An Old-Fashioned Christmastime

book recounts western Wisconsin holiday traditions from days gone by

Tom Giffey

Like an heirloom carefully wrapped and placed beneath a candlelit evergreen, a compendium of old-time Christmas memories and traditions from western Wisconsin is being passed on to a new generation.

A Wisconsin Town and Country Christmas, by Larry Lynch and Renee Howarton, was originally published in 1987, and a few thousand copies were sold around the state. In the fall of that year, the authors had interviewed more than a dozen “old timers” – some in their 80s and 90s – about their Christmas memories of days gone by the small towns and farmsteads of western Wisconsin. Their recollections allow us a peek into the yuletide traditions of Irish, Scottish, Slovak, Swedish, Norwegian, German, and Swiss families in western Wisconsin. As writer James Eggert of Colfax noted in a forward to a new edition of the book, “much of the cultural ecology and practices of the different groups may well have been lost or forgotten – if they had not been written down here.”

“There are so many good people here with such interesting and illuminating stories to tell, living vessels containing all that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents believed in and stood for. And they have not lost the gifts of hope and kindness.” – Larry Lynch, writing in A Wisconsin Town and Country Christmas

Among the most fascinating reminiscences in the book are those of Christine Granger Klatt, who was 98 when she was interviewed in 1987. Born in 1889, Klatt recalled celebrating Christmas in her family’s home on Forest Street in Eau Claire in 1895. Tied handkerchiefs decorated a Christmas tree, Christine was ceremoniously handed a doll she promptly named “Bessie,” and the extended clan of Scottish immigrants dined on baked chicken and meticulously prepared plum pudding. “It was brought to the table ablaze,” she recalled, “which seemed wonderful to us children.”

The book contains a plethora of old-time seasonal recipes, ranging from that plum pudding to lesser known ethnic specialties such as kapusnica (Slovak sauerkraut and sausage soup) and zopfe (Swiss braided bread).

Last year, Lynch – who now lives in the San Francisco Bay area – decided to republish the book to mark its 30th anniversary. Fortunately, he still had copies of the original computer files, and was able to track down the 19th-century public domain illustrations down online. In addition to fixing a few typos, he added a map, a preface, and a new forward to the reprinted edition, which is available in both paperback and e-book formats.

Thirty years later, the book is still a source of positive memories for its co-authors.

“What inspired me most about the stories was the simplicity and gratitude that many of the folks shared as they described their past sparse Christmases,” said Howarton, who still lives in Menomonie. “Receiving an apple or enjoying holiday treats, left indelible memories on the minds and hearts of these people. I was impressed with how they cherished their traditions and family members who gathered together to reinforce those traditions. It was such a joy and privilege for Larry to interact with these individuals and to be the keeper of their treasured stories.”

In an epilogue to the book, Lynch wrote that the people he interviewed were “living vessels containing all that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents believed in and stood for. And they have not lost the gifts of hope and kindness.” Now that these people have passed into memory as well, this slim volume serves as a vessel for their cherished Christmas traditions.


A Wisconsin Town and Country Christmas is available from online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. Learn more about the book at hedgerowpress.net.