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3:37 AM Tue, Oct. 23rd

Wonderful time of the year: Saturday's parade, lighting will celebrate 150 years of Christmases

(The Daily Courier, file)

(The Daily Courier, file)

Despite its frontier surroundings, Arizona Territory's new capital of Prescott still managed to celebrate its first Christmas in style in 1864.

Governor John Goodwin reportedly hosted a party at the governor's mansion, complete with food, music and dancing.

Prescott has built on those early holiday traditions through the years, and will continue them this weekend with the annual Christmas Parade and Courthouse Lighting.

Mary Melcher, director of education at Sharlot Hall Museum, points out that "many of the town's traditions go back nearly 150 years." For instance: A "shaggy juniper tree" that was decorated on the plaza in 1870.

By the mid-1950s, Prescott had kicked off what would become the lasting custom of lighting up the Yavapai County Courthouse on the first Saturday of December. Then 32 years ago, Prescott added the Christmas Parade, which takes place earlier that day.

Both events are set to happen once again in downtown Prescott on Saturday, Dec. 6 - the parade at 1 p.m., and the lighting at 6 p.m. (with music starting at 4 p.m.).

And this year, that first Christmas will be in the spotlight. Titled "150 Years of Christmas Memories," the Christmas Parade will celebrate Prescott's 150th anniversary - a milestone that was marked earlier this year with a multi-day sesquicentennial celebration.

Longtime Prescott resident and historian Elisabeth Ruffner will serve as grand marshal of the parade in honor of the work she has done to preserve the community's past.

"With this year's parade theme celebrating the 150th 'birthday' of Prescott, it is certainly fitting that today's parade grand marshal be someone who has been deeply involved in Prescott's history," states the draft parade script.

Ruffner said she considers it "a great honor" to help lead off the parade, and she emphasizes the importance of keeping the community's history alive.

"We're a distinguished community because of our having paid attention to history through the years," said Ruffner, who was actively involved in the planning for both the city's centennial in 1964, and for this year's sesquicentennial.

Along with Ruffner, a number of other parade entries also will offer a nod to history.

Sharlot Hall Museum's Living History Interpreters will focus on the first Prescott Christmas in 1864. And later along the parade route, the Prescott Regulators and their Shady Ladies will relive the first Christmas at the governor's mansion.

The Sacred Heart Catholic Parish will emphasize its own sesquicentennial with a parade entry that celebrates 150 years of the Catholic faith in Prescott.

Plenty of other entries also will be on hand to contribute to the festive atmosphere. Prescott Chamber of Commerce Executive Director David Maurer expects the parade to include about 100 entries - the same as last year's event.

Nine of those will be bands, mostly from area high schools and middle schools, while many other entries will feature Christmas music as well.

The parade generally takes about an hour and a half to circle the plaza, and Maurer noted that it would follow the usual route, starting near Willis/Cortez and proceeding along Cortez, Goodwin, and Montezuma.

Soon afterward, the evening festivities will begin on the plaza. Maurer said singing would begin at 4 p.m., leading up to the Courthouse Lighting, which officially begins at 6 p.m.

This year's lighting program will follow the tradition of previous years, with Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett reading the Christmas story, and local singers performing carols from the steps of the courthouse.

The night will end with the main event - the illumination of thousands of lights on the courthouse and the trees surrounding it. This year's decorations will include several new features, including five additional decorated trees, and a new star on the courthouse.

Although attendance at the two events depends largely on the weather, Maurer estimates that as many as 10,000 attend the parade on a good day, while about 5,000 to 6,000 attend the lighting.

- By Cindy Barks, The Daily Courier