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Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

December 23, 1998, Page 21

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 


Good Old Days


“Christmas Memories & Legends”


By Dee Zimmerman



Now that snow has covered the Clark County area with a mantle of white, the Christmas spirit heightens.  School children are anticipating a few days of vacation from classes while the parents are busy finalizing their plans for the celebration of the holiday.


The making of candies, cookies and holiday breads has filled homes with aromas of the feast to be shared during the holiday season.  Joining together with family and friends around a dining table laden with delicacies seems as much a part of Christmas as the Christmas tree. 


Decorating the house, inside and outside, as well as the yard, has gained popularity.  There was a saying, “Hang a string of sleigh bells on your front door, then you and your family will be pleased and cheered by the merry jingle of these bells.”


The sound of jingling bells was part of daily life in the late 1800’s and early 1900s.


Judge James O’Neill came to Neillsville when he was quite young and brought to the then little lumber town, the culture and refinement of life from the older settlement in New York.  He also brought with him a love of land and fine horses.


During the period of the early development of this section of the country, when the settlers were changing from the use of oxen teams to horses, O’Neill brought in several purebred horses.  One of those horses was of a trotting strain by the name of Banburg.  To the eyes of some local residents, it was t he most beautiful animal they had ever seen.  No modern stream-lined automobile of the early 1900s awakened the admiration of a horse-lover as did that spirited horse.  When the horse was hitched to a shiny, “swell” boxed cutter with a string of sleigh bells hung about his body, anchored to the harness, and driven at a lively pace down the main street of Neillsville, many a heads turned to watch in awe and admiration.


There are some who share memories of the winter seasons with holiday trips to homes of relatives by sleigh.  As soon as there was enough snow cover on the ground, the sleigh was brought out of the shed and was used for travel.  At the same time, the bells were attached to the harness of the family team and remained through the sleighing season.


The sound of bells as a horse-drawn sleigh, with its passengers, made its way across a snow-covered field on a moonlit night was an announcement of the approaching visitors to households.


How many of you have a set of sleigh bells as a memory of those days?  You might hang them on your door to ring when the door opens, announcing the arrival of guests during Christmas.


A Story of the Writing of ‘Silent Night’


At this time of year, various Christmas songs come to mind.  One of the well-known songs, “Silent Night,” was introduced in Austria.


Because Franz Gruber’s organ broke down inside the tiny church of Arnsdorf, near Salzburg, in the Tyrolese Mountains in Austria over a century and a half ago, we have the beautiful hymn, “Silent Night.” A raging blizzard cut off all hopes of getting repairs and all his hopes of playing the elaborate Christmas music he had practiced so long.


The organist rushed to Joseph Mohr, the assistant priest, and begged him to write something so simple that it could be sung without even one rehearsal.  That evening, Father Mohr, returning late from administering the last rites to a dying woman, paused in the snowy heights overlooking the village below.  The blizzard had ended.  Only a faint light glimmered from the dark outline of the town.  The vast stillness of nature on the winter evening hung over the scene below.


Suddenly, it occurred to him that it must have been much like this upon that holy night in Bethlehem.  Tremendously moved, he hurried home and wrote verses of what we now call “Silent Night.”


Franz Gruber set the verses to an unpretentious melody that could be played with a few chords on a guitar.  On that midnight, the congregation listened to the first playing of “Silent Night.”


The members listened placidly, thinking only that the hymn was nice enough of a piece.  Gruber shared the same opinion as the congregation, not thinking much more about the arrangements.  After the organ was repaired a few days later, he happened to play it again merely to test out the organ.


The listening repairman from nearby Zillerthal was so impressed by the hymn’s quiet beauty that he asked for a copy of it to take home with him.


And so, on the tongues of the famous Zillerthal singers and yodelers, “Silent Night” started its way around the world.  It still can be heard as one of the favored hymns on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at area churches.


Christmas Music by Bach, Handel


For many people, the music of Bach and Handel is seldom listened to – until Christmas time.  Then, suddenly everyone starts singing and humming tunes by the two old masters.


The reason for this is that both Bach and Handel were church musicians.  One of their tasks was to compose songs for church congregations to sing.  They proved themselves masters of beautiful, easily followed melodies in their Christmas music.  Our most famous Christmas oratories and carols came from Bach and Handel.


“How Brightly Beams the Morning Star” was composed by Bach and his “Christmas Oratorio” contains themes of several other popular chorales.


In almost every town and city in America this Christmas season, a church choir will render at least a portion of George Frederick Handel’s the “Messiah.”  When carolers sing “Joy to the World,” they’ll be singing part of the “Messiah” too, for that carol comes from themes found in the great oratorio.  Handel also composed the musical theme of “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks.”


It is a strange fact, but both Bach and Handel were born in 1685, lived for many years within thirty miles of each other, and never met.  Yet today, the Christmas music they wrote is sung by men, women and children in countless churches of faiths all over the world. 


Flowers a Part of Yule Legend


There are several flowers appropriate during the Yuletide seasons which are related to the birth of Christ by the legends of history.


Sainforin or “Holy Hay” is said to have cradled the infant Christ in the manger.  The snowdrop is the flower of the Virgin Mary, and is said to be the emblem of the candles she lighted on Christmas.


According to the legend, the Christmas rose was divinely created.  A shepherd maid wept at having no gift to lay before the Babe in the manger.  Suddenly, an angel appeared to her.  On hearing why the maiden wept, the angel touched the ground where her tears had fallen and immediately the place was white with Christmas roses, which the maid gathered and laid in the manger.


The chrysanthemum is said to have appeared first on Christmas Eve near the manger as a sign to the Wise Men that they had reached the spot where the star had bidden them.


Poinsettias which head the popularity list of Christmas flowers, ironically enough do not have any legend to them because of their more recent introduction.  In the beginning of the last century, the poinsettia was introduced by J. R. Poinsett, and American politician and diplomat.


Holly, with its red berries, dark green leaves and needle-like spikes is a light-hearted symbol of friendship and good will.  According to legend, holly was originally used as an instrument of cruelty.  The crown of thorns which Christ wore was fashioned from holly.  Prior to the Crucifixion, the holly bore white berries, but after the Crucifixion, the berries turned a bloody crimson.  Mistletoe, a close associate of holly, is said to have been the wood from which Christ’s cross was made.


For years, evergreens have flourished in homes at Christmastide to create a woodsy, outdoor atmosphere.  In the aged line, “hang up the holly, the box and the bay,” it is significant to note that two of the plants mentioned – box and bay – are mentioned in the Holy Scriptures as thriving on the mountains of Lebanon in the Holy Land.


Because of its symmetrical leaves, bay has been used for design throughout the ages.  The Greeks used it on their coins and the Romans, too, favored it as a beautiful show piece.  Today, bay shrubbery graces the entrances to many homes at Yuletide.


Cedar, which furnished greens for Christmas, likewise existed in Lebanon.  The people of Lebanon regarded cedar as a symbol on endurance, strength, life and eternity.  Recognized for its characteristic, pleasant aroma, cedar also was an emblem of purity because its tree tops were frequently covered with snow during a large part of the year.


“The First Christmas Tree in America"


To August Imgard, a home-sick immigrant tailor, goes the credit for introducing the Christmas tree to America.


Imgard came to this country in 1847 to visit his brother in Wooster, Ohio.  With the prospects of a dismal Christmas for the first time away from his native land, Imgard decided to bring to his newly adopted home all the Christmas spirit and festivities he had loved so much in Wetzlar, Hessia.  To his young nephew and niece, he would show how Christmas was celebrated in the Old Country.


“First, he needed a Christmas tree.  He described how he obtained a tree…”


“I walked along Apple Creek and when I got to where the trees were, I found the water so high in the creek, I couldn’t get across.  So I walked along until I found a fallen tree bridging from one bank to the other and crossed over on that.  I cut a tree and carried it back to the fallen log.  But, to get across, I had to tie the tree to my neck and crawl on hands and feet.  People looked at me with considerable curiosity when I walked through town carrying the tree.”


Adept with scissors, Imgard cut out paper ornaments and a local tinsmith fashioned a shiny star to place on top of the tree.


There are various Christmas traditions which have withstood the years and are still enjoyed today.


A typical winter scene throughout our Clark County rural area in the late 1800s and early 1900s included horse-drawn bob sleds.  In the wood lots, around the farms, and even trips to town for supplies, the teams of horses and bob sleds were means of conveyance.  The photo above was taken on a dark, cloudy day as much of our Wisconsin winter days are.



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