Mind & Spirit

Holiday Happenings Shares Cultural Customs

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The holiday season is a prime time for family gatherings, and a prime opportunity for sharing family customs. Discover how some of our local ethnic heritage museums are recognizing our region’s cultural traditions.

Tinker Swiss Cottage, festively decorated, is one of three museums in Rockford collaborating to present “Holiday Happenings,” the cultural event of the season, on Dec. 14.

Tinker Swiss Cottage, festively decorated, is one of three museums in Rockford collaborating to present “Holiday Happenings,” the cultural event of the season, on Dec. 14.

We all have our own special holiday traditions, and often, they’re based on our ethnic heritage, which we naturally commemorate this time of year, when families often gather together to celebrate.

Thanks to a collaboration among three Rockford museums, we can discover the seasonal customs and traditions of several cultures, at Holiday Happenings, Dec. 14, noon-4 p.m. For one price, visitors can experience the sights, sounds, scents and tastes of immigrant groups that helped to settle Rockford, at Tinker Swiss Cottage, the Erlander Home and the Ethnic Heritage Museum.

Each museum will be decorated in a manner befitting its subject: Victorian for Tinker Swiss Cottage; Swedish for Erlander; and six different cultures at the Ethnic Heritage Museum.

Staff at these facilities wanted to do something different and special for the holidays and were casting about for ideas. While digging through old files, Holiday Happenings was unearthed.

“This was something that was done five or six years ago,” says Ashley Downing, curator of collections at Tinker. “We all met and decided to bring it back.”

One ticket will cover all three museums, and each will have volunteers on hand to explain the various customs and meanings behind the traditions. A free shuttle service between venues is via horse-and-wagon provided by Ellingson Family Farm in Poplar Grove.

“The event has developed a nice partnership between the three groups,” says Sue Lewandowski, board president of Ethnic Heritage Museum. “Everyone is working together, each group with its own holiday traditions, to present a cohesive, fun experience.”

Each museum has a unique history. Tinker Swiss Cottage, 411 Kent St., was built in 1865 by Rockford resident and mayor Robert Tinker, a bookkeeper for the Emerson-Talcott Co. He was inspired by architecture he had observed in Switzerland during a nine-month tour of Europe. The cottage, perched on a limestone bluff overlooking Kent Creek, was surrounded by 27 acres of trees, paths, gardens and a barn for horses, chickens and cows.

Tinker wed Mary Dorr Manny in 1870, and the pair wintered at the cottage and spent summers in her family mansion on the opposite side of Kent Creek. Eventually, Tinker connected the cottage with the mansion and grounds by constructing a suspension bridge over Kent Creek.

Tinker family members, who occupied the cottage for 75 years, left their home to the Rockford Park District in 1937. In 1943, it was opened to the public as a museum. Filled with original furnishings, artwork, diaries, clothing and household items, the Cottage is a rich time capsule of life during the Victorian Era, and one of only a handful of Swiss-style homes remaining in the U.S.

“We’ll be showcasing Victorian Christmas traditions,” Downing says. The home is decorated on the first floor only, as Victorians did, so the upstairs isn’t part of Holiday Happenings, although it is included in regular tours.

Cascading ribbons and garlands of greens are hung from mantels, staircases, doorways and landings, and poinsettias and candles are placed throughout the house. “We have two trees,” Downing says. “One is a full green tree displaying original ornaments from the Tinker family. The other is a German feather tree, made of goose feathers, about two or three feet high, decorated with apples, candy and presents.”

According to Downing, the German feather tree was one of the first artificial trees ever used. “Because of the Industrial Revolution, people in Germany were worried about using too many trees,” she explains. “Some people tried to preserve the greens for the next year, by wrapping them in tissue. Others came up with trees made from more permanent materials.”

Visitors will also be entertained by the East High Madrigal Singers, and treated to apple cider and snacks.

The Erlander Home, 404 S. 3rd St., is run by the Swedish Historical Society of Rockford. The first Swedish immigrants arrived in Rockford in 1852, and between 1876-1886, more than 20 important furniture companies were begun by Swedes. Several Rockford manufacturing companies were also started by various Swedish immigrants.

The house was built for John Erlander and his family in 1871, within the historic Haight Village of Rockford. The Swedish Historical Society, founded in 1938, began a small museum in the library in 1944, but moved it to the Erlander home the same year. Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander presided over the dedication of the museum.

Restored in 1985, today it’s a cultural centerpiece of Rockford’s Swedish-descended community.

Collections include Rockford-made furniture and artifacts recalling Swedish immigration to northern Illinois and Rockford’s Swedish heritage.

For Holiday Happenings, St. Lucia will figure prominently at the Erlander Home. In Sweden, Christmas officially begins on St. Lucia Day, Dec. 13, which coincides with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Typically, the eldest female in a family portrays St. Lucia, by donning a white dress with a red sash round her waist and a crown of Lingonberry branches and candles. She’s often shown in a procession of boys and girls singing carols.

The home will be festooned with traditional Swedish decorations, such as a Christmas tree hung with cookies, fruit and straw ornaments. Straw is used as a decoration in homes, to remind them that Jesus was born in a manger. Families sometimes have goats made of straw in the house to guard the Christmas tree. Decorations made of paper are popular, especially the Advent Star. The Swedes favor red, adorning the house with poinsettias, red tulips and red or white Amaryllis.

Lussekatt, a bun with raisins and saffron, is a popular breakfast treat on St. Lucia’s Day. Christmas Eve is typically celebrated with a buffet (julbord at lunchtime, smorgasbord at dinner), featuring cold meats, warm dishes such as meatballs and cabbage rolls, salads, pate, pickles, and vegetable and potato dishes. And for a truly authentic Swedish Christmas, there must be Glögg (sweet mulled wine) and Pepparkakor (a very thin gingersnap).

Visitors will be able to sample some typical Swedish fare, learn about other Swedish characters, such as Tomte, a woodland version of Santa Claus, hear carols and see traditional decorations.

The Ethnic Heritage Museum, located at 1129 S. Main St., a modest home built in the 1850s, has galleries showcasing the heritage of six cultures: Lithuanian, Italian, African-American, Irish, Polish and Hispanic. The museum is staffed completely by volunteers who are excited about their cultures and want to share the history of their heritage.

The Lithuanian gallery includes a tree decorated with handmade straw ornaments, instruments used to play holiday tunes, traditional outfits, and hand-woven sashes that represent different regions. Especially striking is the Nativity scene, hand carved from beeswax, another Lithuanian folk art. “This particular set is on loan from a Rockford resident, Anna Keraminas, who carved it herself using beeswax from her own hives,” says Lewandowski. Also on display is jewelry made from amber, which is worn during the holidays.

The Irish gallery is draped with holly and mistletoe. Mistletoe was believed to have healing properties so powerful, that even enemies passing under it would lay down their arms and embrace – which contributed, no doubt, to the modern tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. The Irish also place lit candles in the windows on Christmas Eve, using carved-out rutabagas as candleholders, so that Mary and Joseph can find their way. A flatbread with caraway seeds and raisins, and a pitcher of milk, are left out for them.

The focal point in the Polish gallery is Szopki (shop-key), also called a Fairy Castle, an elaborate Nativity scene which sometimes reaches as high as six feet. This one is on loan from St. Stanislaus Church. “It comes apart into three pieces,” says Lewandowski. “I wasn’t sure it would fit.” The tradition of building a Szopki comes from 13th century Krakow, and the castles usually have Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements common in that city’s architecture.

The Italian ceppo is a tiered pyramid-shaped wooden frame, also called “The Tree of Light,” with candles and ribbons in the tapering corners. A Nativity scene is placed on the bottom shelf and fruit, candy and small gifts placed on the shelves above.

The Hispanic gallery features a tree decorated with traditional handmade straw and knit ornaments of bells, wreaths, the Star of Bethlehem and piñatas, and a Nativity scene from Guatemala. “We cannot celebrate Christmas without a Nativity scene,” says museum volunteer Amalia Diaz de Leon. “It’s set up about mid-December, and Baby Jesus is added on Christmas.” A traditional Christmas meal is usually tamales, buñuelos – cinnamon-covered fried pastry dough – and punch made from fresh fruit. “We also drink rompope, a Mexican version of eggnog,” says Diaz de Leon. “It’s made with eggs, milk, almonds and tequila.”

The six galleries are open for viewing through Dec. 21. During Holiday Happenings, cultural representatives will be in each gallery to explain the customs. “We’ll have little samples of ethnic holiday snacks and some entertainment,” says Lewandowski.

Holiday Happenings is on Dec. 14 from noon-4 p.m. Tickets can be pre-ordered online, at ethnicheritagemuseum.org and tinkercottage.com, or purchased at any of the venues on event day. One ticket covers all three venues.

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