Stories From Wisconsin’s Christmases Past

Wisconsin-Christmas-in-the-Past

Have you ever wondered what Christmas used to be like? Or – how people in Wisconsin celebrated decades before us?

I wondered what they ate for dinner, how they decorated – and what the “spirit of the holiday” was like back then.

Here’s what I discovered when I dug into Wisconsin’s Christmases past…


The first people to celebrate in the Badger state, were French and British traders who came after the 17th century.

With very few established churches, many of the first settlers in Wisconsin had a relaxed attitude towards religion – but they still did their best to keep their Christmas traditions alive in a new and unfamiliar land.

It was during the mid 19th century that many of our Christmas traditions really started to evolve. People made religion a more central focus of the holiday. You can tell because newspaper articles from around the state covered events at different churches.

That’s when Santa Claus, evergreen trees and electric lights became part of our tradition, too.

A Wisconsin Christmas Dinner Disaster From 1803

800px-PSM_V04_D165_Racoon

If you’ve ever made a cooking mistake that ruined the holiday meal, don’t feel too badly. It’s been happening as long as we’ve had Christmas feasts.

In fact, it’s been happening for at least 200 years in Wisconsin. Although – your story probably doesn’t include raccoon as the main course.

A prominent British trader who traveled Wisconsin in the early 1800s was Captain Thomas Anderson. He wrote a personal narrative recalling a humorous culinary disaster he had experienced on a cold Wisconsin Christmas in 1803.

Captain Anderson wanted to make an impressive feast to share with his Pottawatomie neighbors and friends with whom he’d been trading furs. He worked hard all day to prepare a huge venison stuffed raccoon that he planned to roast first thing Christmas morning.

He even bragged about how fat the coon was in his memoir

“I had secured the fattest raccoon the Indians could tree; and defied any one to procure a fatter one, for their was no lean about it.”

Anderson had the coon stitched and ready to roast by eight o’ clock on Christmas Eve. He thought he’d better keep it from freezing – so he set it by the fire.

Big mistake!

“I went to bed, and my mind was on the raccoon subject all night.” He recalled.

“But what was my mortification, when I got up at daylight to hang my coon up to roast, to find it putrid and stinking. Oh, misery! sympathize with me for my lost labor, and with my friends for their lost dinner… Of course, I went without my dinner, and got laughed at by my half-famished friends.”

Can you imagine eating a venison stuffed raccoon for Christmas dinner!?

Green Bay Christmas 1823 – “Outpost of the Western Wild”

fort howard

Fort Howard/Green Bay (circa 1840)

By the 1820s, the Wisconsin Territory was becoming more established. But the area we know as Green Bay was still considered the frontier. It was also home to the Fort Howard military base, which was established during the War of 1812.

The commanding officer of the garrison, Colonel John McNeil, found out that the French inhabitants in Green Bay enjoyed observing Christmas. So he decided to put together a memorable Christmas celebration for everyone living in Green Bay in 1823.

In those days, racial tensions between European settlers and so-called “French half-breeds” was a significant problem in the community. Leave it to Christmas to bring everyone together!

A man named Albert G. Ellis, who was at the historic Christmas party, wrote about it. His memories can be found in the book, American Christmases – Firsthand Accounts of Holiday Happenings from Early Days to Modern Times, as well as Wisconsin Historical Collections, Volume VII (1876).

It was quite the diverse group of guests. You can tell by reading how Ellis described what people were wearing. He said there were people showing off the latest styles from Paris while others wore petticoats and some wore buckskin coats and moccasins.

Ellis also described a huge table with plates set for a hundred people. They enjoyed an impressive feast with plenty of meat. There was venison, bear meat, duck and goose, fish including sturgeon and even porcupine. After dinner, they danced the whole night away.

Ellis said it was this Christmas get-together that helped people get through the harsh Wisconsin winter.

“This happy company rose from the table at six o’clock and dancing commenced soon after. The revelry lasted to the ‘small hours,’ but all retired in good order, heartily blessing the kind generosity of Colonel McNeil.

Thus did this big-hearted man of war delight to transform this out-post of the Western wild, hitherto in its winters especially a place of desolation, solitude, ennui and almost despair, to one of unalloyed happiness, animated life and real pleasure.

Thus passed a winter of true enjoyment, both to the soldiers and citizens of Green Bay in 1824 under the tutelage of the princely Colonel McNeil.”

The St. Nicholas Tradition Catches On In Wisconsin

sinterklaasSaint Nicholas was a Greek Christian Bishop who inspired the modern Santa Claus.

He was a kind man with a big heart and also a “secret” gift-giver who left coins and treats in children’s shoes.

Saint Nick was celebrated all over Europe until the Reformation. That’s when the Protestant church formed and those Christians put less importance on saints.

While some people assume it is a German custom, it was actually the Dutch who brought their St. Nick traditions to Wisconsin. The Dutch called him “Sinterklaas.”

Every night on the eve of St. Nick’s Day, kids put out their shoes to be filled with treats and gifts.

And by that I mean things like pennies and oranges! Try that with some kids these days and see how they react.

Since Wisconsin was home to many Dutch immigrants, there are plenty of people in Wisconsin – of all backgrounds and denominations – who still celebrate St. Nick Day on December 6th every year.

According to StNicksDay.com, this Christmas tradition is more common in Wisconsin than in other states around the country.

I grew up celebrating St. Nick, and my Gram tells me I’m part Dutch. But like many other people, we filled our Christmas stockings instead of shoes.

The Christmas Tree Tradition Catches On In Wisconsin

royal family christmas tree

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and family

The Christmas tree tradition came to Wisconsin along with the many German immigrants who settled here.

Although Christmas trees are considered normal today, most families in the early 1800s thought the German tradition was pretty strange.

Cutting down a tree and putting it up in your home? It does sound a little odd when you think about it.

Even into the early 1840s, Christmas trees were thought of as a pagan symbol that didn’t fit the Christian holiday.

But America is a giant melting pot of customs and cultures, and before long the tradition became widely adopted.

One occurrence that helped popularize Christmas trees was when London magazines published images of the Royal Family’s beautifully decorated tree. The image first appeared 1848 – and in America a year later.

In 1856, President Franklin Pierce put up a “German tree” at the White House, and by 1860, many families in Wisconsin were celebrating Christmas with trees.

A Wisconsin Holiday Tragedy – The Shipwreck of the Christmas Tree Ship

old schooner photo

Close to two-million Christmas trees are harvested in Wisconsin every year. And the Christmas tree business has been big here for more than a century. In fact, Wisconsin even had a Christmas tree shipping industry.

For more than 30 years, ships actually transported Christmas trees from farms in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan to cities across the Great Lakes.

These men risked their lives every year so people could have a tree for Christmas!

A recovered Christmas tree from the Rouse Simmons ("Christmas Tree Ship") on display at the Port Washington Light Station.

A recovered Christmas tree from the Rouse Simmons on display at the Port Washington Light Station Museum

In November of 1912, the Rouse Simmons schooner, known as “The Christmas Tree Ship” was unable to withstand a violent storm on Lake Michigan. It was carrying more than 5,000 evergreens at the time.

The ship struggled to fight the waves, wind and ice, but it proved to be too much. The schooners sunk off the coast of Two Rivers.

Tragically, all 16 men on board died – including Captain Herman Schuenemann from Algoma. He was often called “Captain Santa,” and was know for having a very kind and generous heart.

Schuenemann sold trees for between 50 cents and a dollar – but he always gave trees away to needy families as well.

The tree-shipping industry came to a close in 1920 when railways, highways and more tree farms made it easier for everyone to find a tree.

But the “Christmas Tree Ship” legacy lives on to this day in books, musicals, theaters and museums throughout Wisconsin.

The First Electric Christmas Lights in Appleton

christmas tree ad

In the 1800s people not only decorated their tree with handmade paper ornaments, popcorn strings, cranberries, cookies and nuts – they also lit their trees with tiny little candles.

Talk about a fire hazard! We have it so easy nowadays…

But thanks to Edward H. Johnson, Edison’s close friend and employee  – the first electrical Christmas lights were introduced in 1880.

That same year, the first manufactured Christmas tree ornaments were sold.

28 years later, the Appleton Post reported the first time the streets of Appleton were decorated with electric lights! Of course, Appleton is a groundbreaking city when it comes to electricity. The Hearthstone House was the first residence with lights powered by Edison’s hydroelectric station.

By the 1930s, electric lights were a standard for holiday decorating in the United States.

I found this clip from Wisconsin Public Radio, of a woman remembering Christmas in Wisconsin during the Great Depression. It helps give us an idea of what Christmas used to be like in the 1930s.

 

Wisconsin Christmas Gets Commercial Sooner Than You Think

It seems Christmas in the beginning, was a time of enjoying good food and spending time together. If gifts were given, they were simple, often homemade, useful and lots of times given in secret.

Sometimes it feels like Christmas today has become so much a time of rushing around, stressing out and making things perfectly fair that some of us even start to dread it and the spirit is lost.

But surprisingly by the 1930s, some Wisconsinites were already clearly bothered by the commercialization of Christmas.

Thomas Pederson, who was from Western Wisconsin, wrote about his recollections from 1937 where he expressed his feelings on the spirit of Christmas.

“The pure friendship and hospitality of those early settlers are something rarely found today…Giving each other gifts was not so much in vogue in those days.”

Pederson went on to explain how gifts used to be things like a quarter of beef or pork or a sack of flour, and were always given to those who needed it. If your gift could be given without revealing your identity – that’s how it was done.

“The Christmas spirit of today is a far cry from what it was in those days. Now we give gifts to those from whom we expect something or we give for fear that otherwise we will be looked down on, and also because it has become a custom.

Whenever Christmas draws near, a longing, a sort of homesickness comes over me. There is something lacking, something lost, something that never will come back… There is so little left of ‘Peace on earth, good will toward men.’ It has come to be an event more dreaded by many than longingly anticipated.”

Imagine that! People got the “holiday blues”  back in 1930 – way before we had things like Black Friday and Cyber Monday! I wonder what Pederson would say about that?

Digging into our past can actually help freshen our perspective on what Christmas should be about.

This Christmas, let’s try to remember the true spirit of the holiday like the simple ones that color Wisconsin’s past.

A special thanks to Joshua’s blog Acceity – Josh spent some time working for the Wisconsin Historical Society and his article was a great reference! Check it out.

Learn More About Local History and Christmas in Wisconsin

If you’re interested in finding out even more, you may want to visit some of the local history museums in our area. In Green Bay, that includes the Hazelwood Historic House, which has a holiday tour.

There’s also Heritage Hill, where you can see restored buildings from Fort Howard and more. Heritage Hill will hos the Spirit of Christmas Past event on December 13th this year.

You can visit the Neville Public Museum to see their retro exhibit that’s a flashback to downtown Green Bay in the 1960s. Read our article about the Pranges window displays.

And the Hearthstone Historic House can show you what Victorian Era Christmas might have been like in Appleton.

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Comments

  1. Really good history article on Wisconsin, Ashley! And, when I get a little melancholy about Christmas not being like it was years ago, I direct my focus to the Babe in the manger and the soon coming King. Now that’s what Christmas is all about no matter where one lives. (just ask Linus) <3 Merry Christmas, everyone!

  2. Friends of ours always do the traditional Scandinavian style tree decorations with candles and everything. The tree has to be the type with very spread-out branches, like the one in the royal family picture above. They light the candles for show, but the blow them out after a few minutes. It really is special.

    Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without being in Wisconsin. I’ve mentioned many times on this site how much I want to get back home, but even though I’m still working on that, I never miss a Christmas at home. My mom flew in to visit me here in MD yesterday, but we’re both driving back on Monday. Home for Christmas–nothing like it.

    • That does sound pretty special, Lynne! You’re right about Christmas in Wisconsin. I can’t imagine not having a white Christmas! We hope you can make it back to Wisconsin for good, but for now enjoy your Christmas back home. ; )

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