Christmas in Marquette – A Historical Perspective

Snow is falling, school is out, and spirits are high. Christmas time is here in Marquette and there’s something to be said about this special time of year in our little place on the map we call home. It’s very easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of the holidays. We tend to get caught up in the buzz of finding that perfect gift, hitting the stores early to avoid the shopping rush and cash in on those great deals.

1st municipal Christmas tree, 1914. Washington Street, downtown Marquette.

First municipal Christmas tree, 1914. Washington Street, downtown Marquette.

And who could forget working to the very last minute decorating the house and perfectly wrapping every last gift with colorful ribbons and bows. Of course, it’s always nice to give and receive gifts, but what is it that makes the Christmas season, especially on the shores of Lake Superior…well, Superior?

A few characteristics of the people of the Upper Peninsula that distinguish them from other cultural circles are friendliness and exuberant passion for their community and heritage. So, it was with great excitement and curiosity that I dove head first into researching the historic cultural appreciation that Marquetter’s have for the Christmas season, with the ultimate goals of bringing some classic holiday stories back to the forefront as well as reigniting the true meaning of Christmas.

The spirit of giving and caring for others during the holidays can be traced all the way back to 1849, the year that Marquette was first established. According to an old Mining Journal article, late in the fall of that year, the schooner ship Siscowit was sailing Lake Superior from the Soo enroute to Marquette with mixed cargo of oats and corn. The supplies were intended to reach the people of Marquette in order to keep them supplied through the long winter months.

Along its journey, the ship encountered an awful storm and blew off course to finally settle on shore near L’Anse. Awaiting the arrival of their food rations, the people of Marquette began to worry that the faithful Siscowit would never come to dock in their harbor with its essential supplies. Early that winter, word finally came to Marquette of the Siscowit’s mishap and the people of the town sprang into action.

Two city pioneers, Samuel Moody and James Broadbent, agreed to snowshoe the seventy-mile hike to L’Anse to not only retrieve the precious cargo, but to partially restore the Siscowit and sail her back to town for complete repair. Native Americans were sent to cut a channel to open water, and with partial repairs completed, the crew departed back to Marquette on Christmas Eve.

The Siscowit finally arrived in Marquette’s harbor on Christmas Day morning, her sails completely frozen over and the boat a gigantic mass of ice. Indeed, it was a few caring Marquette citizens that saved their community that cold winter day and demonstrated the true meaning of Christmas.

It wasn’t just events like saving lost schooner ships on the furious Lake Superior that demonstrated Christmas cheer in Marquette. In fact, one of the most celebrated and eventful weeks in Marquette’s Christmas history dates back to 1914. According to a Mining Journal article, The Mayor of Marquette at the time, Frederick H. Begole, made the announcement that there would be a municipal Christmas tree on display every year along with holiday entertainment for all the children to enjoy.

A fifty-foot tall spruce tree was erected in the middle of Washington Street directly in front of the City Hall. Decorated with hundreds of large incandescent bulbs, it was incredibly bright and radiated through the downtown business district for all to see. More Christmas spirit continued through the night. Starting at 5:00 PM, one hundred children from Baraga School on Fourth Street marched up Front Street and sang carols for hours while each held their own lantern to brighten the Christmas mood. A gigantic bonfire was even lit not far from the municipal tree, warming the spectators.

Later that week, a huge “mystery” play was put on at the assembly room of City Hall that signified the spirit of Christmas. The play featured twenty-five of Marquette’s greatest actors and actresses and consisted of a series of six tableaux. Each tableau featured carols and hymns that were performed by a select soloist and backing chorus of fifty singers. The play was acted out in its entirety eleven times to an audience of more than six-thousand people and was thought to be the grandest event of its kind in the entire state.

The Christmas Play at City Hall in Marquette, 1914.

The Christmas Play at City Hall in Marquette, 1914.

Marquette even found itself on the cusp of advanced ingenuity in terms of Christmas decorations, as the very first Christmas tree in Michigan decorated with electric lights was illuminated in the Longyear mansion in 1892.

With such an exuberant and interesting Christmas past, it’s important to remember why these events define the Marquette area and its people. And so it’s of importance to ask ourselves a meaningful question: how do we continue to act upon the true meaning of Christmas in a “Superior” way? It seems that the people of Marquette have always held onto the essence of giving back to others, not only during the holiday season, but always.

We remember to follow the ways of our Christmas’ past and give back to others who may be in need of something far greater than packages and gifts under the Christmas tree. On top of this, Marquetter’s are thankful for all they have in their little place on the map they call home and continue, as a community, to act upon the true meaning of Christmas moving into the future. Merry Christmas!