A century ago, the city of Appleton, Wisconsin, celebrated Christmas on a grand scale. It was 1908, and for the first time, the city had decorated its streets with electric lights for the holiday. The occasion was not unlike our observance of Christmas today: bright, extravagant, and unrelentingly commercial. Summing up the event on December 31, the Appleton Post boasted that “The illumination of College Avenue by the Appleton merchants, together with the notoriety given to the town by the possession of the biggest Christmas tree in the world, and not only the biggest, but the prettiest, put the merchants of nearby towns to their wits’ end to keep their trade from drifting over to Appleton.”1
Christmas in Wisconsin wasn’t always such a colossal affair. Indeed, the holiday hasn’t always been celebrated here. The American Indians who first occupied the land had their own traditions, beliefs, and ceremonies. The first people who celebrated Christmas in what became Wisconsin were French and British traders who arrived after the seventeenth century. Few of these first Christian arrivals were especially devout. “We sometimes kept Sundays; but whether on the right day was doubtful,” recalled Thomas Gummersall Anderson, a British trader who traveled Wisconsin widely in the early 1800s.2 Despite their relaxed attitude towards religion, Anderson and others like him tried to retain their Christmas traditions as best as they could in an unfamiliar land. Anderson’s memoir, written just a few years before his death in 1875, records two Christmas feasts gone terribly awry on the Wisconsin frontier.
There is something unavoidably alluring to me about the cold. I don’t know what it is. For some reason, though, I’ve just always been more apt to build a snow fort than a sand castle. The heat makes my spirit melt, I have the soul of a wax man, but the cold is different. I find it at once refreshing, piercing, unbearable, intense, and thrilling. I sport with the cold. With almost masochistic pleasure, I subject my toes and fingers to its sting and brave its challenge, giddy to survive its might. Cold is power! It is the power to invigorate or to destroy, the power to transform the world into something alien and uninhabitable, but something still simultaneously beautiful. I cannot help but be transfixed.
I awoke this morning to the sound of the wind beating against my bedroom wall. The weatherman had said yesterday that it could start gusting up to twenty-five miles an hour. My bed was cold, and the blankets wrapped around me felt papery thin. When the fog of sleep finally cleared from my eyes I could see three foot snowdrifts outside my window. It was the kind of morning that would make anybody want to stay in bed. Anybody, that is, except for people like me. Enlightened or deranged, I decided to go hiking.
No matter that the wind was so fierce, the snow so deep, or the temperature so cold — the thermometer in my kitchen window read ten degrees below zero, Fahrenheit — I wanted to celebrate the winter solstice by heading straight out into Wisconsin’s deep December freeze. So, I quickly donned my winter gear and stepped outside into the snow. Now my adventure could begin, and I made to awe myself with winter’s power and beauty for as long as I could stand it.
It’s amazing how much bigger the world seems when the snow and wind impede every step between one place and another. Though I stayed outside for more than an hour, I only managed to trudge over a few of the hills and valleys that make up my family’s farm. Still, I discovered some lovely things. In the wooded glen, sheltered from the wind, a defiantly unfrozen stream still flowed gently between the snowbanks. On the barren ridgetop above, the wind whipped enough snow into the air to stain the blue sky gray, and the sun struggled to illuminate the bleak, frozen world spread out beneath it. Luckily, I found that I could still use a camera while wearing gloves, and the few scenes that I captured with my numb fingers will finish this story far more effectively than my amateur prose.
The first fifteen photos here were taken on the morning of the December 21, the 2008 Winter Solstice — it was a very chilly hike. The last twelve shots were taken a few days later on Christmas Eve. You may copy and reuse these photographs for free under a Creative Commons license (see terms below).