The Spirit of Christmas Past

Old World Wisconsin began offering a Christmas program in the late 1980s.   As curator of interpretation, I was lucky enough to have a role in researching and presenting the special event.  We knew that holiday programming could easily become more about fostering nostalgia than presenting accurate impressions of Christmas past, so we approached the research carefully.

A new edition of a classic.

Before beginning the project, my own images of early Midwestern Christmases were once again fostered by my memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series.    The pictures painted in those books do convey a time when children were truly grateful for what many or most American children would consider the tiniest of trifles:  gifts made from scraps, the thrill of finding a penny in a Christmas stocking, a Sunday-school Christmas tree, the joy of sharing the day with family and friends.

Could Old World’s Christmas program convey an accurate picture of life for the families we interpreted, and still satisfy visitors?  Would high-tech kids be too cool to appreciate the joy children once took from a single piece of candy?  Would evidence of simple celebrations disappoint adults who might arrive with particular expectations?

Me at the Ketola Farm. (All photos in this post were taken about 1990.)

Old World Wisconsin’s geography limited the possibilities for winter programming.  The Crossroads Village, the Sanford Farm (Yankee) and the Ketola Farm (Finnish) were the only exhibits within easy walking distance of the Visitor Center.  Even so, those provided enough diversity to let interpreters help visitors compare and contrast what they were seeing.   Visitors experienced holiday traditions ranging from 1860 to 1915.  They got a sense of community celebrations at St. Peter’s Church, and family festivities in the rural, northwoods Ketola home.   They could think about how the holiday was observed by families with different income levels and social aspirations.

Most concerns I might have had about Christmas programming conjuring images of something “simpler and better” evaporated that first December.  Every interpreter (and historical novelist, perhaps) should have the chance to work in their historic structures in the winter.  Two words:  cold, and dark.

Renee Raduechel, left, and a colleague heading to work.

We all quickly learned which buildings got cozy with the wood stove going, and which never, ever warmed up (by modern standards, anyway).  Visitors’ comings and goings had a lot to do with that, of course, but I remember well the difficulty in simply preparing certain buildings for the event.   If the temperature was too low, or the winds too strong, no amount of wool clothes and firewood kept us warm.

Mary Kilps at the Benson House, 1990.

Mary Kilps Ramstack, Benson House.

Similarly, days were short.  Oil lamps and candles may be pretty, but they give precious little light if you really need to get something done.   The cold and dark were things I had always understood intellectually, but getting even a little real experience made an impact.

Two interpreters at the Sanford House.

The Sanford House is beautiful, hard to heat, and hard to illuminate well.

And it did for visitors as well (although it was more noticeable to the interpreters, who couldn’t keep moving or wear down parkas).  Even bundled up, upon entering a building visitors often headed straight for the stove.  Even knowing they were entering a period structure, they sometimes reached for nonexistent light switches.  Cold days made people think about the difficulty of travel before the advent of cars.  Warmer days brought slushy mud, helping guests imagine the challenge of keeping floors clean with water hauled from a pump outside.  Visiting in December provides a visceral experience that can’t be duplicated.

Many churches used evergreens to create Bible verses. The tree is laden with gifts.

When I attended Old World’ Christmas programming this year, after a long absence, I was reminded of those things.  But I also had the chance to reflect on the other aspect of programming.   St. Peter’s Church was decorated and interpreted to reflect services described in early newspaper accounts, and the effect was lovely.  Visitors settled in to sing period carols.   Children made popcorn strings, then grinned with pride as an interpreter carefully added them to the tree.

In the historic homes, visitors lingered, enjoying the stories.  They sampled traditional baked goods.  They paused to reflect upon simple decorations.  Parents helped their children understand what they were seeing, and make connections to their own lives.  Grandparents told their own stories.

The Benson House parlor.

I am certainly biased.  Still, I think the site does a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of Christmas past—the challenges, the charms.   Put a visit on your 2010 calendar.  You won’t be sorry.

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8 Responses to “The Spirit of Christmas Past”

  1. Molly MacRae Says:

    This is a wonderful post, Kathleen. I can feel the cold, smell the wood smoke, and I feel like reaching for the light switch myself! I certainly will put a visit to Old World Wisconsin on my calendar – but maybe in the spring!

  2. Meg Says:

    Thank you so much for this informative post. I am currently studying for museum certification at the University of Washington, and was a reference librarian in a previous life, and it’s wonderful to read about the presentation of a program like this from the curator’s point of view.

  3. Renee Says:

    Yes, Kathleen, that is me in the outdoor picture. I think that’s Mary I’m walking with, too. And in the Sanford picture — isn’t that Gail on the right? Not sure who’s on the left.

    22 years so far, Renee (feeling nostalgic for other reasons)

  4. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    You’re right–I think it’s Mary on the road with you. In Sanford, perhaps the person on the left is Astrid?

  5. Mary Trimble Says:

    Kathleen — What an interesting background you have. I love enactments–we often stop by these places and spend time immersed in history. Thanks for sharing.

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