Wisconsin's Holiday Traditions: Family Favorites

On the day after Christmas, David and Gretchen Livingston usually take a six-hour drive from their Chicagoland home to a century-old farm on 800 acres in northern Wisconsin. These wintry treks began around 15 years ago.

Their end-of-year getaway is to Palmquist Farm, near Brantwood in Price County. What they expect and love about the destination is its serenity, cross-country skiing, woodfired sauna and from-scratch Finnish cooking.

Horse-drawn sleigh rides head into the farm’s woods. A hill is big enough for sledding. Gretchen knits in front of the lodge fireplace. Her children arrive – they’ve been coming to this farm since they were in elementary school.

What began as curiosity because of a newspaper article has turned into a treasured holiday tradition. The road trip is repeated because of the satisfaction it brings, and with repetition comes a comfort and anticipation of the familiar, enriched by the involvement of people who matter most.

These connections happen all over Wisconsin, in big and little ways, especially as the holiday season nears.

We head to Norskedalen, a nature and rural heritage center near Coon Valley, to make tree ornaments with a blacksmith and glimpse long-ago farm life. We board the “pizza train” at Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad in Spooner for a meal with Santa and a pretty, two-hour ride near the Namekagon River.

Thousands make their way to Madison in December for a gander at a 40-foot-tall tree with handmade decorations in the State Capitol rotunda. It is a prime time for a free tour of both this grand building and the holiday-trimmed Executive Residence, home to the governor and first lady.

Germans get credit for making decorated Christmas trees a U.S. household tradition, and tree buying can be a quick job or daylong joy. At Whispering Pines Tree Farm in Oconto, horse-drawn wagons take families into 200 wooded acres to seek and cut the perfect fir. Then children can visit Santa and enter a kids-only shop that uses tokens instead of money and includes gift wrapping.

Most unusual is the holiday light show that is designed to be viewed from water. A recent, festive addition on Geneva Lake is the Santa Cruise, a 40-minute boat tour that departs from Winter Harbor in Williams Bay.

Passengers see lakefront lights and colorful, animated holiday displays from the comfort of an enclosed, heated and historic Lake Geneva Cruise Line boat. With the exception of Christmas Eve and Day, these late afternoon and evening rides happen at least three times a day from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

The family-friendly outings begin with a walk to trees decorated for the Twelve Charities of Christmas, and a part of cruise proceeds helps these goodwill organizations.

Santa remains the biggest star at parades across the state, but only in Bayfield does he arrive on water instead of land. Robert Hansen began playing the role 23 years ago.

“We sneak over to Madeline Island on a ferry (during a mid-December Saturday), pick up a few kids and head back,” where 100 more will be waiting at the dock. The group walks to a pavilion that Santa and Mrs. Claus (his wife, Jackie) will have already decorated. All have lunch and sing Christmas songs before lining up for one-to-one time on Santa’s lap and a bag of goodies.

“It probably makes me happier than the kids,” says the 79-year-old Santa. “I’d hate to give this up,” especially when seeing the little children of long-ago return as parents who introduce him to their next generation.

Now's the perfect time to start your next holiday tradition. For more ideas on family fun this season, check out our Wisconsin winter getaways

This entry was posted in Holiday Events