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Porcupine For Dinner: Christmas In Early Wisconsin

Vintage Wisconsin: Big Gatherings Of Friends, Neighbors Common In 19th Century Wisconsin

1890 Christmas dinner
Christmas dinner at the Grignon home in Kaukauna in 1890. Wisconsin Historical Images

Wisconsinites have celebrated the holiday season for centuries with family gatherings and community parties, despite the cold, isolation and sometimes lack of provisions.

Milwaukee’s first white settlers, Solomon and Josette Juneau, celebrated their first Christmas with a few neighbors in the 1820s.

Wisconsin Historical Society

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At dusk, Solomon and his neighbor Horace Chase cut a hemlock tree from the riverbank and collected branches and vines for garland, bringing everything back to Chase’s house.

“They worked clumsily, for they were men and unused to decoration,” said the Milwaukee Free Press. “But when they had finished and stood back to view the result of their labors, they were satisfied.”

Another neighbor had brought a bit of red yarn to decorate the tree along with rose hips and tallow candles for light. Juneau then went back to his house and persuaded his wife and children to come to Chase’s house. Josette was skeptical but she and the children were astonished by the decorations.

At the fur trade post in Green Bay in 1824, French, British, Americans and Native Americans gathered to celebrate a Christmas feast. Venison, bear, porcupine, geese, ducks and fish filled the tables. After dinner came dancing, singing and eventually, cake.

“Christmas was not the day to give and receive presents,” wrote the Appleton Crescent of the day. “This was reserved for New Years” when elderly men dressed in costumes would go door-to-door singing, dancing and handing out gifts.

Appleton hosted a formal Christmas party at the National Hotel in 1852. People came from as far away as Green Bay and Fond du Lac to attend — no small trip before paved roads, automobiles and snow plows.

Attendees ordered new clothes in the latest fashions from New York and changed after they arrived so as not to ruin their silks and satins.

Not everyone could enjoy a holiday among friends, though.

Elisha Rice Reed celebrated his first Wisconsin Christmas in 1845, when he was just 10 years old. His family moved into their new log home just south of Evansville on Christmas Day with one bed, three chairs, a few quilts and a cook stove. Nearly everything else the family owned sunk on a ship during the journey.

Reed recalled his new home as “unusually cold and dark and uninviting,” and yet his memories of that first Christmas with his parents and four siblings were “sweet and tender.”

They huddled close together and told stories and jokes, lifting the “monotonous gloom.”

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