Ringing in a New Year with Wisconsin’s Baby New Year

Jimmy Clark rings in 1954 as “Baby New Year” in cowboy boots, underwear, and a sash while standing atop a case of Appleton’s local Adler Brau beer and holding a cigarette (it was the 1950s – we didn’t know any better.). Clark was not the baby that year but he represented a custom that goes back thousands of years.

The tradition of “Baby New Year” can be traced back to ancient Greece. The Greeks believed that Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, was reborn every year as a spirit of fertility and luck. They celebrated with a baby in cradle. Ancient Egyptians also symbolized the birth of the New Year with a baby.

Babies born on New Year’s Day are generally considered lucky and their arrivals heralded in the newspaper. “Lawrence Frank Upthagrove has requested Mayor Walters to telephone the Journal that he is Stevens Point’s first New Years baby,” read a 1911 article in the Stevens Point Daily Journal. It seems unlikely that baby Lawrence made that request himself but New Year’s babies are exceptional.

In Monroe, Wisconsin, the lucky New Year’s Baby of 1948 received gifts from local businesses. To stop any would-be cheaters, the doctor’s signature was required to win.

And in Menasha, Wisconsin, in 1948, Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Shukoski won the New Year’s lottery with a second New Year’s baby. The Shukoskis won their first first baby of the year in 1946. But it seems holiday births were nothing new to this family of eleven. Dad and one of the boys were born on Thanksgiving, another on July fourth, and another on Christmas Eve.

Vintage Wisconsin: The Perfect Christmas Outfit

I’ve started a new blog at Wisconsin Public Radio called “Vintage Wisconsin.” It includes things like this:

Have you picked out your Christmas outfit yet? In this great photo, a young girl takes dressing up for the holidays to a new level with this tinsel- and ornament-bedecked dress in the 1950s. 

Jesuit priest, the Rev. Claude Allouez, celebrated what was perhaps the first Christmas in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior in 1665. He had set out from Montreal in August in the company of 400 Native Americans returning home to Wisconsin. He landed near where the city of Ashland is today and built “a little chapel of bark” that he decorated with “various pictures, as of Hell and of the universal Judgment.” Cheery decor, no? Allouez didn’t say what he did on Christmas, but it was probably praying and saying Mass rather than dressing as a Christmas tree.

Holiday cooking disasters have a long history in Wisconsin as well. In 1803, British trader Capt. Thomas Anderson attempted a Christmas feast for his Native American neighbors. He captured “the fattest raccoon” he could find – 32 pounds – and set to work stuffing it with venison, onions, and seasonings.

“No coonship’s body, I am sure,” he wrote, “was never so cram-full before.”

He set the stuffed raccoon by the fire intending to roast it in the morning but woke up to find it “putrid and stinking.” Mortified, Anderson went without dinner and got laughed at by his “half-famished friends.”

Despite this cooking disaster, Anderson was at it again in 1811, preparing a “sea pie” of muskrat for a Christmas feast. He made the crust and fit it in the bottom of a bake-kettle; spread a layer of muskrat meat, pepper, and salt; and continued alternating crust and meat until the kettle was full.

“But pepper and salt did not save it, nor savory crust convert muskrat into relishable food,” Anderson lamented. “On opening the pie, so sickening was the effluvia emanating from it, that all were glad to rush to the door for fresh air.”

Maybe Anderson should have tried the tree outfit instead. May your holiday feast be more relishable.