A century ago, the city of Appleton, Wisconsin, celebrated Christmas on a grand scale. It was 1908, and for the first time, the city had decorated its streets with electric lights for the holiday. The occasion was not unlike our observance of Christmas today: bright, extravagant, and unrelentingly commercial. Summing up the event on December 31, the Appleton Post boasted that "The illumination of College Avenue by the Appleton merchants, together with the notoriety given to the town by the possession of the biggest Christmas tree in the world, and not only the biggest, but the prettiest, put the merchants of nearby towns to their wits' end to keep their trade from drifting over to Appleton."1
Christmas in Wisconsin wasn't always such a colossal affair. Indeed, the holiday hasn't always been celebrated here. The American Indians who first occupied the land had their own traditions, beliefs, and ceremonies. The first people who celebrated Christmas in what became Wisconsin were French and British traders who arrived after the seventeenth century. Few of these first Christian arrivals were especially devout. "We sometimes kept Sundays; but whether on the right day was doubtful," recalled Thomas Gummersall Anderson, a British trader who traveled Wisconsin widely in the early 1800s.2 Despite their relaxed attitude towards religion, Anderson and others like him tried to retain their Christmas traditions as best as they could in an unfamiliar land. Anderson's memoir, written just a few years before his death in 1875, records two Christmas feasts gone terribly awry on the Wisconsin frontier.
The first Christmas described by Anderson took place in 1803. That year, Anderson was living in the woods of southeastern Wisconsin in order to trade with the Pottawatomie Indians at their winter hunting grounds. When Christmas arrived, the trader sought to celebrate with a feast of stuffed raccoon:
My neighbors had been very kind, and I made up my mind to exercise my best endeavors in the cooking line, and tender them a rare feast on Christmas day, which was now near at hand. Christmas Eve my invitations were extended to my friends. 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. Towards sun-set, I set my cook to chop any quantity of venison for stuffing. My raccoon was unusually large, weighing about thirty-two pounds, requiring a large quantity of stuffing to fill it out plump. In the meantime, I had the pepper in a piece of deer skin, pounding it into pulverized form, cutting up onions, and a little cedar leaves, to give my viand a pleasant taste. No coonship's body, I am sure, was never so cram-full before. About eight o'clock, it was stitched up, and ready for placing on the spit early the next morning. Then where should it be placed for safety during the night to prevent it from freezing? Of course by the fire. I went to bed, and my mind was on the raccoon subject all night. 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.3
Anderson found himself in a very similar situation eight years later, when he was trading with the Sioux near the present Wisconsin-Minnesota border. Here, along the Upper Mississippi River, the trader instructed his servant in the preparation of a smoked muskrat pie. Once again, Anderson's memoir humorously relates the incident:
In case this narrative should fall into the hands of any French cooks, which is not very likely, I must enlighten him touching the mode in which we prepared a Christmas dinner in Onk-e-tah En-du-tah's dominions, in the year 1811. Our stock of wild fowl, which our Fall sport had laid in, was consumed. The Indians, on whom we had depended for venison, were a great distance from us; and we had, for some time, been feasting on dried and smoked muskrats, a bale of which savory meat had been secured from the Indian Autumnal hunting season. Christmas day had arrived; and, as on former festival days, I was minded to prepare something new for myself and friends to eat, and to talk about for awhile."
So, immediately after breakfast, I called my servant, and told him we intended to have a "sea pie" for dinner; and that it must be made under my own inspection, as I wanted it particularly nice. "So," said I, "go and wash your hands very clean and bring Red Whale's large wooden bowl full of flour, to be made into a paste." That being done, and set by the fire to raise, I directed that six of the fattest muskrats that could be found in the bale be brought; cut off the head, and hairy part of the feet, throwing them away. Divide each muskrat into six parts, and wash them in warm water. Then put into a piece of deerskin a dozen grains of pepper, and powder it, by pounding, as fine as snuff, and pulverize some salt also.
Is the bake-kettle clean? "Yes, sir," replied the servant, "I baked bread in it yesterday." "All right," said I; "now roll out some paste the size of the bake-kettle, not more than half an inch thick; grease the bottom of the kettle with that lump of tallow; fit the paste to the bottom of the dish. Then lay on the paste of layer of muskrat meat; pepper and salt it; then some strips of paste over the meat, and so alternate the courses till the kettle is nearly full." After filling the dish with water, covering it tight with plenty of live coals on the top, it was left to cook by a slow fire. But pepper and salt did not save it, nor savory crust convert muskrat into relishable food. On opening the pie, so sickening was the effluvia emanating from it, that all were glad to rush to do the door for fresh air. Nor have I ever since voted in favor of smoked muskrat pies.4
Not every early Christmas in Wisconsin ended in a culinary disaster. Green Bay was a well-established settlement by the 1820s, and in addition to hosting a U.S. Army garrison at Fort Howard, the town was home to many fur traders of mixed French-Amerindian ancestry. The U.S. officials at Fort Howard often referred to these mixed-race individuals disparagingly as "halfbreeds," and relations between the the soldiers and the traders were sometimes tense in this age of heightening racism. Christmas, however, was something that could bring the two communities together, and in 1824 the commanding officer at Fort Howard put on a celebration for the entire town. One attendee, Albert G. Ellis, would later write about the event:
A table was spread the length of the room, and plates laid for a hundred guests; the invitations extended to the whole population—French half-breeds and Americans—all were invited to share in the festivities and enjoy the feast. The hall was well filled; the variety of costume would have engaged the study of an artist; belles and beaux, men and women, were attired in all the grades of dress, from the highest Parisian down to the buck-skin coat, pants, petticoat, and moccasins of the Aborigines. Yet as no one of the elite thought himself over-dressed, so, on the other hand, none of the citizens, French or half-breeds reproached themselves with the least want of etiquette, or of intended disrespect to their host, on account of costume.
It would be impossible to do justice to the courses of the dinner; suffice to say, that for variety or rarity of dishes, it equaled any of a similar occasion in more civilized climes. The dishes were largely made up of game. There was venison, bear meat, and porcupine; a dozen varieties of the feathered tribes from the waters, as geese and ducks; and of fishes an almost endless list, headed by that king of all the fish tribe, the sturgeon. Nor did the guests fail to bring the best of sauce to the Colonel's entertainment—excellent appetites; and good nature, joined to the good cheer, made this rousing Christmas dinner one long to be remembered. 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.5
In the decades after the 1824 celebration at Green Bay, settlers came to Wisconsin in ever increasing numbers. The newcomers not only transformed the landscape with their settlement, but also brought great changes to the region's holiday traditions. In a pronounced change from the days of Anderson and the fur traders, the new settlers made religion a central aspect of Christmas in Wisconsin after the mid-nineteenth century. Even the newspapers from around the state at that time focused their coverage on the events being held at various parishes. Reviewing the Christmas Eve Sunday school session at an Episcopalian church in 1873, a Madison newspaper reported that "the service was shorter than usually heretofore, which we think a great improvement." This stood in contrast to a three hour Sunday school session held on Christmas day by the German Methodist Church, which the same article notes was disrupted by wily teenagers: "Complaint is made of the disreputable conduct of some lads from 15 to 18 who tried to put out the light, and otherwise make a disturbance," the paper reported.6
Apparently there was little about keeping Christmas at church to make the celebrations in the 1860s and 1870s very exciting. When the Appleton-Post Crescent published a holiday retrospective in 1922, it could say little of the earlier era's celebrations except to announce that "none of the old settlers and people who came here when Appleton was very small can remember anything about them."7
A number of Christmas traditions now cherished in Wisconsin homes — the Christmas tree among them — arrived with the German immigrants that settled the state in large numbers during the nineteenth century. Minna Frances Hoffman Nehrling, the granddaughter of one successful German immigrant, published a memoir in 1930 that described celebrating a traditional German Christmas at her grandparents' farm near Jefferson, Wisconsin, towards the end of the nineteenth century:
German fashion, we celebrated it on Christmas eve, and we did not believe in Santa Claus. We were taught instead about the Christkind, a much nicer way I think. I believed that He (the Christ child) literally came down from heaven to trim the tree and leave the presents for us. The parlor was again the scene of all festivity. For days the preparations had been going on behind locked doors with much pounding of hammers and giggling by the hired girls, as the maids were then called, who helped wholeheartedly. The tree was about ten feet high, not counting the stand. At its base was a tiny village made of card board, with grass of real moss, streets of sand and a lake of glass. The tree stood well away from the wall and was beautifully trimmed all around. A lot of baking had been done for weeks before Christmas, and some of the cookies were made in such large quantities that they lasted till the following Christmas. I have never tasted anything so good as those German Christmas cookies. On Christmas eve, after the tree was lighted, we all went into the parlor. After the explanations of delight had subsided, grandfather read the story of the birth of Jesus from the Bible, and then accompanied us on the piano while we sang Ihr Kinderlein Kommet, Stille Nacht, and Luther's Vom Himmel Hoch Da Komm Ich Her. Then the presents were distributed. There were several tables of them and we children were given beautiful German toys in profusion.8
The traditions that Nehrling detailed—a tree, presents, and cookies—are still commonplace in many Wisconsin family Christmas celebrations today. When these customs were melded with the sort of grand, luminous, and commercial Christmas held in Appleton in 1908, the result was a Christmas tradition that, in its most fundamental aspects, has remained largely unchanged during the last hundred years. Not everyone appreciated the modern form of Christmas. Writing in the 1930s, Thomas Pederson summed up the nostalgic feeling that many people have at some time or another regarding the holiday, saying that "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 ... It has come to be an event more dreaded by many than longingly anticipated."9 Pederson was no Scrooge, he simply missed the "pure friendship and hospitality" that he remembered during Christmas as a youth in western Wisconsin. Now it is up to us, if we want it, to make our holidays as exciting and memorable as the Christmases that color Wisconsin's past.