Monday, December 23, 2013


     The struggle for Christmas is as old as the holiday itself. It is  the struggle between those who view it as a sacred day, meant for worship, thanksgiving to God, and family bonding and those who see it as a time to party, profit, and play.
     In the time of the English Civil War, George Withers wrote the following:
"So, now is come our joyful'st feast;
Let every man be jolly;
Each room with ivy leaves is drest
And every post with holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads garlands twine;
Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry.”

    The uncivil low class boors (churls) of that day were dismissed by the poet for their complaining and disapproval of the drunken celebration. They were no doubt the simple religious folk who had to put up with the besotted on a holy day. Doesn't this ring a bell? Isn't this the same dichotomy we find today in human behavior? It was considered anti-social to refrain from the party to fast and pray:

(From "Poor Robin's Almanack," 1711
"Christmas day approaches near,
Trim up the house with holly,
And set abroach the strongest beer,
For neighbours to be jolly.
Let fanatics old customs blame,
Yet Christmas is a High day,
Though they will fast upon the same,
And feast upon Good Friday."

     In the book Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of the Christmas she received Charlotte, her rag doll.  Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867, so her story relates to Christmas in 1870's Wisconsin.  By that time Christmas customs were changed considerably from those of a generation earlier. When we think of Christmas past we think of families together, decorated Christmas trees and the wonder of children opening gifts wrapped with bright paper, ribbons, and bows.  That is not the way it has always been.  Christmas tradition has changed many times over the centuries and what we have now are customs added layer by layer over the centuries; an amalgam build by new waves of immigrants coming to our country. The Christmas tree and Candy cane came from the Germans.  Eggnog, Christmas pudding and Mistletoe came from the English.  Saint Nicholas was the contribution of the Dutch.  In the Netherlands and parts of Germany and Austria “Sinterklass” and his helper filled shoes (we have made it stockings) with treats.  In German speaking areas of Europe “Saint Nikolaus” comes with an evil figure called "Krampus".  Saint Nicholas gives gifts to well behaved children and Krampus either beats bad children, or, if they are particularly bad he captures them in his sack and carries them away to his lair.  Obviously, this is not a joyful prospect for children so I think we can do without that custom.  The first commercial Christmas cards were manufactured by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843.

      Most of us have read at times the stories of Christmas' pagan roots in the Roman winter solstice celebrations and sun worship.  The church fathers wisely kept native celebration days and changed their purposes as the faith spread throughout the world.  In 1645, with the ascendancy of the Puritans to power, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed.  The celebration, the Puritans believed, was a hedonist atrocity characterized by drinking, bear baiting, and debauchery.  They believed there was no biblical justification                             

for celebrating on the 25th of December, or for that matter for celebrating the birth of Christ at all.  To the Puritan the true Christian should be modest and prayerful every day, not given to feasting and revelry.  This was not what December 25th produced in their experience.  Pilgrim suppression of the customary activities of Christmas made them hated fanatics in the eyes of many English citizens, but the entertainments of the day were, as we would say "Over the top."  From 1659 to 1681 the Puritans of New England outlawed Christmas celebrations for the same reason their English brethren had.

     We need look no further than the popular sport of bear baiting to see what I mean by “over the top.”  Spectators sat around a ring in which a bear was chained.  The beast was set upon by vicious dogs. Desperately defending itself the bear ripped with its terrible claws and crushed with its  powerful jaws.                                                                         Krampus and  Saint Nikolaus 
Multiple canines attacked from all sides.  The bear killed or maimed them one after another; bloody mayhem for a crowd of inebriated, cheering onlookers.  Today this bloody sport is still practiced in Pakistan. 

      Were our ancestors any better?  To be sure, such spectacles were outlawed in early New England, but not in the south.  In the Virginia colonies they tried to keep up the traditions of the old world, so blood sports, alcohol, and parties ruled the holiday.  We need not entertain a sense of superiority however.  On Christmas day of 1850 the entertainment at Lancaster was -- bear baiting!  In the 1881 History of Grant County is found the following:  "Among the early sports of the new country, which at times afforded much amusement, was bear and dog fights...A performance of this kind was advertised for Christmas day in this year, and resulted as usual (the bear killing or maiming the dogs), after which followed the inevitable resort to the hotel for liquid refreshment, but, in the language of one of the earlier settlers, "the whiskey was better then than now", and only the best of humor was the result of these bacchanalian revivals."  Another common attraction was wolf and dog fights.  Both "amusements" were accompanied by wagering on the result.  

    Christmas was not about children and their gifts before the middle of the19th century.  A stoic practicality forbade such silliness among the religious protestants, and for the rest entertainment for the adults was more the order of the day.  Christmas Balls were one popular means to keep the holiday, and children were usually not welcome.  Both the Denniston House in Cassville, and Barnetts in Boscobel hosted balls attended by folks from all over the county. Think of Fezziwig's Ball from Dicken's A Christmas Carol: dancing, singing, food and drinking.

     And so we have created our own American ways of celebrating Christmas; some sacred, some joyful, some over the top, but we are on the whole no better or worse than those of olden days.  Those who seek the true meaning of Christmas will approach it with reverence and joy.  Those who don’t particularly give a damn will use it as an excuse for excess.  A little mischief does not make a scoundrel.  A little church going does not make a saint.  We live in the middle of many merging cultures, and we can expect that as we have adopted foreign cuisines, we may in the future incorporate the customs of others into Christmas.  It should be interesting.nks, games, and kisses under the mistletoe. 


A Tour of Potosi and British Hollow

     On November 24, 2013 I joined the Old house Enthusiasts in a tour of Potosi and British Hollow hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Roger Sedgwick.  We were shown many of the historic homes and business buildings of the village, and enjoyed dinner at the Potosi Inn and desert at the Segwick home.  One of the highlights was St. Thomas Church, and its new altars complete with a relief sculpture of the face of Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, who founded the parish in 1836 .  Potosi sculptor Gary David did a magnificent job.  The main altar is of solid oak with walnut columns and weighs over 1000 pounds.  There are two side altars, featuring Mary on the left and Saint Thomas on the right.  The Mazzuchelli sculpture is on the St Thomas altar.  David spent 1800 hours creating these altars. You can see a video of him at work installing the altar at the Telegraph Herald internet site at:

A Fantasy Tour

     Potosi is such an old and interesting place that I often wish I could take a tour through time and see the places where the various events which I have read about occurred.  Here are some of those events and my questions:

1.  On February 23, 1844 Charles Latimer, an brilliant Englishman who loved to drink and debate was killed in a gunfight with a man named Gloster, after arguing with him “at the saloon of Clark and Woods.”  Where did this gunfight occur, and where was the saloon located?

2.  On November 29th 1873 a Potosi miner and Civil War veteran named Robert Turner killed his brother Albert by nearly decapitating him with an axe as he came out of the “mineral hole.”  He and his two brothers supported the family by mining.  Roberts’s explanation was that there were too many mouths to feed.  He boasted that he had killed 40 men.  A search for fourteen year old Olney Neely of Ellenboro who had disappeared two weeks earlier resulted in the discovery of his body, another victim of Turners axe. Turner spent the rest of his life in the State Prison and died May 28, 1902. Where did this family live?  Is the “mineral hole” he worked still in existence?

3.  On November 13, 1916 a “tramp” started a fire in the Potosi jail that spread to many businesses causing much damage.  The man in the jail apparently incinerated himself.  Exactly where was that jail?  What did it look like?

4.  Gertrude Stoker, a longtime columnist wrote that in 1917 while blacktopping the road through the business district of Potosi, workmen broke through the street into the roof of a buried log cabin.  Why was a cabin buried far below street level?  Stoker believed that this cabin indicated habitation of the area before any recorded history.  Whose cabin was it?  How old was it?  Proper archaeology could have answered at least some of my questions.

5.  On October 17, 1931 Victor Irish of Potosi threw a party.  Young Susan Jansen of Dubuque and her boyfriend Leo Conrad of Dyersville attended.  They were both 21 years old.  There was drinking and dancing into the late hours.  Conrad went to his car. He refused to come in when Jansen asked him to do so.  She returned to the house.  About 1:30am she said she was in the kitchen and heard a gunshot. She went outside and saw Conrad lying on the sidewalk in front of the house.  She went inside and said to the others “there is something the matter with Leo and you better go see him.”  They found him outside, bleeding from the head, a 25 caliber revolver beside him.  There were no prints on the gun.  There were no powder burns on the head wound, so forensic experts in Madison determined it was not a suicide.  Jansen was charged with murder.  The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence.  The crime was never solved.  My question:  where is that house?  What became of Susan Jansen? In this case we have the newspaper photos below.

6.  I believe that most of the locals have heard of the Osceola Indian burial site about two miles south of Potosi, which was rich in copper artifacts and was apparently discovered by the same Victor Irish mentioned above and his fishing partner Ralph Turner in 1945.  That site was dated to 1500 B.C.  That is very fascinating, but the following from internet site “Forbidden Archaeology” really threw me for a loop: 
Two Giant Skeletons Near Potosi, WI”
“The January 13th, 1870 edition of the Wisconsin Decatur Republican reported that two giant, well-preserved skeletons of an unknown race were discovered near Potosi, WI by workers digging the foundation of a saw mill near the bank of the Mississippi river. One skeleton measured seven-and-a-half feet, the other eight feet. The skulls of each had prominent cheek bones and double rows of teeth. A large collection of arrowheads and “strange toys” were found buried with the remains.”

Is this a complete fabrication?  I don’t know yet, but I am looking into it.  Like any historic town, Potosi has many secret corners, but it is a wonderful place to visit.