Celebrating an 1867 Swede Lake Christmas

Editors Note: The following historical Christmas story was submitted by Mayor Charlotte Johnson, which she received from Loren M. Thorson, who is 92 years old. He recently bought Johnson’s very last History of Watertown, Minnesota book. Paging through the book has brought back many memories of the past that Thorson has been e-mailing to Johnson. Here is his Christmas story about the Swede Lake Settlement in 1867, and in particular, his grandfather.


It is Tuesday, the day of Christmas Eve in the year 1867. Thee location is a remote settlement in central Minnesota known as Swede Lake. As the name depicts, it is a settlement of Swedes that have migrated from their native land of Sweden.

But there is excitement in the air!

Not unlike today, the children are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. And “yes,” before they are tucked into bed, they will be read that famous children’s Christmas Story, “T’was the Night before Christmas,” which was written in 1823.

But the excitement of Christmas Eve reigns throughout this small settlement of about 150 people. The women for several weeks have been baking traditional “Swedish goodies,” such as Sandbakels, Rosettes, Krumkaker, and Ginger Boy cookies.

It is a day of good cheer. Settlers are hopping into their “one horse open sleigh” to visit their neighbors. Neighbors were not just around the corner, i.e., they could be several miles apart. However, it is cold and one could envision that on that day, there was a gentle falling of snow. It is winter and it is cold. If one stopped by to wish a neighbor “Merry Christmas,” one would remove the chill by partaking of the spiced wine simmering on the stove—a Swedish tradition.

The silence of winter is eerie…broken only by the sound of sleigh bells. Yes, during the Christmas season, it was commonplace to attach small brass sleigh bells to the harness of horses. (Papa Loren as a kid recalls those bells.) The sound of those bells is crisp with a bit of melodious sharpness. Each step of a horse would bring that beautiful “jingle.” These bells are uncanny as to how their sound can pierce the stillness of a winter night.

There is now a new Christmas song being sung namely “Jingle Bells,” which was written in 1857. One can imagine the fun of singing that song in a two-horse bobsleigh packed with children.

But the “hustle and bustle” of this day is in preparation for the Christmas Eve dinner that will be followed by going to 11 p.m. church services. The Swedes are good cooks and preparations are being made this day for the Christmas Eve dinner known as a “julbord.” (Today, we call it a smorgasbord.) The Christmas Eve table will be graced with lutefisk or Swedish meatballs, ham, pork, and Swedish sausage (today, it is known as potato sausage). And the Christmas tree is up and decorated.

Today, Dec. 24, 1867, is extra special. There will be a wedding. In this small knit setttlement of 150 residents, a wedding is a festive event.

John P. Miller will wed Ida Caroline Nelson. The wedding service will be held just prior to the traditional Christmas Eve Service in the “Church-School.” This unheated building is constructed of logs but the exterior of the building has not been framed. The building functions as a school during the week and as a church on Sunday.

Ida Caroline Nelson is about to spend her second Christmas in the Swede Lake Settlement. She (at age 15), her parents, and seven brothers and sisters arrived from Sweden in July of 1866.

John P. Miller is considered an “old timer.” He arrived in Minnesota in 1852, served as a government scout and participated in the Civil War. He has been given a land grant of 120 acres for his Civil War service. He decides it is about time to settle down and get married.

John is watching all newly arrived immigrant settlers with a discriminating eye. And there she is…this beautiful young lady of 15! He wastes no time in “striking up a romance.” With the availability of a saw mill, he builds a frame home. With 120 acres of farm land and a home built, he “pops” the question. Thus, one year later, Ida, now at the age of 16 accepts.

Everyone has finished their “Julboard,” have hitched up their bobsleds, and are heading for the wedding and church services. The snow has stopped and the evening is clear, cold and crisp. The sound of horse’s hoofs punctuating the snow cannot be described. It is a special sound. Most families number about six to nine individuals, thus a bobsled is the main source of transportation. It is fun singing Christmas songs during the ride to church in a bobsled.

Hitching posts are awaiting at the church for the hitching (securing) of the horses. The church interior decorations reflect the spirit of Christmas. Several days earlier, the children, along with their parents helped decorate the interior. This was followed by the traditional Children’s Christmas program.

It is anticipated that the wedding ceremony will take place about 10:30 p.m. and will be followed by the traditional 11 p.m. Christmas Eve Service. Contrary to today’s custom, the bride and groom enter the church together. The bride wore a bridal crown made of ribbons. Grandma’s wedding dress was probably in keeping with the challenges of cold weather. There is also an awareness of the length of exposure of the horses to the winter elements.

Everyone enters the church carrying his or her lighted lanterns. The wedding ceremony is short and upon conclusion, there is a brief period of well wishes. Church services commence and it is envisioned that traditional Christmas songs such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” were sung. The Christmas Story of the Birth of Jesus is read as found in the Bible, Luke Chapter 2, 1-20. Because of the unheated church, the Pastor’s sermon is relatively short. The service ends with singing. These settlers leave the church in silence and outside the church low-key expressions of Merry Christmas are made to each other.

Everyone is now in their bobsleds heading home. There probably is no singing, i.e., the solemnity of the church service and the recognition of the traditions of Christmas Eve. There is no stopping by neighbors’ homes. The children must get home as soon as possible to hear the reading of T’was the Night before Christmas.” And they had to be tucked into bed prior to the arrival of Santa Claus.

Grandpa Miller and his new bride are headed to their new home. As they near their home, they can see one of Grandpa’s candle lanterns hanging outside the door and burning brightly. They enter their new home literally hand-in-hand, but Swedish tradition was such that whoever took the first step into the home was considered “the boss.”

Wedding gifts were few but in the era of 1867, wedding gifts were more practical than romantic. Several years before Grandma and Grandpa’s wedding, a young lady by the name of Josephine Brown was married. Her wedding gifts were one overall dress, a pair of wooden shoes and a hoe. In keeping with tradition, Grandpa’s wedding gift to his bride (Grandma) was given the next day (Christmas Day). Thus was the beginning of a marriage that lasted nearly 43 years.

My Grandpa John P. Miller died Dec. 23, 1910, one day short of their 43rd wedding anniversary. And on Feb. 28, 1928, I said goodbye to Grandma.