Travel Back to an Old-Fashioned Christmas

A Day Away Adventures:
Travel Back to an Old Fashioned Christmas
Not So Long Ago, Not So Far Away
By Brian “Fox” Ellis

Imagine the sounds of harp and guitar with an angelic choir of young voices singing carols. There are Christmas stories and laughter. Watch out for the mischievous elves lurking in the shadows. Smell the hot chocolate and fresh baked cookies in every shop. See the candles burning in every window of a quaint, snow dusted historic village.

Does this sound like your favorite fantasy of an enchanting Christmas from 100 years ago?

Enchanting yes, but this is no fantasy. This is an old fashioned Christmas celebrated every year in Bishop Hill, Illinois. The entire town is a registered historic landmark with most of the buildings pre-dating the Civil War. Bishop Hill takes great pride in its deep Swedish roots. With three restaurants, six museums, two inns and more than a dozen craft shops this town of 120 folks really knows how to celebrate Christmas.

There are three weekends of Christmas fun beginning with Julmarknad, a Swedish Christmas Market, November 28, 29, 30, and December 6 & 7. Then Lucia Nights commences December 12 & 13.

Julmarknad is a fun word to say: yule-mark-nod, which is Swedish for Christmas market. This is the antithesis of the bustle and hustle of Black Friday. Bishop Hill shops are lit up with candles, and filled with hand-made items. You can talk to the artist who fired the pottery, wove the rug, grew the broomcorn, knitted the mittens, blew the glass ornament or made the chocolate. Families are invited to stroll the quiet streets, visit the museums, or play in the park.

On Saturday, November 29th an Old World Santa Klaus invites children to share their wishes at the newly refurbished Arts Council Welcome Center. There is a cookie walk both Saturday and Sunday, November 29th and 30th, where you can buy dozens of different kinds of homemade cookies by the pound.

The Steeple Building sets up a toy train that brings back memories of the Polar Express. They also host a make-it, take-it Christmas ornament craft. Every child can create their own keepsake with materials provided.

The first two weekends the Tomten prowl about town performing pranks and engaging visitors in a little Swedish whimsy. These mischievous elves are portrayed by young boys and girls from the surrounding community. They dress as brightly, spritely colored elves with red hats and long beards. In Sweden Tomten are rarely seen. They help folks take care of the animals. During the Holidays the custom is to set out a bowl of porridge to earn the favor of these elves. If you do earn their favor you can count on your cows receiving good care, if not, they might lead your cow to a neighbor’s field!

The Welcome Center will host a Chocolate Walk with a wide variety of homemade candies on Saturday and Sunday, December 6 & 7 from 10-5. Speaking of candy, Bishop Hill now has a chocolatier housed at the Hantverk Galleri, a potters shop on the north end of town. And The General Store, located on the square, has long been famous for its fresh fudge and the widest variety of stick candy in every flavor imaginable.

If you want a truly unique gift, something hand-made, something that tells a story and will become a family heirloom passed down and cherished through the generations, then visit the various shops of Bishop Hill. There are two potters, a broom-maker, weaver, quilter, blacksmith, glassblower, and did I mention the chocolatier? Many of these crafts people are often giving demonstrations and always happy to talk about their traditions. Shopping at Bishop Hill’s Julmarknad is the kind of shopping that everyone enjoys.

But the biggest event that fills the shops and sidewalks is Lucia Nights, December 12th & 13th.

Lucia Nights begins with the lighting of the park Christmas tree on Friday evening, December 12th at 6pm. Throughout the weekend the sidewalks are lined with luminaria and every home has candles in the window. It is the most picturesque Christmas scene you could ever imagine, truly postcard worthy... or better yet, you can take the family photo for next year’s Christmas card!

Saint Lucia is known as the Queen of Light. During a famine Saint Lucia appeared on a ship laden with food. She was wearing white robes and a wreath of candles in her hair. She helped steer the ship through the fog. When the ship arrived in port and the food was unloaded, she and the ship disappeared. Because Lucia means light, young girls wear a wreath of candles. To help us be grateful in this time of plenty, she gives out free cookies and sweet saffron buns. In many of the shops in Bishop Hill there are young girls dressed as Saint Lucia giving away free, fresh-baked, saffron buns. It is a task that girls relish and once a girl is chosen she is forever remembered as one of Saint Lucia’s girls.

And yes, mom, it is ok to have a cookie or saffron bun in every shop… as long as you eat your supper. Both Friday and Saturday night, the Bishop Hill Community United Methodist Church will hold their annual Soup and Chili Supper beginning at 4:30 pm and the only cost is a free will donation. There is also a plethora of pies!

After dinner, stroll the streets and visit the shops. Many of the shops and museums also have live music.

VagnHall Galleri in the Prairie Arts Center hosts both the Peoria Area Cooperative Choir and the Kewanee Community Chorus, Friday and Saturday night. The Mountain Men who play old time country Christmas classics also take turns entertaining folks.

The Steeple building will host Hammer and Pick with their lively mix of bluegrass and folk music. The Arts Council Welcome Center will host storyteller Brian “Fox” Ellis as he shares traditional Swedish and Pioneer Christmas stories mixed with a sing-a-long of many of your favorite Christmas carols.

The events wraps up Saturday December 13th with a folk dance at the Old Colony School. The Rusty Pick-up Band provides live music. Gail Hintze and Jim Hicks teach and call the dances. This is the kind of folk dancing where you need not know the steps of the dance before they begin. They teach each of several simple dance steps as they call them out. With a do-see-do and a swing your partner, kids and adults can swirl with the music, travel back to a simpler time, when folks entertained themselves, before Christmas was made in an overseas factory, when it truly was about spending quality time with your family, enjoying the deeper meaning of this most joyous season.

Christmas Market – Julmarknad
November 28, 29, 30 December 6, 7
The Christmas Cookie Walk will be held at the Colony School November 28, 29 from
9am-4pm. Local elves make cookies that are sure to please everyone.  309-927-3899
The Chocolate Walk will be held at the new Bishop Hill Welcome Center. Many Chocolate treats will be available for you to enjoy. Saturday and Sunday Dec 6 & 7

Lucia Nights – Festival of Lights
December 12, 13, 6pm-9pm. 309-927-3899
Free musical performances in various locations about town and a folk dance Saturday evening.

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Bishop Hill is located 50 miles north west of Peoria, about half way between Kewanee and Galesburg just off State Route 34 and 17, near Galva in Henry County. For more information please call 309-927-3899. Visit the web site at