Christmas today is highly commercialized, and American consumers are encouraged to shop for as much as they can buy during the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It wasn’t always like this, and during the worst years of the Great Depression Christmas in Rhinelander was celebrated a little differently.
Christmas is a special time across the Northwoods. It is a time for family reunions and holiday celebrations. In our modern world the Christmas holiday season officially begins on the Friday after Thanksgiving with Black Friday shopping, but it wasn’t always that way.
Christmas at one time was very different in the Northwoods. Take the Christmas of 1932, for example.
The stock market collapsed in 1929, and the economic impact of the crash reverberated all over the United States. Banks failed across the nation, and as the money supply tightened many factories shut down. By 1932 many plants in the Northwoods had closed or reduced their workforce. Many people were out of work, and more than a few were desperate. There weren’t a lot of people who had any real money to spend, so Christmas gifts in those days were often of a practical nature. Gifts were frequently homemade or homegrown. Hand-knitted socks, gloves, or scarf were common presents found on Christmas morning. A lucky child might also receive a gift of a few nuts or perhaps an orange. There weren’t a lot of extras, but in Rhinelander and other Northwoods communities, city dignitaries wanted to do what they could to add a little something extra for local children.
In 1932, both the county board and the city council spent much of their time discussing poor relief, but as Christmas approached the focus shifted to the children. City officials along with the local boy scouts, fire department, and the American Legion launched a toy drive to ensure that Northwoods children would not be left out at Christmas. Three truckloads of old, broken toys were collected, repaired, repainted, and refurbished like new to get them ready for Christmas distribution. All the work was done in local fire houses, and the completed toys were stored in City Hall.
The city was gaily decorated for the season with bright lights, red and green decorations, colorful display windows in downtown stores, and numerous Christmas trees. Plus, city workers constructed an Ice Palace in downtown Rhinelander for Santa to rest as he handed out toys. On Thursday, December 22, the State Theater hosted a “food matinee” where people who had a little extra to share could donate food that could be turned over to local relief organizations. For the youngsters, however, the big day was Saturday, December 24. Santa arrived at the downtown Ice Palace and handed out the refurbished toys to the happy children. Gifts of warm winter clothing were also given to families in need. In addition, there were seasonal treats of candy, fruits, and nuts for all.
Even though downtown stores stayed open late during the last two weeks before Christmas, it was a celebration without all the glitz and commercialism that we experience today. Without a doubt the Christmas of 1932 was memorable beyond measure for many Northwoods residents.
Image: Idlewild Lodge in Harshaw