Ghosts of Christmases Past: Milwaukee Celebrates the Holiday

James Marten

Christmas encourages a certain amount of historical reflection.  Family gatherings are warmed by nostalgia for past holidays and bittersweet memories of absent relatives, journalists trot out tired but popular human interest stories (virtually all newspapers, it seems, print the old “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” editorial), and churches embrace tradition in their selection of carols and staging of Christmas pageants.

CUAP logoAs we approach Christmas 2013, I pulled up a few examples of Christmases past from a website that I created over a decade ago (with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and about twenty graduate students), the Children in Urban America Project.  The fully searchable site contains a number of illustrations and over 5000 documents chronicling the history of children in Milwaukee from about 1850 through 2000.  Although the documents include memoirs and autobiographies as well as government reports and magazine articles, a majority of them were culled from the Milwaukee Sentinel, one of Milwaukee’s oldest newspapers (it merged with the Journal in the 1990s to form the Journal Sentinel). 

Feeling a little nostalgic myself about the fun and sense of purpose that we all felt while working on CUAP between 2000 and 2004, I browsed the archive for a small sampling of the ways in which Milwaukeeans celebrated and thought about Christmas in the past.  I’ll let the documents speak for themselves; just click on the links and go to the CUAP website.

The first selection is a newspaper summary of the many ways in which a surprising number of charitable institutions—for orphans, for old Civil War soldiers, for poor residents, for the elderly—tried to bring a little Christmas into the lives of the least fortunate Milwaukeeans (click here).

The second is a poignant piece published in the Sentinel a couple of years later that shows the vast gulf between the ways in which a typical middle-class boy and a poor Italian girl from the Third Ward experienced Christmas (click here).

The third jumps ahead two generations to a 1960 editorial on the growing anxiety about the ways in which materialism and consumerism were causing parents to “dread” the holiday (click here).  

brownie_thFinally, no article, editorial, or blog on Christmas in Milwaukee can ignore one of the city’s longest-lasting and most popular traditions: Billie the Brownie, the star of the Schuster Department Store seasonal advertising, Christmas parade, and radio program.  For over three decades, from the 1920s until well into the 1950s, Billie the Brownie was nearly synonymous with Christmas.  (Read more about Billie, and listen to a clip from his radio show, here).

I have no grand point to make about Christmas in the past or present, although it does strike me that these four selections from CUAP present two pairs of concerns.  The first set focus on poverty and plenty; the article on philanthropy rather glibly nearly seems to assume that a happy Christmas could balance out a year of hardship, while the piece on the two little kids is far less sanguine about merry Christmases for the city’s poorest people.  The other selections both revolve around materialism’s corruption of the holiday’s traditional values; the editorial expresses concern about it, while the material on Billie the Brownie celebrates it—not surprising, given that Billie’s sponsor was Milwaukee’s favorite department store for much of the twentieth century.

On behalf of my colleagues here in the History Department, Merry Christmas.  We hope that your holiday season leads to enjoyable nostalgia as well as a little serious reflection.

James Marten is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Marquette University

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