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Celebrating a Hidden Heritage : Holiday traditions of the American West, some Jewish-based, are featured at the Gene Autry museum.

November 04, 1994|ROBIN GREENE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robin Greene is a regular contributor to The Times

LOS ANGELES — Thanks to Western art and folklore--not to mention the movies--it's easy to imagine the holiday season in the remote Southwest desert of Arizona in the 1800s: families dressed in their Sunday best, gathered 'round a long oak table eating a traditional Christmas feast while a fire blazes in the fireplace.

Yet some of those early pioneers quietly kept a set of traditions that don't quite fit in with the Hollywood view of the West. Although they were not Jewish, these settlers reportedly sat down to a special Friday night dinner, kept kosher kitchens and even played the dreidel, the children's Hanukkah game.

To celebrate these lesser-known rituals and other holiday traditions, the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum is offering a series of programs through the month of December that should appeal to children of all ages.

Over the next two months, the museum will offer a variety of hands-on Western holiday workshops, including making corn husk dolls, farolitos y luminaria (delicately cut paper bags that hold candles), holiday greeting cards and, of course, playing with the dreidel.

While the Jewish holiday tradition may seem out of place in a museum packed with Western artifacts, education associate Arlene Guillen notes that so-called "Crypto-Jewish" traditions were very much a part of America's Western heritage.

Most likely dating back to the Spanish Inquisition of the late 1400s, these mixed rituals started as Jews outwardly adopted Christian traditions as a way to survive attempts to wipe out the Jewish population. Yet, behind closed doors, they maintained some of their Jewish rituals.

One family that reportedly brought these rituals from Spain in the late 18th Century to Arizona, which was then part of Mexico, was the Ruelas family. "There is not a shred of concrete documentation proving it," says Mary Ann Ruelas, a member of the family, "but I've heard these stories from my older cousins. They may just be coincidental."

Coincidence or not, Ruelas says, "the stories are absolutely wonderful."

"My cousin, Thelma Seymour, told me that every spring, around Easter, my aunt did a meticulous cleaning to get up all the bread crumbs," says Ruelas, who is assistant director of programs at the museum.

"Thelma also told me the story of my aunt and my grandfather telling the children not to drink milk when eating meat, that it will make you sick," she says.

"I don't think my aunt understood" that the rituals might relate to the Jewish holiday of Passover and keeping kosher, Ruelas says.

Ruelas' immediate family did not celebrate the Jewish traditions, but her father does remember playing a "spinning tops" game that might have been related to the dreidel, she says.

But much is known about the Ruelas family's long history in Arizona. For the last two years, the museum's Los Angeles Times Children's Discovery Gallery has devoted its hands-on exhibit to the family and what life was like for them in the mid-20th Century.

Pictures of family members are on display, including one of a young Adelina Ruelas--Thelma Seymour's mother--dressed in the 1920s as a working vaquera , or cowgirl. A later photo, taken in the 1940s, shows the now-married Adelina as a fashionable doyenne sporting a beaded pillbox hat topped with a feather.

"Many of the best stories came from Adelina's children," Ruelas says.

Among the many Ruelas family trinkets on display: a replica of a holy family statuette of Joseph, Mary and the young Jesus as well as a Spanish prayer book with an angel and cross.

Still, from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, the museum will celebrate the family's Jewish traditions with puzzles, coloring sheets and the dreidel. In addition, says Guillen, the museum also will provide a trumpo, a Latino version of the dreidel--a four-sided top that children spin to win--or lose--Hanukkah gelt, or money.

"The trumpo has a few more sides than a dreidel, but it is played on the same principle," Guillen says. "Some think it may have been an attempt to disguise the children's game."


Museum visitors can begin taking advantage of the museum's holiday program on Saturday, when participants will be able to make corn husk dolls, much as the early settlers did to celebrate the harvest season.

"By creating your own doll, you are creating something that children from another time might have played," Guillen says.

A workshop on Dec. 3 will give visitors the chance to make farolitos y luminarias (roughly translated it means "little bonfires"), a traditional holiday decoration found primarily in New Mexico and Arizona.

"Farolitos y luminarias is the symbol of welcoming, Guillen explains. "During the celebration of Las Posadas, a processional re-enacts the story of Mary and Joseph seeking a room at the inn. A bonfire is lit at the house that is the final stopping point, which is symbolic of the bonfire at the stable (where Jesus was born)."

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