St. Peter's Church, Old World Wisconsin

Scott and I planned to spend last weekend in Eagle, taking in Old World Wisconsin’s Christmas programming and attending the Belgian Holiday Dinners put on by the OWW Foundation. As we headed out on Saturday afternoon, I checked the weather and learned that the winter storm warning had been upgraded to a blizzard warning.  Sunday would bring bitter cold, high winds, and drifting snow.

We didn’t want to miss the dinner that evening. Getting stranded in Eagle wasn’t too appealing either. We decided to keep going, but drive back to Madison that evening after the dinner.

As we drove east, the temperature hovered just above freezing and an icy rain pelted the car. “The site itself might be closed by the time we get there,” I told Scott. “I can’t imagine people traipsing about in these conditions.”

To my surprise, though, we found a fair (relatively speaking) number of cars in the parking lot. We had allowed extra time, and decided to make a quick visit to the Crossroads Village before heading back to the Clausing Barn for the Belgian Dinner. We passed several families bundled well against the sleety rain. In St. Peter’s church the pews were filled.

Visitors braved nasty weather to enjoy the program.

As I wrote a year ago, way back in the ’80s I had the privilege of helping to research and create the Christmas event at Old World Wisconsin. Programs have of course continued to evolve and grow! Still, the scene in St. Peter’s was cozy and familiar. I felt a bit emotional as I listened to two good friends and long-time interpreters, Bea Jacobson and Ed Pierce, share music and stories with the guests. Inside the church the fading light, slush, and ice didn’t matter.

Bea at the old pump organ.

It was clear that many of the visitors who braved the weather that day had attended OWW’s “The Spirit of Christmas Past” before. For those guests, experiencing a program about Wisconsin’s historical Christmas traditions has become a holiday tradition itself. Singing carols in the candle-lit church was a special experience they weren’t willing to miss.

Ed played period music on a horn dating back to the Civil War.

When closing time came Scott and I headed back to the Clausing Barn, where Foundation staff and volunteers had created a lovely and festive ambiance.

Decorations brought old world cheer to a cold night.

We enjoyed a superb meal (catered by Maders–enough said), followed by a short program that celebrated holiday festivities from Belgium. The event had been a sell-out, and although there were a few empty seats, most of the ticket-holders had shrugged aside the weather forecast in favor of attending. Many of the attendees had been coming to these Dinners for years, enjoying the different ethnic focus each year.

The carrots filling the shoes are heirlooms, grown on the site!

The holiday season always provides a reminder that links between present and past are important. We develop and perpetuate traditions within our own circle of friends and family. We also celebrate traditions that reflect, in a much broader sense, both heritage and history.  What better place to do both than an historic site like Old World Wisconsin?

The rain turned to snow that night as Scott and I drove—very slowly—back to Madison. Conditions were so bad on Sunday that all programming was canceled, but  I’m already looking forward to next year.

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