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Whatever Happened to Christmas?

Remember when no one started Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving?

Wisconsin author LeAnn R. Ralph remembers it very well.

"When I was growing up on our dairy farm forty years ago, the stores didn't put up Christmas displays until the day after Thanksgiving. No one was really thinking about Christmas shopping before that," Ralph said. "In fact, my mother felt so strongly about it that she didn't even like to hear the word 'Christmas' until after we had finished eating Thanksgiving dinner."

Ralph's new book, Christmas In Dairyland (True Stories From a Wisconsin Farm), celebrates Christmas during that simpler time.

"Back then, happiness was baking cookies, decorating the Christmas tree, and eating lefse that my mother had made," Ralph said.

Lefse (pronounced lef'suh) is a flat potato pastry brought to this country by Norwegian immigrants who settled in Wisconsin. Ralph's mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, and their 120-acre family farm was homesteaded by Ralph's great-grandfather.

"When I was a kid, people enjoyed simple pleasures. The Sunday school Christmas program was an event at the little country church just down the road from our farm that was attended by nearly everyone in the neighborhood," Ralph noted.

"At the time, if someone had told me the Christmas season was going to change so drastically that you would eventually get Christmas catalogs in the mail in August and September and that you would find Christmas decorations on sale in August and September, too I wouldn't have believed it," she said.

"I also would have never thought that dairy farming would change so much. I always took it for granted that we lived in 'America's Dairyland,' but today, most of the small family dairy farms have disappeared," Ralph noted.

According to statistics from the United States Census of Agriculture , Wisconsin has lost two-thirds of its dairy farms since 1969. Forty years ago, Wisconsin had 60,000 dairy farms. Today, only about 20,000 dairy farms remain.

Nation-wide statistics from the United States Census of Agriculture show the same trend. In 1969, more than a half a million dairy farms operated in the United States. Today, only about 80,000 dairy farms remain.

"As far as I was concerned, one of the best parts of Christmas was going out with my dad to cut a Christmas tree. We had small stands of pine trees planted around the farm to stop soil erosion. We would walk around until we found a nice tree, and then we would cut it and bring it home," Ralph recalled.

Ralph's book, Christmas In Dairyland (True Stories From a Wisconsin Farm) (August 2003; ISBN1-59113-366-1 ; trade paperback; 153 pages), features 20 stories set on her family's farm during the Christmas season. Story titles include "The Lefse Connection," "Milkweed Pods and Poinsettias," "Wintergreen," "White Christmas," "Jeg Er Sa Glad Hver Julekveld," "The Most Perfect Toboggan," "A Candle for Christmas," and "A New Year Unlike Any Other." The book also includes recipes for lefse, fattigman (a Norwegian cookie, pronounced 'futty-mun'), julekake, and Christmas cookies, as well as instructions for making candles out of old crayons, as featured in the story "A Candle for Christmas."

"Several years ago a story of mine about my dad making ice cream was published in an e-mail newsletter. The title of the story was 'Dad's Favorite Recipe,' and for several weeks after that I received e-mails asking for the recipe. That's why I decided to include recipes in the book for some of the foods mentioned in my stories," Ralph explained.

About The Author

LeAnn R. Ralph is the editor of the Wisconsin Regional Writer (the quarterly publication of the Wisconsin Regional Writers' Assoc.) and is the author of the book, Christmas In Dairyland (True Stories From a Wisconsin Farm) (Aug. 2003); trade paperback. For more information about Christmas In Dairyland, visit