Old-Fashioned Christmas in the Country

By Anne Morrissy  | Photography by Holly Leitner

No question about it: Old World Wisconsin is excited for Christmas. This year’s holiday-themed weekends at the museum, known as “An Old World Christmas,” promise to bring even more holiday cheer into the hearts of both young and old. “‘More’ and ‘better’ are the plans this year,” explains Anna Altschwager, assistant director of guest experiences at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle. The world-class living history museum, managed by the Wisconsin Historical Society, has been hosting Christmas activities for several years, and according to Altschwager, the holiday themed weekends have only gotten more popular over time. So in the spirit of “more and better,” this year the event has expanded from two weekends to three.

HOLIDAY TRADITIONS REVISITED

During “An Old World Christmas,” guests are invited to explore the Crossroads Village area of the museum, which contains structures representing Yankee, English, Irish, Welsh, Norwegian and German immigrants, including the popular blacksmith’s shop. Altschwager says several Christmas-themed guest experiences are planned, including horse-drawn rides, a brass band playing Christmas music, readings of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions of pioneer Christmas traditions and even Christmas shopping in the general store (using a “time-travel token” system to maintain the historic experience.) And since no Christmas is complete without holiday treats, Altschwager says there will be plenty of food preparation and tasting taking place.

In fact, a majority of the guest experiences planned for the Christmas event seem to center around food and tradition. “For so many of our guests, their own personal holiday traditions are rooted in food,” Altschwager says. “The holiday foods only happen once a year, so even if it’s been 200 years, that’s only 200 Christmases, and we find the traditions move a lot more slowly and are rooted in history.” She says guests will have a chance to help make and taste Christmas foods like traditional cookies and candies, Czech braided bread and even Victorian savory puddings. “That’s a great opportunity to be hands-on. We hope that if guests learn about one of our foods that we’re making, then they will talk about their own traditions.”

WISCONSIN’S SCANDINAVIAN PAST COMES TO LIFE

“An Old World Christmas” is also the only place you can see the world’s largest yule goat — a larger-than-life-sized figure made out of straw, based on Scandinavian tradition. “The yule goat is a nod to the deep Scandinavian roots we have here in Wisconsin,” Altschwager continues. “It’s a tradition that has deep pagan roots, with the goat representing fertility and the new year. Today, people often see it in a little ornament or figurine. But traditionally they were these big figures in the center of the community, which you would have instead of a Christmas tree.

Altschwager is thrilled with the excitement people have shown for “An Old World Christmas” in the past, and is looking forward to expanding the experience. “Our stories here are almost all immigrant stories, centering around our shared immigrant past and what we celebrate today through the stories we share,” she says. “We’re hoping to give people a space to reflect on their own Christmas traditions and what they hope their children and grandchildren continue to do. We’re happy to be the space where that happens.

“An Old World Christmas” will take place on the following weekends: Dec. 1-2, Dec. 8-9 and Dec. 15-16. The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on both Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, visit oldworldwisconsin.wisconsinhistory.org

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