Looking Back: Rochester Christmas traditions hark from 'jolly souls' in the city's history

Downtown Rochester attracts visitors from all over Metro Detroit for its “Big Bright Light Show”, which began in 2005, but community Christmas traditions in the city stem from much further back, with a rich history of quaint customs and colorful characters. 

Now, the season begins with Lagniappe, which means “a small gift”, with participating downtown stores giving out something extra with each purchase, while lights along the main and side streets of the downtown — the brainchild of Downtown Development Authority executive director Kristi Trevarrow — adorn the main street every night from 5 p.m. Neighborhood festivities culminate with Rochester’s Fire and Ice Festival, which occurs after the holidays, but the camaraderie has been a feature of the community long before the popular light displays.

In 1880 on New Year’s Day, families would keep an “open house” for neighbors and friends to visit. They would stay a few minutes, share a non-alcoholic beverage and a little something to eat, and be on their way to the next house, hoping to make it to most of their neighbors by nightfall. According to an article published on January 8, 1880, in The Rochester Era newspaper, the New Year’s celebration was a joyful one. 

“Many of our people will have occasion to remember the day with feelings of pleasure, as one great enjoyment and social, friendly discourse,” the resort reads. “The custom of our ladies’ keeping ‘open house’ upon New Year’s Day, although somewhat of a novel one with them, was well [received] last Thursday. As the callers generally did not start out until the afternoon, they had to make pretty lively time in order to go the rounds before night. At each place they were received right royally and the few minutes allotted were spent in happy greetings, pleasant conversation, and partaking refreshments, which were served in a bountiful and hospitable manner.”

The article goes on to mention that so many people were out visiting, that one house had 11 “jolly souls” gather. “We hope that this agreeable and social way of spending New Year’s Day will be more generously observed next year,” the article states, “for we are assured that there can be no more satisfactory method of renewing old acquaintances and keeping alive the spirit of good fellowship and friendly sentiment than such a custom.” 

For the Van Hoosen family, on their farm where the Rochester Hills Museum is currently located, the Christmas holiday was “much the same [as] any other day,” writes Bertha Van Hoosen in her memoir, “Petticoat Surgeon”. Her parents did not encourage a belief in Santa Claus so when she got a little older Van Hoosen began to “play Santa” for the village children. 

“My ambition to give at least ten presents to each child,” she writes, “kept me working continually from one Christmas to the next. My egg money was not sufficient to buy even one ‘store present’, so I had to manufacture out of mere nothings one hundred and fifty or two hundred presents. Month after month, all the year round I viewed everything through ‘Santa Claus spectacles’ I wore night and day.”

Pat McKay, director of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm says every year the Rochester Garden Club decorates the Christmas trees in the museum. “It’s a little bit more than what the Van Hoosen’s did,” explains Mckay. “They did not decorate a lot. We’re trying to respect the stories we tell about the family. But we really think the decorations punctuate some of the beautiful architecture of the building and the furniture. So it’s not off the charts,” he adds, “it’s a little more subtle because that’s the way it would have been done, historically speaking.” Mckay says the museum really tries to match the look of a Van Hoosen-era Christmas, using bigger Christmas bulb lights, for example, rather than the small modern lights so commonly used today. 

In 1920 Rochester residents collaborated to begin the tradition of a tree-lighting ceremony. An article from Rochester Era Newspaper announced, “Santa’s coming from a long, long ways, so don’t disappoint him, boys and girls, but be at the community Christmas tree to give him a hearty welcome. In order that you will not be late, be sure to listen for the church bells at 7:15 p. m. on Christmas eve.” 

Then in 1935, during the Great Depression, Rochester managed to add a simple adornment of Christmas lights downtown to encourage shopping, but they were turned off throughout the electricity restrictions during World War II, according to Rochester historian Deborah Larsen. 

The Rochester Parade in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Rochester Hills Museum.

The Rochester parade was started in 1952 by the Rochester Jaycees as a way to kick off the holiday season. Today the parade is organized by the Rochester Chamber Foundation and this year the event will celebrate its 70th year. It boasts over one hundred entrants every year, making it the largest Christmas parade in the state of Michigan. Maggie Bobitz, Vice President of the Rochester Chamber Foundation, says the parade also includes at least six high school marching bands and of course, Santa Claus.

“It wouldn’t be a Christmas Parade without Santa arriving on a float at the very end of the parade,” she says. “The parade has done many themes over the years from Twelve Days of Christmas, Caribbean Christmas, Santa’s Wonderland, and this year’s theme is Community Christmas.” 

The parade takes place every year on the first Sunday of December. [Update: This event has been canceled this year out of respect for the families impacted by a school shooting incident in the nearby community of Oxford, the Oxford High School band were a regular feature in the parade]. 

Photo courtesy of Meadow Brook Hall.

In the outskirts of Rochester, Meadow Brook Hall is ringing in the season with a new holiday light show this year. In addition to elaborate themed holiday decorations on the inside, Meadow Brook Hall staff have added a new nighttime outdoor feature called Winter Wonder Lights that accentuates the outdoor gardens. Madelyn Rzadkowolski, Meadow Brook Hall curator, explains that Matilda Wilson-Dodge’s happiest memories in the house took place around the holidays. 

“This is the fiftieth year of our Holiday Walk,” she says. “It’s been one of our largest fundraisers.” 

She explains that Wilson-Dodge’s mission of charity during the holidays was very important. The family spent every Christmas Eve at Salvation Army’s Denby Home for children and women in need. 

“[Matilda Wilson-Dodge] knew every child by name, there were about sixty of them, says Rzadkowolski. “She made sure they all had oranges from her greenhouse. She would have her children travel to downtown Detroit with her and help her pick out gifts for every child. For children who were growing up in a place of such wealth, it was probably difficult to give context to having them understand how their lifestyle was different from other children. So the Wilson’s really cared about making sure their children thought about how other children were living and how they could help them when they had the opportunity.”

Photo courtesy of Meadow Brook Hall.On Christmas Eve every year, Wilson-Dodge and her assistant stayed awake until 4 a.m. decorating a tree for her children to see Christmas morning for the first time. But Wilson-Dodge’s favorite Christmas memory, according to Rzadkowolski, was when gifts were delivered by horse and cutter on Christmas morning, and she continued this tradition with her own family. 

“When I was a girl, at home,” Wilson-Dodge told the Detroit Free Press in 1959, “our Christmases were very simple. We were a small family and our relatives lived too far away in Canada to be with us. This is probably why I’ll always remember the exciting times at Meadow Brook.”

Rochester’s success as far as promoting their downtown with their Christmas celebrations year after year shows, Mckay points out, that “Rochester has always been a thriving community.” 

“The trajectory for economics in downtown Rochester has always been going up,’ he says. “I think we’ve just been fortunate. It allows the city to be able to celebrate Christmas and consistently support it.” 

Mckay attributes Rochester’s success to community commitment. “When asked, [the community] steps forward. We talk about Rochester being a family-oriented city and it’s true; we find activities the whole family can enjoy.” 

Meadow Brook Hall's Holiday Walk. Photo courtesy of Meadow Brook Hall.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.