Oysters, Candy, Nuts – And Rabbit? Strange Christmas Dining Traditions in the Valley
Looking to spice up your holiday feast? Here’s a flash to the past with a few local dishes
If you were celebrating Christmas in the early days of Eau Claire, the place to be was the Niagara House, a hotel on Water Street in what was then known as West Eau Claire. An item in the Dec. 18, 1867, edition of the Eau Claire Argus set the scene:
Ho! For Christmas! – R.H. Rogers, proprietor of the Niagara House, is making extensive arrangements for his grand Christmas Ball, which is to come off on Wednesday evening next, Dec. 25th. He will spare neither trouble, pains nor expense in making it one of the most desirable and pleasant entertainments ever gotten up in this valley. His table will be supplied with every variety of the substantial and delicate viands which the country will afford, together with a superabundance of fresh oysters. The best quadrille music in the country – Wilkins’ String Band – has been secured for the occasion. A general invitation is extended to all lovers of Terpsichorean enjoyment, to all of whom we guarantee one of the merriest times of the age. As Dick knows how to get up first-class balls we shall expect a large crowd.
If “fresh” oysters shipped to the Midwest in winter and quadrille dancing aren’t your style, perhaps you would enjoy spending Christmas 1883 with the Schuetzenverein, a German-American marksmanship club. According to the Dec. 27, 1883, edition of the Daily Leader, “The Schuetzenverein had a Christmas tree and amusements for the little folks, as well as a grand ball. About thirty dollars with of nuts and candy were distributed among the children.” But wholesome treats weren’t the only think Eau Clairians were consuming that Christmas. In the same edition of the newspaper, a municipal court item began with this: “One poor fellow who had been too merry on Christmas was unable to pay his fine, and will serve a Lenten season of 12 days in the calaboose.” That cautionary tale was followed by this one: “A ‘festive cuss’ who celebrated by firing off a pistol contrary to the ordinance in such cases made and provided, paid five dollars and costs on account of his fun.”
In 1933, during the early years of the Great Depression, the Christmas menu for many Eau Claire families was not turkey or ham but rabbit. According to Lois Barland’s historic compilation The Rivers Flow On, that year “the city asked hunters to undertake to supply rabbits for the Christmas dinner of families needing help. The game was to be left with the Salvation Army for distribution. Christmas baskets were given to 450 families.” While these struggling families were undoubtedly grateful for the generosity, you probably won’t find rabbit on many yuletide menus this year!