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Prairie Christmas

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

What follows is the story of how Christmas came to the Illinois prairie in 1869, courtesy of a war in Europe.

In that war, in 1864, the Prussians took away one of Denmark's most cherished provinces, Schleswig-Holstein, sending a wave of Danes to America to escape military conscription and to build a life free from violence. My own grandfather was among that group.

The national pride fueled by the loss of their land made these Danes determined to preserve their own culture, their language, music, art, and religion in the New World. They resisted Americanizing their names and their lives.

As with other immigrant groups, the Danes came to the best available land, and by the 1860s, that meant the prairies of Northern Illinois.

A large group of these Danes settled in and around Sheffield, Illinois, east of Rock Island, because if its rich prairie soil, but also because of the jobs available on the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. A large number of young Danish women found work in Mr. and Mrs. Paul Jansen's big Railroad Hotel in nearby Bureau.

Sheffield was already American when the Danes arrived, settled by Yankees with Puritan roots, but by 1869, there was a Danish Lutheran congregation worshipping in a small rented building.

That year, at Christmas, Shefield's Yankee's, peering through the windows of the Danish church, saw something they had never seen: a Christmas tree loaded with popcorn strings, paper chains, and woven paper baskets in the shape of hearts, illuminated by dozens of lighted candles. As with their Puritan ancestors, the Yankees had never celebrated Christmas; to them it was just another day.

And now, here was not only a Christmas tree, but a full celebration of all twelve days of Christmas, with parties and dances and giving of gifts. The Danes loved to celebrate.

It did not take long for this little American town to turn Danish, and for Christmas to spread across Illinois like a prairie fire before the wind.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.