A Glimpse of Christmas Past

Getting into the Christmas spirit is one thing, but keeping up with the hustle and bustle of the modern holiday season is another. 

If you want the festive feelings without all the trappings of the 21st century, head over to Heritage Village at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay, where the Door County Historical Society (DCHS) is offering “A Glimpse of Christmas Past.” Every Friday and Saturday in December, visitors can explore a decked-out Heritage Village to discover what Christmas in Door County looked like between 1880 and 1910.

The first program of its kind, “A Glimpse of Christmas Past” offers a new way to explore Heritage Village, which isn’t usually open through the winter or lit up at night, said Door County Historical Society executive director Amy Frank.

“Normally, we close the buildings down at the end of October because there’s heat in only one of them,” Frank said. “We take all the delicate items, put them in the heated building and shut down for winter, which is a good chunk of the year, so we were trying to think of ways we could extend the season.”

While brainstorming, some DCHS members discussed decorating the Village for Christmas, but the prospect of doing so with a limited staff was daunting, Frank said. 

That’s where five local non-profit organizations came in.

Frank, a member of the Door County Non-Profit Group, sent out an email to see if any local nonprofits would be interested in decorating one of the Village’s historic buildings for a Christmas event. In return, the organization would collect a share of the donations collected. 

“I had no idea if we would have any takers, but there was a lot of interest,” Frank said. “These organizations have not only embraced the idea of decorating the building, but they are really getting into the competitive side of it.” 

That competitive side is brought to the forefront as the nonprofits compete for the title of Best Decorated Building, a title guests vote on by making donations at their favorite Village site. The winner will be announced in January, and the funds collected will be distributed among all participating nonprofits.

Participating organizations include Crossroads at Big Creek, which decorated Warren House; the Door County YMCA, which decorated the Greene Store; Operation Not Alone, which decorated the Schopf House; Sunshine Resources, which decorated the Vignes Schoolhouse; and Sturgeon Bay Historical Foundation (SBHF), which decorated the Village Chapel.

“We focused on bringing the elements of the natural world into our decor,” said SBHF board member Kelly Catarozoli in a press release, about the Village Chapel that its organization decorated. “We gathered what’s around us and also incorporated handmade ornaments using techniques and practices from the late 1800s and earlier.”

Though the decorating was up to the non-profits, DCHS provided some pointers. In the 1880-1910 period, decorations often included natural materials like evergreen branches, which symbolized eternal life and were readily available during Door County winters. Other decorations, like popcorn and dried-fruit garlands were made from food, while still others were made from paper, like paper chains and snowflakes. Homemade ornaments made from dough, wood and dried fruit commonly hung on the tree.

“Decorations were certainly simpler than they are now, and more focused on symbolism and religious aspects,” Frank said. 

The only anachronistic decorations in the Village are electric lights, which are less of a fire hazard than the candles that used to light up windows and hang on trees. 

The first weekend of the month-long event drew a bit over 100 people, many of whom had never visited Heritage Village before, said Frank, who attended both nights. In addition to exploring the historic buildings, visitors perused the gift shop in the Greene Store and enjoyed hot drinks. Carolers may be on the docket for future weekends.

Though “A Glimpse of Christmas Past” is a brand-new program, Frank would like to see it become an annual Christmas staple.

“It’s an experience that we hope will become a tradition,” Frank said.

A Glimpse of Christmas Past runs 4 – 7 pm every Friday and Saturday in December, Dec. 15, 16, 22, 23, 29 and 30. Admission is free but donations are encouraged. Heritage Village at Big Creek is located at 2041 Michigan St. in Sturgeon Bay.