The ghosts of Christmas past: Traveling back to Perham on Christmas, 1918

Snow falls gently as church bells ring and parishioners draped in long, flowing wool coats assemble for Christmas services in the new St. Henry's Catholic Church. The rafters are filled with voices singing hymns and carols. The year is 1918 and P...

A postcard displaying the interior of St. Henry's Church with a Christmas display. (East Otter Tail County Historical Society)

Snow falls gently as church bells ring and parishioners draped in long, flowing wool coats assemble for Christmas services in the new St. Henry's Catholic Church. The rafters are filled with voices singing hymns and carols. The year is 1918 and Perham residents have a lot to be happy about. "The Great War" ended weeks earlier, the unemployment rate is 1.3 percent, prohibition won't start for another two years and a box of Kellogg's corn flakes cost 8 cents, while a Hershey's bar was yours for only 3 cents.

Long before black Friday and door busting for the best deal on a new high-definition television, Christmas was a simpler time that mainly revolved around church and the family. "There was no shopping frenzy. Everyone gave lots of homemade presents," said Sara Canada of the East Otter Tail County Historical Society. "People didn't have a great deal of money. Shopping was more of a social gathering." Rather than shopping every day, families came into town less than once a week. This meant more presents were homemade. Girls often received tea sets and homemade dolls made from fabric or papier-mache while boys got teddy bears and tin cars.

Electronic Christmas tree lights were introduced in the 1880s, but mass production wouldn't make them affordable until the 1920s. Instead, candles were fixed right onto tree branches and lit each night with a bucket of water kept nearby. Glass ornaments started in Germany in the 1850s and trickled to America by the 1880s but weren't popularized until after WWII. Christmas tree decorations were handcrafted and included paper chains, tinsel, ribbon, painted walnut shells and cotton to mimic snow. Real socks counted as stockings and stuffed with walnuts and oranges, which were a rare delicacy.

The German and Polish influences in the area played a large role in the Christmas traditions that were passed down. Catholics returning from midnight mass enjoyed a feast of fish and oyster stew with hot milk, canned oysters and salt and pepper. Local churches like St. Paul's, St. Henry's and the country schools put on elaborate programs during Christmas Eve.

An announcement in The Perham Enterprise-Bulletin Dec. 18, 1919 promotes the area's festivities. "A program of Christmas carols will be rendered by the school children and there will be singing by the crowd. The Perham band will also furnish music for the occasion. All come. Everybody is welcome and Christmas time is the time of good fellowship and good will."


Kissing under the mistletoe was an established tradition. Each berry represented a kiss, and when all the berries were plucked there was no more kissing.

The modern version of Santa was firmly established by the 1910s, thanks to the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas", and many papers printed letters to Santa.

In a copy of the Perham High School student magazine The Periscope dated Dec. 1916 the senior class writes: "Because of the war and high prices, Santa had been compelled to use cheap material in his toys but because of his generous nature Santa had made each child two presents instead of one."

The junior class included their Christmas wish list: "WANTED FOR XMAS" Helen- a new hair crimper; Hortnese- a small shoe to fit a large foot; Winifred- a new hold on Rudolph; Anton- just a check for a thousand plunks; Mathilda- an escort to see her home after play practice; Joe G - a junior "lass" to escort home after play practice; Joe E. - a slide trombone along with the slide; Herman - a four foot "dolly"; Vivian - please make him tall; John - a dozen Shakespeare plays.

While World War I was officially over, many soldiers wouldn't be home for weeks. A total of 72 Perham residents served in the war including one nurse. Six were wounded and four were killed in action, according to the Otter Tail County war book published by the Victor Lundeen Company in 1919. Those lucky enough to survive the war were also threatened at home. The flu pandemic of 1918 was sweeping the world and would go on to kill 12,000 in the state out of 20 million overall worldwide. Fifty two soldiers from Otter Tail County died from the flu.

In other news, On Dec. 4, 1918 Woodrow Wilson sailed to France, becoming the first president to travel outside the US while in office. Wilson spent nine days at sea aboard the S.S. George Washington Wilson on his way to Paris to officially end the war with the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson also visited the troops in France over Christmas.

Thinking about traditions in a bygone era isn't easy as we get more invested in the present. This Christmas, while you're unwrapping the latest smartphone under a plastic tree with built-in LED lights, take a second to think about simpler times when all Helen wanted was a new hair crimper and Joe G. a "lass" to escort home.


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