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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Ghosts of Christmas Past


Stressed out by holiday parties, cooking, shopping, travel plans, house cleaning, and the whole annual onslaught of holiday obligations? Relax for a minute, and consider how people used to cope with the holidays.

Our earliest French settlers devoted Christmas to celebrations at home and piety at church, especially midnight mass. Achille Bertrand, who arrived in Superior in 1857, recalled that the service included three sermons -- English, French and Ojibwe. The Yankee descendants of the Puritans who arrived here in the early 1800s tried to replace French customs with English ones. They took a different tack: they observed Christmas, but didn't celebrate it (or much of anything else, perhaps). Other early Christmases in Wisconsin included ritual over-eating, just as today's does. And by the mid-19th century, exchanging Christmas cards had become an annual ritual.

German immigrants brought the custom of decorating a Christmas tree. A German ship captain, Herman Schuenemann, became affectionately known as "Captain Santa" because for many years he brought Christmas trees from northern Wisconsin to Chicago. His voyage of 1912 was to be his last, however. Fully loaded with 10,000 trees, his ship, the Rouse Simmons, encountered a brutal winter storm and disappeared without a trace. In 1971, its remains were discovered off the coast of Two Rivers.

By the early 20th century, the success of modern department stores had made Christmas shopping an established annual event. It was all downhill from there. During the 1920s, the obligatory office Christmas party became part of the tradition. Workers spent months preparing holiday gift boxes of candy. Children dressed up in costumes for pageants, sometimes even masquerading as Christmas trees. Santa found his way into not only chimneys but department stores and helicopters. The post office was annually overwhelmed with cards and packages, all but burying employees like Fred Boyle.

So relax. Enjoy being with the people who love you, and the egg nog, and the presents. It used to be even harder to survive the holidays.


:: Posted in Curiosities on December 16, 2012

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