California is my native state. I was born, raised, and still live here. It’s sort of ironic that the focus of my history studies are on places, events, and people thousands of miles away…especially when I have such wonderful history “in my own backyard.” What can I say?
Truly, I appreciate and enjoy California history, so when I was planning the short stories to write and feature in With Gladness, I knew I wanted one of the stories to be set on a California Rancho. The “classic era” of the California Ranchos was during the 1820’s and 1830’s, but I set the story in 1848. Why? It was a time of conflict and change.
Today’s blog post explores more of the history behind the short story “A Light In The Window.”
During the Spanish colonial days in California, the missions (Catholic Church) owned most of the land. During the Mexican Period of California History (1822-1846), the missions were secularized and their lands were removed from church control. Any loyal citizen of Mexico could apply for California land.
The land grants were huge! At least 4,500 acres, but a land seeker could ask for up to 50,000. What did they do with the land? Cattle ranching. Hides and tallow were valuable trade items with the Yankee ships sailing to California. There was great profit in this trade and for a while the families and ranchos prospered. A large adobe home was usually built on the rancho and was a center of activity and culture.
Toward the end of the rancho days (1848-1865), many of the families struggled. They were in debt from overspending, droughts, and other difficulties. The newly arrived Americans had different ideas about land ownership and boundaries.
(Find a more detailed overview of early California History HERE.)
Though the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was fought primarily in Mexico, but it had important implications for California. In 1846, American settlers in Northern California were disgruntled and launched the Bear Flag Revolt. U.S. troops and navy stepped in, capturing the California capital at Monterrey.
Understandably, not all Mexican citizens were excited about their land becoming a U.S. Territory (though many were tired of Mexico’s inattention to Alta California). The Californios banded together and fought back. A series of small battles and skirmishes were fought during the autumn of 1846 and the Battle of San Pasqual in December.
After 1846, California was a U.S. Territory and Mexico formally ceded it to the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The following year the California Gold Rush began, and in 1850 California became a state.
Christmas at the Rancho
Most rancho owners and their families were Catholic and would’ve celebrated Christmas. If they could attend church, had their own chapel, or were hosting a visiting priest, they would begin their celebrations with a mass.
Parties and social gatherings were very popular too. Families and friends would gather for days-long celebrations. There might be a beef “barbeque”, dancing, visiting, and other entertainments. Californios were known for their hospitality and cheery out-look on life.
Christmas decorations would’ve been from natural materials available in fields or gardens. Paper decorations would also have been popular. Candles displayed in simple or finely crafted candlesticks lighted the rooms.
Decorations and details in the California Rancho tale reflect an era (a civilization, if you prefer a grandiose term) that’s fading at the time of the story. Against this backdrop of post-Mexican American War and struggling ranchos, the main character has to decide if she wants to hold onto the past or embrace the future. Descriptions of the holiday décor hint at these conflicts.
Here’s a quote from A Light In The Window:
She tossed her embroidery back into the work basket and looked at the meager holiday decorations. It was nothing like the days of her childhood. Just the paper chains and pepper tree greenery and berries trying to replace the long, beautiful garlands and yards of ribbon from years gone by. A bowl of softening fruit stood on the sideboard accented with juniper while the fruit flies swarmed around it during the day. Abuela’s silver candlesticks – brought from Mexico and treasured for generations – lined the mantle, burning toward their last glow of the evening. Barbara leaned her head on her hands, frowning.
Your Historian & Authoress,
P.S. Live in California and want to visit a historic Rancho? Check the California State Park website to see if there’s one in your area (or just search “adobe” and your town or county – not all adobe ranchos are state owned.)!