Local holiday rituals stand the test of time.
Small or big, public or private, the arms of the Fox Cities’ clock tick to the rhythm of annual holiday traditions, some that are more than half a century old while others barely a baker’s dozen.
As this magical time of the year draws near, we’ve highlighted just a few stories, memories and moments of music, goodwill and Santa-sensational events.
Heroes’ Big Haul
What do you get when a group of hometown heroes combine a speaker system, a Santa costume and a North Pole-resembling trailer? A 58-year-old Christmas tradition called the Santa Float that has touched the lives of children growing up in Neenah and Menasha neighborhoods.
Every holiday, the Neenah/Menasha Fire Rescue/Local 275 boards a trailer truck and floats through Neenah and Menasha neighborhoods.
Known to emit “Ho! Ho! Ho!” vocals loud enough to wake up sleepy, snowy neighborhoods, the Santa Float tradition was created by Neenah Fire Chief John Zick and dates back to 1952.
Two years later, the city retired its 1922 American La France ladder truck––the first motorized hook and ladder truck in the city––and converted it into a float.
It was then that Neenah families got their first sight of Santa.
North of the river, members of the Menasha Boys Club had their own Santa float tradition. Residents might recollect their acute attention to popcorn balls. In 1996, the club prepared 8,000 of the crisp treats.
Both organizations enjoyed these rituals separately until 2003 when the fire departments in Neenah and Menasha were consolidated.
While the Boys Club didn’t give up their right to good cheer without a fight, the decision was made to keep the trailer and props that belonged to Neenah for the holidays and the Menasha float for the annual Independence Day parade.
Now, all of the city streets in Neenah and Menasha are alternately covered over two years. “You can say we’ve been around the block a couple of times,” jokes Chief Al Auxier. “I don’t think we’ve missed more than one night in the last 15–20 years.”
The Neenah/Menasha firefighters donate their time to decorate the float, which consists of artificial trees, lights, a 70-year-old antique sleigh and Rudolph and his friends (not to mention the PA system, speakers and a generator).
“The float is totally funded by donations,” says George Van Schyndel, a Neenah/Menasha firefighter and float chairman. “All of the work we do is on our own time.”
Every weeknight for two weeks (starting the week after Thanksgiving), four volunteers are needed during the nightly two and a half hour pull: one to drive the lead vehicle and announce the float’s arrival, one to read the map, one to drive the float, and, of course, one to play Mr. Claus.
Run, Run Rudolph
Quick and nimble accurately describes the one-mile Santa Scamper that paves the way for the Downtown Appleton Christmas Parade each year.
This year marks the 27th annual race, and Bruce Chudacoff, the run’s creator, was always convinced it had staying power.
What most people don’t know is Chudacoff’s children chose the race’s name.
Twenty-seven years ago, Chudacoff was director and chairman of the board at Outagamie Bank (now Wells Fargo). He pitched the concept to the bank president and parade committee and used his connections at the local Dairy Queen and Burger King to get coupons for race participants.
And the add-ons kept adding up: runners were asked to bring a can of nonperishable food to be donated to St. Joseph’s Food Pantry, and each participant would receive a Santa Scamper knit hat.
Today, the dilly bars, Whopper coupon, can goods and knit hat are still integral parts of the event. The other elements––snow, sleet, wind and ice––aren’t nearly as predictable.
Monica Bartell-Stearns, who has coordinated the Santa Scamper for the last 15 years, has seen it all weather wise.
The only real change throughout the years has been the increase in parade attendees. Imagine the thrill of running amid a group of 2,000 people for a crowd of 60,000–70,000 lining College Avenue. “It’s really exciting being part of the big crowd before the race with everyone jumping up and down trying to stay warm,” shares Patrick Casey, an Appleton native and current UW-Stevens Point student. “It’s a blast running down College with the crowds on either side.”
Casey and several other members of his family have “scampered” for the last seven years and he’s fallen into the habit of running it with no shirt on. “I figure, if you’re going to run when it’s freezing out, why not take it one step further?”
What Tradition Sounds Like
From sport to the stage, the winter weather is the last thing stopping these holiday productions.
A 500-member cast and production in ACES Xavier’s annual “Christmas Stars” performance is in its 17th year. “When most people come to see the show, they’re expecting to see a choir concert, but this is like a Broadway production,” explains Jim Romenesko, who has been directing “Christmas Stars” since 1998.
The revue, featuring secular and religious holiday music and a cast of dancers, actors and singers, will take its audience through a winter wonderland. This year’s theme is something everything Fox Citian knows all too much about: snow. “This is the kind of production that reminds people of the old TV specials, like ‘The Andy Williams Show,’” Romenesko says. “It’s innovative, there are always surprises, yet people know what they’ll get when they come.”
While it is a yearly tradition and fundraiser for ACES Xavier, “Christmas Stars” has become a household name of performances in the area.
Another annual tradition is the coming together of area tubists for the Fox Cities’ TubaChristmas. This year marks the 20th concert of tubas, baritones and euphoniums playing Christmas carols in four-part harmony.
The very first TubaChristmas took place in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink in 1974.
First organized in 1990 by Nick Keelan, a trombone instructor at Lawrence University, performances originally took place in the City Center downtown Appleton. Today, the production fills the auditorium at Fox Valley Lutheran High School and features 30-40 sing-along classic Christmas carols.
The Appleton concert is one of 200 other TubaChristmas productions around the world; last year’s event attracted around 100 musicians and in years past they have had as many as 135.
Currently coordinated by Jim Jensen, a former Menasha High School band director and tuba player since the 7th grade, the production attracts both adults and children, mostly those who play with local orchestras or school bands “so their lips are in shape,” Jensen says.
“If you like brass and Christmas music, you’ll love TubaChristmas,” Jensen says.
What makes the event unique is that registration begins the afternoon of the concert at 3:30, only three and a half short hours before the 7pm performance! With many of the performers already trained, they’re up for the task.
On the winds side of the spectrum, Horns a Plenty Christmas, a scholarship organization targeting youth horn players, is hosted each year on the Saturday before Christmas by the Fox Valley Horn Club.
Over 80 horn players come together from all over the state of Wisconsin (and some even further) to perform Christmas carols for the Fox Cities community.
Wreaths Weather Time
The holiday tradition of wreath sales by the Boys’ & Girls’ Brigade lives up to the symbolic meaning of the wreath: eternity. The community custom shows no signs of stopping.
Since its beginning, the Brigade has been on a mission to garland the Valley and has challenged its teenaged members to sell as many as they can. What started 53 years ago as the first wreath sale has grown into 8,624 wreath products being sold last year.
Starting in October, Brigaders polish their sales pitches and map out their routes.
Neenah’s Will Weyenberg, one of the program’s top sellers, has been a Brigade member and wreath salesman since the sixth grade. He follows in the footsteps of his sisters, dad and grandfather, all of who have been involved in Brigade.
Weyenberg sold 126 wreaths last year, which brought in $2,300 for the organization and about $300 of commission. “If feels good to know that I have provided the Brigade with some money to help other kids experience what I have,” he says. “Almost everyone I know has bought or sold a Brigade wreath.”
While the opportunity to sell wreaths is not a Brigade requirement, Development Leader Pat Robinson says, “The profit from sales raises important support for the [organization]. It can also be a learning opportunity for the youth––financial responsibility, organization, initiative, stewardship, savings.”
Today, the wreath sale is one of the Brigade’s largest fundraisers and the revenue provides important support for the youth character development and leadership training programs for boys and girls in 5th–12th grade.
“It’s very special to feel a part of something that so many others have and to connect with all the people that I’m selling to that used to sell when they were Brigaders,” adds Weyenberg.
Five, Four, Three, Two…
One Christmas tree outnumbered, but not overshadowed, by a group of bundled-up individuals counting down until its branches are lit with thousands of white lights.
The residents of Appleton’s River Drive, a tight-knit ravine neighborhood looking north over the Fox River, have kept the tradition alive for almost 70 years.
In 1943, River Drive residents Earl Wichmann and George Johnson planted the five-foot spruce tree. Only one string of lights was needed for the tiny timber at the time.
Today, the tree stretches 63 feet into the air and requires an 80-foot cherry picker truck (the tallest in the county) to thread 44 strings of lights, a total of 1,100 white bulbs, which will illuminate its neck of the woods.
Residents gather for the lighting of the spruce, which takes place the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Day––the night of the Downtown Appleton Holiday Parade. “It’s a blend of old and new people,” says Kelly Helein, a “Riverdriver” (as they call themselves). “As the tree has grown, so has the number of lives the tradition has touched.”
Old or new, Santa, spruce or sport, traditions have us looking forward to celebrations of all kinds year after year.
—By Alison Fiebig