Santa Claus Visits Milwaukee, 1867

Christmas Eve is tomorrow night, so I thought you might enjoy another look at our previous Santa Claus posts, from December 25 and 30, 2017. I have combined the two original posts and incorporated a few revisions and updates to the text. Ho! Ho! Ho!

Christmas in early America

For many years now, Christmas has been celebrated by many Americans as an important religious and community holiday. Christians gather to worship and commemorate the birth of Jesus, and they and other Americans enjoy a break from work and gather with family to feast and exchange gifts. But it was not always this way.

But in many of the American colonies, Christmas was not observed as a religious or secular holiday. The seventeenth-century Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony considered Christmas to be non-biblical and pagan influenced. In Boston and other parts of New England any observance of Christmas was prohibited and, for a few years, actually illegal. The holiday was not generally accepted in many parts of the United States until after the federal government made December 25 a national holiday in 1870.

On the other hand…

In other colonies and, later, parts of the new United States, Christmas was often observed with religious celebrations and a variety of holiday customs and activities. The tradition of a decorated Christmas tree may have been first brought to North America in 1781 by Hessian troops guarding the Province of Québec against possible American attack. Christmas trees became increasingly popular throughout North America during the nineteenth century and by the 1870s and 1880s commercially manufactured ornaments became widely available.

Rev. Woodworth has his doubts…

As a reflective, bible reading, and prayerful Methodist of his era, early Mequon settler—and neighbor of Jonathan and Mary Clark— James W. Woodworth was serious about observing the Sabbath and basing his (and everyone else’s) life and worship on sound biblical principles. Rev. Woodworth was often suspicious of new or unfamiliar religious ideas and practices. Even the innocuous idea of a “children’s sermon” seemed dubious to him. Here are his thoughts on the 1867 Christmas Eve service at Milwaukee’s Spring Street Methodist Church, from his diary1 entry for December 26, 1867.

This Christmas Eve, we2 went to the Sabbath school concert; an address was given by Dr. Eddy of the Presbyterian Church in this city [Milwaukee]; it was quite a lively address, was interspersed with considerable wit, to please the little folks and instruct them; if the Lord is pleased with this manner of conveying instruction, I trust he will bless the same to their good. We do hope no serious evil will arise from it.3

The children’s sermon was not the only novelty in church that night. Rev. Woodworth continues:

At nine o’clock, in came two masked individuals called Santa Claus and wife, with each a basket of trinkets for the children, hastily distributing them to all the little folks, as far as they went; and then hastily retiring to fill up again, and returning as hastily with many bows to the children, distributing with a liberal hand to the little folks. This was very amusing, and pleasing to them; but it is a question whether any good will arise from such comic proceedings; yet I do not know; if it is proved that the Bible sanctions it, we dismiss our doubts of its propriety. 

The service ended on a more traditional and apparently satisfying note:

We had some very interesting [congregational] singing led by Professor S. L. Fish, and this was much the best of the evening’s entertainment.4

Santa—and Mrs. Claus—make news!

Rev. Woodworth’s book is a unique—and sometimes entertaining—source, but it’s always nice to back up individual recollections with other contemporary documents. I searched online Milwaukee area newspapers from the 1840s through about 1870 and found many mentions of Santa Claus and related traditions beginning in the late 1840s. And on page five of the Wednesday, December 25, 1867 edition of the Daily Milwaukee News I found this news item which adds a few piquant details in support of Rev. Woodworth’s diary entry:

SPRING STREET M. E. CHURCH

A concert was given in the Spring street Methodist church last evening, the proceeds of which are to be appropriated to the purchase of an additional library for the Sunday school. It was well attended, and the music was of a good order. The scholars were most of them present, and after the close of the concert Santa Claus fantastically dressed and liberally furnished, made the tour of the room and distributed many minor gifts; in this pleasing duty he was assisted by a female Santa Claus whose introduction seems a new feature.

I hope you enjoyed this visit from the Spirit of Christmas Past.

Thanks for reading and best wishes to all for a Merry Christmas and Happy and Healthy New Year!

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  1. For more on Rev. Woodworth and his self-published diary-autobiography, My Path and the Way the Lord Led Me, click here.

  2. By the time he attended Christmas Eve services in 1867 Rev. Woodworth had been widowed, re-married, and may have left Mequon for the Milwaukee area. James Woodworth is shown living at “559 15th” in the 1868 city directory for Milwaukee, but other maps and documents indicate that he may have still owned and/or lived at his original Mequon homestead well past that date. His probate file from 1893 states that he died in the city of Milwaukee. Perhaps, for a while, he kept the Mequon farm and a place in the city. Anyone who desires more information on Rev. Woodworth’s homes should begin by consulting “My Path…”

  3. This, and the other diary excerpts, are from Woodworth, My Path…, page 262

  4. Given how passionate Rev. Woodworth was about his religion and his personal commitment to it, I found it surprising that he would refer to any part of the Christmas Eve service as “the evening’s entertainment.” Perhaps the Reverend had a more wry sense of humor than I give him credit for.

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