Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’


December 18, 2010

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.

The Spirit of Christmas Past

December 15, 2009

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.