By Rick Romano

Oh, how times have changed.

Christmas has morphed into celebration of multiple holidays and what once was a traditional two days of observance is now an extended season.

What hasn’t changed is that this is a time for joy, reflection and remembrance. It’s a time to define the season in today’s terms while honoring the past.

Past is prologue

We begin with Christmas past, captured most authentically here in Tosa at the Kneeland-Walker House, home to the Wauwatosa Historical Society. There, on an annual basis, teams of volunteers decorate eight trees in various themes. Historical Society Board Member Mary Kogler chairs the Christmas Decorations Committee.

tree“We play Christmas music well before Christmas while the volunteers are decorating,” Kogler said. “It gets everyone in the mood.”

There is plenty for volunteers to work with, she said, noting boxes of ornaments and toys – a few vintage donations – mixed with other items that give each tree a distinctive look. The most Victorian-themed tree is placed in the first-floor parlor.

“People come and tour the home in early December to see the house and we serve hot cider,” Kogler said. “We try to change the decorations every year so there is always something new to see.”

Even though these trees are decorated with a sensibility of Christmas past, they apparently cannot completely capture yesteryear’s ambience. That objective was a passage written in the early 1900s by Betty Wheeler. Former Historic Society Executive Director Natalie Wysong noted the passage was most likely a topic of the Twentieth Century Club, a spinoff group of the Wauwatosa Women’s Club.

“This group often had a presenter, so I am guessing this was one of those topics,” Wysong said.

Looking back  

treeIn the passage, Wheeler presents a vivid picture of Christmas in the late 1800s to early 1900s:

    “How did we celebrate traditional holidays? Christmas, for instance. Possibly there was a big community tree at your church, decorated by strings of popcorn, cranberries and paper chains and real candles clipped to the branches (with a pail of water handy in case a candle burned too close too close to a branch).

     “Your parents had secretly transported part of your presents to the big tree to be distributed by Santa at the community gathering. There were pieces to speak and carols to sing and mesh stockings full of hard candies for all the children.  Santa, who had a nice sense of timing, arrived just as the program ended, wearing a raccoon coat with sleigh bells around the waist, and we never doubted his veracity.

    “Maybe at home the next morning you found the big doll you had longed for, with eyes that opened and closed and real eyelashes. Your brothers may have gotten another Erector set with all the year’s refinements and we picked our way carefully around their productions of Golden Gate Bridges, Washington Monuments and Grand Central Stations for days afterward. This was, of course, before the days of electric trains.

     “As a matter of fact, we probably were still using kerosene lamps, There were large decorative ones with painted globes covering the chimneys and dimming what little light the wicks produced in the first place. But for general use, plain glass ones light enough to be carried from f room to room and, being glass, revealing their need to be refilled from time to time and to have their wicks trimmed so as not to smoke up the chimneys.”

Personal reflections

Christmas present obviously looks much different. While Kogler promotes Christmas visits to the Walker Kneeland House, she readily acknowledges a number of other community activities planned for the end of November and early to mid-December (see our holiday-kickoff list).

One need only look back over a personal lifetime to see how Christmas has changed. Mayor Kathy Ehley noted the differences she has seen in her personal life as well as her service to the city that includes  former Downtown BID director. She also acknowledged that the holiday tree lighting has helped signal and support the beginning of the holiday shopping, especially as the Village has grown.

“Christmas has changed dramatically for me,” she said.  “I used to have Christmas for my extended family and for my husband’s extended family but as parents have passed away and the kids grew and moved, we have small gatherings now. We include friends who have no place to go.”

Flexibility is key, she noted, with family living out-of-state and travel needs to include the possibility of any hiccup.

“We have found what works for us, and every family has to find what works for them,” Ehley said.


Finding the Season’s Magic

These are planned local activities for Christmas 2018, designed to kick start one’s holiday spirit:

  • In the Village, a tree lighting complete with music and a visit from Santa will take place at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 30 in Pocket Park just west of St. Bernard Parish at the corner of Harwood and Wauwatosa Avenues. For more information, go to
  • Christmas décor in all its splendor will be on display from 10 4 p.m. at open houses, including one at the Wauwatosa Historical Society’s Kneeland Walker House, 7406 Hillcrest Dr. and at several homes in the Ravenswood Neighborhood sponsored by the Wauwatosa Woman’s Club, 1626 N. Wauwatosa Avenue, which also will be open as part of the dual-organization tour. For more information, go to or