Folkways By Candlelight Illuminate Holiday Traditions

An inside look at the “why” behind our favorite customs.

Courtesy Three Rivers Park District

Most things you enjoy during the holiday season are deeply rooted in historic tradition. Usually, they’re the traditions you don’t even think twice about. They’re the small things you always did growing up as a child or the customs your grandparents swore by, often disguising themselves as “normal,” “universal,” and “American.”

Typically, they’re not. For the 46th year, Three Rivers Park District gives us an inside look at the “why” behind our favorite holiday traditions and even extends the opportunity to look beyond the misconceptions. Folkways of the Holidays (the annual, educational program hosted by Three Rivers) encourages visitors to explore the Minnesota River Valley, travel back in time to the late 1800s, and find answers to the questions they never even thought to ask:

Why do we cut down trees and put them inside our homes?

Why do we “deck the halls with boughs of holly”?

Where did elves originate? What does it mean to go “a-wassailing”? What’s the deal with lefsa?

Candle lit home in the 1890's
Courtesy Three Rivers Park District

All around, the program is unlike anything else in Minnesota, but it’s the nighttime counterpart that really strikes the match. Folkways By Candlelight, hosted from 5-8:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, provides an experience the daytime program can’t offer. Though very similar, we’ll argue this (darker and colder) edition is still worth wandering. It features a Christmas pageant, live entertainment, and festive carolers, but most notably, tells a fascinatingly accurate story that’s most true to the time period: Only the high-end homes could afford the luxury of electricity.

Three Rivers kept this notion of history alive and well, and now, acts as the defining difference between the two Folkways programs—the entire park is lit with candles and oil lanterns.

During the program, visitors navigate lantern-lit pathways and follow a map that highlights nine period-style homes. Each one is different—highlighting a different European culture and illuminating holiday customs exclusive to each.

Courtesy Three Rivers Park District

The tour is self-paced, but visitors aren’t entirely on their own. Each building is staffed by at least one interpreter to teach the history behind the traditions—most of which were brought over to the United States by early immigrants that settled in Minnesota from 1840 to 1890.

“The [interpreters] work all year long to learn as much as they can,” says Bill Walker, the cultural resources project manager at Three Rivers. “Our job as historical interpreters is to find a way to tell these stories in a way that makes you think about yourself.”

Though physically in the dark, the program and interpreters do exactly that. They enlighten and educate visitors and shed light on how close to home these traditions really are—giving them a unique opportunity to connect with their family’s history.

“A lot of our visitors will come from ancestries we portray here,” says Walker. “You’ll start to see little bits of yourself.”

The Details

What: Folkways By Candlelight

When: Dec. 14, 5-8:30 p.m.

Where: The Landing, 2187 Hwy. 101E, Shakopee

How much: $8 (18-64 years old), $5 (2-17 years old), and free for children under 2

Click here for more dates and information.

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