Old World Wisconsin Provides a Historical ‘Home for the Holidays’

Old World Wisconsin Sleigh Ride

People who pay for time travel tokens can take a jingle-bell wagon ride around the wooded grounds. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

By Susan Lampert Smith

November 28, 2022

The spirit of Christmas past is found through settlement-era buildings relocated from throughout the state.

With sleigh bells jingling, carols ringing out from Old St. Peter’s Church and woodsmoke curling up from the chimneys, there probably isn’t a more evocative spot to get in the holiday spirit than Old World Wisconsin.

There may not be a better place to take your family holiday photo, either. And the folks at the Wisconsin Historical Society have helpfully marked the most Instagrammable spots throughout the historical park in the Waukesha County community of Eagle.

Old World Xmas Street Scene
Dan Hess and Jennifer Young are among the living history experts who will make the Old World Wisconsin holiday experience merry and authentic The roads of the Crossroads Village are a perfect setting for your Christmas card photo Photo by Susan Lampert Smith

Old World Wisconsin will be reopening for its “Home for the Holidays” celebration during the first two weekends of December (Dec. 3, 4, 10 and 11).

In case you’ve never visited, the site in the Kettle Moraine State Forest is a collection of historic buildings moved from around the state to show what life was like in settlement-era Wisconsin. It’s busy during the warm months with school field trips and summer camps, then it reopens during the holidays.

Visitors can see a Victorian-era Santa in his workshop full of antique toys. No red and white for this jolly fellow, he’s clad in the fur robes that were the style in his day. Naughty children should keep an eye out for another furry fellow. He’s Krampus, the goat devil of the Alps, who accompanies St. Nicholas, looking for children who deserve a chunk of coal rather than toys or sweets. Krampus may even try to stuff them in his sack.

Speaking of St. Nicholas, visitors can stop into the former Sisel Shoe Store, moved here from Kewaunee County, and learn how Bohemian immigrants celebrated St. Nicholas Eve (Dec. 5) by leaving out their shoes to be filled with treats.

In the living quarters behind the store, Jennifer Young will show visitors how to shape the traditional braided vánočka bread that was served on St. Nicholas Day, and she’ll teach about the traditions. Sometimes a coin is hidden in the bread, to bring luck to the person who finds it. 

Old World Xmas
(Left) For the cost of a “time travel token,” visitors to the Old World Wisconsin holiday event can craft their own boot ornament. (Center) A beer and chocolate tasting is an add-on part of the Saturday experience. Here, historical brewmaster Rob Novak pairs a Belgian ale with a fig-filled chocolate. (Right) Visitors can help bakers such as Jennifer Young shape braided loaves of vánočka, the traditional Czech Christmas bread. (Photos by Susan Lampert Smith)

And once the loaf is braided, she’ll show how tradition says, “you’re supposed to jump up and down to make the dough rise better.”

Next door, visitors can stop at a country inn and learn about the traditions of the last night of Hanukkah and English Boxing Day, which is celebrated Dec. 26. 

Christmas ornaments in the Old World Wisconsin gift shop Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Inside Old St. Peter’s, built in 1839 as Milwaukee’s first Catholic Church, kids can make paper ornaments and decorate the tree. The church also hosts a 30-minute Christmas program, with carols, and readings from “Christmas on the Banks of Plum Creek,’’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The Farmer’s Club Hall, which originally stood in the Racine County Village of Caldwell, will host hourly concerts of holiday music by the Brass Knuckles band.

At the end of the day, there’s a beer and chocolate tasting (for an extra fee) on Saturdays and a performance by the Stoughton Norwegian Dancers on Sundays.

Old World WI Xmas Store
The store will be open and historical items available using time travel tokens Photo by Susan Lampert Smith

“Home for the Holidays” will mark Old World’s first full-on holiday celebration since before the pandemic. The 2020 event was canceled entirely, said Kendall Poltzer, communications manager at the Wisconsin Historical Foundation. Last year the event was modified to limit the number of people and hands-on events.

One COVID-era practice will continue this year, requiring customers to preorder tickets to the event (at $19.99 for adults and $14.99 for children 5 and older) and to the add-on experiences, such as the wagon ride and the beer and chocolate tasting, which cost $5 a piece. Visitors must select one of three entry times, although they can stay as long as they like. 

“We found that it was a good way to manage the number of people,” Poltzer said, and make sure the event didn’t get overwhelmed.  So be sure to check the website for tickets before venturing over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s holiday celebration.


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