Old World Wisconsin for the Holidays

Event runs: 10 am – 3pm, Saturday and Sunday December 3rd and 4th, and 10th and 11th.

I recently enjoyed checking out Old World Wisconsin’s “Home for the Holidays” event, and wanted to quickly write up some reflections based on it. I appreciated the chance to enjoy an outdoor and indoor activity, out with a decent crowd, learning about Wisconsin history in the Milwaukee area. Being me, this also led me to reflect a little bit about how we experience winter in Wisconsin today, and how it was experienced in the past – along with being Milwaukee’s Ambassador of Snow, I am a PhD in history who regularly teaches history courses.

Plus, it looks like there will be snow for the 2nd weekend of December 2022, so that would address the one thing me and my friends thought was missing on our visit 😊Oh yeah, this looks like its gonna look gorgeous…

So, on to some of the things event this had to offer, and some of the things which struck me…

Getting out in Winter: one of my most common themes on this blog is – get outside, remember what we have to enjoy. It was nice to walk around here and see a lot of other people walking around as well. Temperatures were in the 30s, so it was comfortable enough that I spent almost all my time outside, often just standing around talking with friends, and… I was just fine.

It was a pleasure to see so many others out enjoying themselves on a sunny day, as well. The brightness lifted my spirits. It was nice to get fresh air, to enjoy the briskness the outdoors can provide in Winter.

For those less comfortable doing indoor activities at present, one could easily enjoy this event while staying in open-air most of the time; check out buildings from the outside, ride horses, check out the buildings who left doors open (blacksmith and goat barn), easily hear sing-a-long concerts from outside (and sing along from there too, if one wanted).

Living with animals: A few memorable chances to encounter animals: the teams of horses drawing wagons, and the goats we could visit (which OWW linked to the ‘Yule Goat’ tradition). So for those who like to see animals up close, here’s a chance! (Related to how many winter celebrations like to have reindeer or sled dogs present.)

For many 19th century families, particularly but not at all exclusively rural ones, living with animals would’ve been pretty normal – animals who did work for them or whom they raised for food. They would’ve needed to arrange their schedules in ways which acknowledged the animals’ habits and needs, a regular incursion of the nonhuman into their lives. Horses were important for transportation then, so they would’ve been a regular presence – and a sizable one! – on urban streets.

And families would’ve been used to planning how animals would live over the winter. Some similarities to our pets of today, but keeping chickens, horses, goats and other such animals warm would’ve been a different task than keeping cats and dogs warm in our modern well-heated homes. The warmth given off by animals sometimes might’ve been made use of. The smells of animals would’ve been very familiar to many people at the time. (It often strikes me that the part of the past we have a hardest time recapturing is the smells… but perhaps visiting animals is one of the best ways to revisit one set of once-familiar smells.)

Living with the cold: So as I just noted, living with the cold in the past was quite different than how we live with it today. Today, most of us face what might best be considered ‘inconveniences’ – and the major challenges have more to do with having a transportation system relying on privately-owned cars, which are difficult to use in certain types of weather.

My friends and I were wearing modern jackets, designed to more efficiently keep us warm, in wet or dry weather, than what was available in earlier eras. I appreciated what I was wearing! But I also tried to imagine a little what it would’ve been like to walk around in the cold two centuries ago. It was pleasant enough to walk around on a sunny day, but as I know well from walking to and from work even in 2022, it can be a lot less comfortable when dark falls. It also would’ve been harder to keep houses warm, even the smaller ones of that era.

On a related note, it can be difficult to envision how dark things would’ve been in an era before public streetlights, in an era when light had to be provided by resources obtained by individual families. Walking in rural or urban areas when candles and fires provided key sources of light would’ve been much different. Reminds me to be grateful for the ways in which it is easier for me to walk out and enjoy the snow – to see it lit, to walk with less fear of stumbling on something I didn’t see.

We might imagine what holiday activities and holiday cheer might have meant to people used to that kind of cold, that kind of darkness. The vegetarian soup being cooked by a staff member recreating a Christmas Eve meal for an Irish immigrant family would’ve been a treat to them, even if it’s a far cry from what shows up on many tables today.

It also reminds us that we need to help out those in our communities who do not have the benefits of winter warmth which many of us take for granted. Warming shelters play an important role in winter cities like Milwaukee: here’s a helpful list from Urban Milwaukee earlier in 2022.

Oh, and the performances and interpretive material! My post so far might’ve suggested that I mostly just wandered around alone, that this is primarily designed for quiet reflection. So time to correct that impression! No, this was primarily designed for people to experience what the staff and performers had to offer!

I recommend the blacksmith’s shop as a highlight. That would’ve been a place to experience heat and light back then! It is something to hear the blacksmith talk nonchalantly about temperatures over 2,000 degrees – as he shaped the items!

Around a dozen buildings offered staff providing interpretive material. Sometimes cooking, sometimes reciting poetry. Definitely with plenty of time to answer questions from the curious. I was lucky enough to run into a friend who had studied one of the buildings relocated to this site, so I got some bonus background on the previous life of the building.

Two buildings offered concert performances, with period-appropriate instruments – and lyrics. A neat chance to think about how these songs would’ve been experienced in earlier eras, particularly for someone who loves Christmas songs as much as I do 😊

There are a lot of fun outdoor activities all winter long in the Milwaukee area. I recommend checking this one out if you love history! And there are a lot more events to check out, so keep looking for them…


About MilwaukeeSnow

Dr. Jeffrey Filipiak, Milwaukee's Ambassador of Snow, loves winter, Milwaukee, and environmental history! He has taught college courses on topics including history, writing, environmental ethics, food studies, the Great Lakes, and sustainability. You can contact him at ambassadorofsnow@gmail.com.
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