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Pewaukee family celebrates 100 years of Christmas in farmhouse

Dec. 21, 2012

Beth Connell and her family will celebrate their 100th Christmas in their family home this year, around the same old oak dining table that their elder family used during the first Christmas there. Filled with history, memories and traditions, the Prospect Avenue farmhouse and the people who share it have a lot of stories to tell.

The home's first owner was Connell's husband, James C.'s, father, James A., who moved from Manitowoc with his mother, Amelia, in 1913 by way of a boxcar. They brought the dining table with them. At one time a dairy farmer, the senior Connell raised Guernsey cows and was a charter member of the Golden Guernsey Dairy Cooperative, which was founded in 1930. The farm property boasts the main home, which features six bedrooms, along with five summer cottages both on and near the lake. Though the farm ceased operations in 1982, the Connells still keep sheep in the pasture every summer.

Six generations of Connells have now walked through the doors of the home, from James and Beth's grandparents to their own great-grandchildren. Four of those six generations will gather to celebrate the Christmas season this year and to take part in the many holiday traditions of the family.

Classic Christmas cookies are a holiday essential for Connell and her clan, the preparation of which has long been a family affair.

"It's something that the whole family gets together ahead of time to do," said Connell.

Connell still uses her grandmother-in-law's old recipe, which calls for a pound of brown sugar, five pounds of flour and, most unusually, five cents worth of pot hash. Many years ago, pot hash was used as a leavening agent, but Connell has since altered that part of the recipe slightly and now uses baking soda in its place.

Christmas dinner, which has always been spent around that old oak dining table with the whole family, also boasts a few other pieces of history. Connell still uses her grandmother-in-law's china, silverware and a five-yard-long embroidered tablecloth. The meal, which centers on several meat dishes, is always capped off with flaming plum pudding. Warm brandy is poured over the traditional recipe and then lit on fire.

In her annual Christmas letter, Connell's daughter, Mary Eloranta, describes the festivities this way: "Gramps will say grace over a homegrown ham and roast of venison, and maybe a pheasant or two. He'll acknowledge all the generations, and he'll remember to bless the cooks. Then he'll sharpen the carving knife and pile the plates high. Granny provides the finale. As the flaming plum pudding arrives from the kitchen, the lights are doused and all erupt in a rousing chorus of 'Varsity.' And so, as the dishes are passed, the stories from the past year will begin. … It's a tough old oak table; it's been listening for a century and it's ready for more!"

Discussions around the table cover a range of topics, from pets and hunting to work and fixing up a home to stories of fun times from the past year.

The Connell family's signature Christmas decoration is an 8x8-eight foot wreath adorned with lights that mounts to their front entryway. During the holidays, guests have to walk through the wreath to get into the house. The wreath isn't just a staple for the Connell family, but for the entire neighborhood.

"That's something that people around here ask about," said Connell. "If we don't have it up early enough, people start asking if we're not going to put it up that year."

Pieces of history are woven into everything the Connell family does. As old memories are shared and new memories created this year, Christmas traditions live on in the lifeblood of the Connell family and will continue for many generations to come.

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Knights of Columbus Fish Fry: 4:30 p.m. Feb. 12, St. Jerome Catholic Church, 995 S. Silver Lake St., Oconomowoc. The buffet style fish fry includes both baked and fried cod with French fries, German and American potato salad, coleslaw, rye bread, grilled cheese sandwiches, four-bean salad, and coffee and milk. Soda, beer and desserts are available for an additional cost. Carryout available: Call 569-3032 from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. $5-$9

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