwrights arrive in town, Little Joe with his usual bravado daring Mother Nature to let it snow. In my experience, one should never tempt as finicky a woman as she with such a challenge. While Adam and Little Joe were dressed to keep Old Man Winter’s icy fingers from tickling their necks, Hoss was garbed in scarlet trimmed with white. Any observant passerby would note Santa was in town early and sans presents.
To avoid parental dilemmas, Hoss was hastily escorted by his brothers into the saloon. Patrons ensconced at tables and draped over the bar greeted the newcomers in their midst with We Wish You a Merry Christmas. This reporter admits he was seated comfortably at a table, enjoying a game of cards with fellow celebrants, so he joined in singing the welcoming chorus.
Hoss lacked the necessary beard and fluffy cotton eyebrows. Helpful suggestions were proffered until he pulled the wadded beard from his pocket. Looping the hooks over his ears, he now resembled the man who in any other circumstance except Christmas would be tried as a criminal for entering houses illicitly via the chimney.
Sam, one of Virginia City’s most reliable purveyors of spirits, proffered a bottle of whiskey to the Cartwrights. When it was suggested a thimble full would do to stave off the chill air, Little Joe upended the bottle and sucked at it as a calf latched onto an udder. The ever- stolid Adam Cartwright pulled the bottle away from his youngest brother’s lips and then took a long drag. Hoss, eager for a nip, pleaded unsuccessfully for a share. Fortunately, Sam retrieved another bottle, as well as several glasses.
Now quite merry, Adam removed his guitar from his back and strummed it while striding among the tables. His normally rich baritone relaxed into the tenor range as he led fellow patrons in Deck the Halls. Voices trickled in during the first verse until the saloon reverberated at “don we now our gay apparel” followed by more fa la las than traditionally sung. Clapping and stomping of boots was nearly deafening at the conclusion of the song.
A tense moment cut through the air when a miner reached forth a hand to grasp the guitar. After a short exchange between the two, not overheard by anyone due to the volume of conversation, a new melody arose above the din. The miner’s clear tenor rose forth in a doleful rendition of O Holy Night. Not a dry eye was to be found as the last note faded into silence, which was then broken by a hearty round of applause.
In my experience, no visit to the saloon is complete without a brawl. Despite the good will emanating in the confines of the Bucket of Blood, a cheat was identified at one of the card tables. The unfortunate man used the attention focused on O Holy Night to perpetrate a trick to steal hard-earned money from his fellow men. Adam rushed his guitar to safety, saving the instrument from potential destruction.
Bodies, chairs, and cards were tossed through the air, accompanied by shouts of exultation as Santa — I mean Hoss — sorted folks into camps of naughty or nice. Sam pulled a mallet from behind the bar but found it useless when a fist collided with his chin.
Little Joe, always an exuberant youth, launched himself into the foray from atop the bar. He briefly disappeared into the fray only to emerge at the other end of the saloon, a gal’s lips pressed against his own. I understand why discretion is the better part of valor.
Virginia City’s sheriff, Roy Coffee, restored order in the saloon with a few well-placed gun shots to the ceiling. One arrest was made and many a participant was sentenced to caroling with Miss Abigail’s band of troubadours.
Amends were made with another round of Christmas cheer poured forth from several bottles of whiskey. I noted Hoss’ face nearly matched the scarlet of his coat.
The time quickly approached for the rendezvous at Miss Abigail’s house. Joe removed his hat, bowed with a flourish, and said to Sam, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas!” Hoss added a heartfelt, “Ho, ho, ho!”
Menfolk weaved in Adam Cartwright’s wake as he led the group to the Myers residence. The strumming of his guitar set the pace and the men appeared to be a military contingent on their way to the parade ground.
Upon reaching the Myers residence, the revelers were met by Miss Abigail herself, wooden spoon in hand, prepared to inflict her opinion upon any with ill intentions. Despite the fumes reaching her delicate nose, she allowed the group entrance into her home for one last rehearsal.
My informant related that Miss Abigail had a pot of apple cider warming on the stove for all to enjoy post-caroling, However, a few of the men grabbed dainty cups and drank til the pot was dry. They were abetted in this act by none other than Hank Myers who, per the honest words delivered to me, sought liquid courage for the night’s activities as he was not accustomed to singing for any other ears than those delicate ones belonging to his wife.
While this activity occurred in the kitchen, Miss Abigail led her charges in the parlor in yet another round of The First Noel. She was heard to say rehearsal would continue until each singer avowed they’d never get lost again. Adam, instructed to stand beside the piano, plucked an accompaniment on the guitar. All present lifted their voices in what presumably was meant to be heard as song. However, several business owners noted dogs howling in the alleys as if their ears were assaulted by a mighty ache.
At nine o’clock sharp, the motley revelers exited the Myers residence and wove a crooked path through the snow-dusted street for the orphanage. Miss Abigail led the charge and held tightly to Adam’s coat sleeve. Hank Myers walked a few steps behind his missus.
White puffs marking exhalations drifted through the cold air. Despite several orders to “shush”, the marchers continued their conversations. My informant states that Miss Abigail must have regretted leaving her wooden spoon back at the house.
Despite the fluffy clouds obscuring the moon, a star shone down with such brightness that Little Joe and Hoss led several companions in a rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. This activity was met with another order for quiet hissed by Miss Abigail into the freezing air. All complied with this request due to the animosity they were unaccustomed to hearing in such a gentle woman’s voice. She redirected their urge to sing to It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, a true irony as the time was not midnight nor was the sky clear.
Pitch was lost among this group due in part to the liquid cheer consumed mere hours before. Any citizen of Virginia City oblivious to the cacophony was deep underground, either working in a mine for a scrooge or dead.
A halt was called and Hoss was directed to separate from the troupe to make his way in the shadows to the rear of the orphanage. Miss Abigail requested her husband’s time piece and used it to calculate two minutes of silence. Unfortunately, the silence was oft broken by hiccups or belches and a barking dog. My eyewitness informs me that Miss Abigail pointed at the dog, affixed it with a scowl, and the dog ran off whimpering as it sought pity among its fellow canines.
The trek resumed upon Miss Abigail’s order but the only sounds were strums from the guitar to provide a marching rhythm and the crunching of snow beneath boots of all sizes and quality.
Upon arriving at the orphanage, Miss Abigail separated from her revelers to knock upon the stout door. Afterwards, she turned and raised her arms in the signal for all to lift their voices in The First Noel. This song, normally intoned with dignity, was presented as more of a round with various smaller groups beginning later than the rest. Many in the group figured it didn’t matter as the song merely provided cover for Hoss to clamber up the roof to the chimney.
Large flakes of snow rained down upon the singers as they stood in the light shed by the numerous lanterns held aloft by the nuns. Sleepy-eyed children dressed in an assortment of garments emerged from the gloom to stand upon the porch. What passed as singing did not soothe any of the orphans into the arms of slumber. Instead, it brightened their eyes to a state of alertness. Not because of the unmatched pitches but because the singing heralded the imminent arrival of Santa.
Despite the various tempos, Adam held steady to his own as he plucked the strings on his guitar. Little Joe stood near Adam in order to better hear the correct pitch. Hank Myers, left to his own devices, stood beside Little Joe and was seen bobbing his head to a tempo of his own choosing. It is well known in singing circles that Hank is not allowed to sing in public for reasons unknown to the majority of the general populace.
None of my eyewitnesses agree on the cause of the spectacle that ensued. The only points they do agree upon are as follows: Hoss in Santa garb fell from the roof into the crowd, Little Joe and Hank Myers were injured, and Adam’s guitar took the brunt of the force of his brother’s body. Little Joe will spend Christmas, and the foreseeable future, laid up with a broken arm. Hank Myers will remain at home under Miss Abigail’s watchful eye as his twisted knee heals. Hoss will be confined to a chair or bed with a sprained ankle. Adam will have to send to New York for a new guitar as his is currently strewn about the street in approximately twenty pieces.
The children were delighted by Santa’s unusual mode of appearance. They were not as amused when it was announced they would have to trek to Dr. Paul Martin’s office in order to speak to Santa. When Santa regained his senses, that is.
All in all, it was a merry Christmas Eve in Virginia City and a night none of the injured will soon forget. I have a suspicion this tale will expand with each telling until even those who were nowhere in the vicinity of the night’s activities bear a scar they claim proves they were present and witness to the events of the Caroling Catastrophe of 1859.
We Wish You A Merry Christmas—16th century English carol
Deck the Halls—16th century Welsh carol
O Holy Night—poem written in French in 1847 by Placide Cappeau and set to music by Adolphe Charles Adam
The First Noel published 1823 by William B. Sandys
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen published 1833 by William B. Sandys