Revisiting the City of Eau Claire’s First Christmas
150 years ago, the holiday included dancing, gift-giving, and (naturally) a church dinner
How were the holidays celebrated in Eau Claire a century and a half ago, the year the city was officially born? Christmas 1872 brought dances, festivals, gift-giving, music, and – naturally – Santa Claus.
A glance through the pages of the Eau Claire Free Press around Christmas 1872 reveals what the city’s 5,000 or so residents were up to during the holiday season. In many ways, it was what we might imagine a Victorian Era Christmas to be — albeit one in young lumber town where luxuries were few and entertainment was homespun.
According to the Free Press issue of Dec. 2, the big holiday attraction in town was a Dec. 18 gathering at the First Methodist Church on Barstow Street. To anyone who has been to a Midwestern church fair, the description provided by the newspaper sounds familiar: “The ladies of the First Methodist Church of Eau Claire will hold a festival and fair, at Music Hall, commencing on Wednesday evening, Dec. 18, and continuing through the following day and evening; on which occasion they will offer for sale a variety of useful and fancy articles of home manufacture suitable for holiday presents, consisting of superb afghans, sofa pillows, cushions, toilet sets, dressing gowns, with a variety too great to mention.”
“Most of the churches in the city were handsomely decorated, Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus was very liberal in the distribution of his numerous … gifts, which were duly appreciated by the recipients.”
The gathering featured appearances by a fortune teller, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, and “Vinton’s celebrated brass band.”
Naturally, there was a church dinner, too: “The committee will endeavor to make this an entertainment worthy the patronage of all and will serve meals at all hours of the day and evening at the moderate price of 50 cts., and a full oyster supper at the same price to those who prefer.”
The admission charge was 10 cents, and the proceeds apparently added up: The Free Press issue published the day after Christmas reported that the event raised about $700, the equivalent of $16,000 today.
Oddly enough, the front page of the Dec. 26 Free Press included not a word about Christmas: Evidently, news of the Ways & Means Committee in Washington and lumber prices took precedence over the holiday. Inside, however, the “Amusements” column was filled with holiday items:
- “The Odd Fellows gave a dancing sociable, Christmas Eve, at Music Hall, which was numerously attended, and passed off in a most pleasant manner.”
- “The Half Moon Skating Park will be a place of popular resort, this week, the regular dance taking place Saturday evening.”
- “The German Society will give a ball at Hantzech’s Hall, on New Year’s eve. There will also be singing by the society during the evening.”
- “Most of the churches in the city were handsomely decorated, Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus was very liberal in the distribution of his numerous … gifts, which were duly appreciated by the recipients.”
One-hundred and fifty years later, as we wrap up Eau Claire’s sesquicentennial year, may you and yours “duly appreciate” what Santa leaves under your tree, too.