By LeAnn R. Ralph
TOWN OF OTTER CREEK — For nearly 20 years in the late 1970s, the 1980s, and early 1990s, Town of Otter Creek resident Anita Rundle and her late husband, Doug, put up a display of Christmas lights at their home.
They called it Santa Land.
The display included a church that even had its own sign: “Rundle’s Lutheran Church.”
And people came from far and wide to see the impressive display of Christmas lights.
“We had people from everywhere. It was like I-94 out here. We had people from all over. It took the whole family to set it up. It was a lot of work and a lot of extension cords,” Anita recalled.
“I always laughed. I said, you know, most people put their money in the bank. Ours is out here, buried in electrical cords. You can still see all over the yard where there are plug-ins. We buried electrical in the whole front yard and the side yard so the yard would be lit from the fence, clear over,” she said.
Putting up a display of Christmas lights also involved modifying the lights.
“Doug was the electrician. He converted practically everything to 40 watt light bulbs so it would show up so you could see it from the road,” Anita said.
“When you’d come from S, it would look like Northern Lights coming from behind the hill because it was so bright,” she noted.
“And then we had music with it, too, on tape. Thursday nights we had Santa Claus and we gave out candy and had a sleigh. We’d put a red flashlight out in the woods and that was Rudolph’s nose. Of course, then the (television) tower helped, too, because it was Santa coming and going,” Anita said.
“We started in October, and we always lit on Thanksgiving night at eight o’clock. We had people, they’d have their Thanksgiving supper, and then they’d come here to see the lights. We always lit at eight o’clock because we didn’t want to interfere with Thanksgiving,” she said.
If anyone doubted the impact of Doug and Anita’s display of Christmas lights on friends, neighbors and the community at large, you only had to read the newspaper.
“A lot of the kids, the third-graders, would write up (in My Favorite Christmas for the Colfax Messenger) — they would write that they had been to Santa Land or over to Anita Rundle’s,” Anita recalled.
“It was fun to get the newspaper and read which ones had been out here to see the lights,” she said.
The Christmas display “was a regular for a lot of people. They would come every year. Some people would come every night. Some would come every week. And then they’d bring someone else. We had people from Rice Lake and Chetek, and even LaCrosse. They’d be up visiting, and they’d have to come to see,” Anita said.
And as always, kids will be kids. Some of them think they are too smart and too sophisticated to fall for a story like Santa Claus and Rudolph.
“One year, we had a couple of kids from Colfax, seventh graders. They were cagey. They went out in the woods and discovered the red flashlight. We got a kick out of that. They came back and said (in a disgusted tone of voice), ‘There ain’t no Rudolph out there. It’s a red flashlight,’” Anita said.
At other times, circumstances conspired to add an element of doubt to the youngsters’ doubts.
“One time — this was Arlis and Dave Larson’s kids — they were on their way out here, and the kids said, ‘There’s no such thing as Santa Claus. There’s no reindeer.’ They were probably seven or eight,” Anita recalled.
“Well, on the way out here, over the hill, a bunch of deer ran out in front of them. Boy, then they didn’t know what to think — because, you know, the reindeer were waiting for Santa. He was down here, and they were out wandering around,” she said.
People would park their cars, too, and get out to look at the lights and to take pictures.
“Doug and I would sit upstairs to watch the people coming to see the lights. We had so much fun. The kids would go stand by the soldiers to get their pictures taken, and you could see them standing up straighter because it was for pictures,” Anita said.
Labor of love
Doug and Anita’s display of Christmas lights did not start out full blown, but rather, grew steadily larger and more elaborate with each passing year.
You have to wonder what would motivate people to go to so much work for the pleasure and enjoyment of others.
“Christmas was always our favorite thing,” Anita said.
“We would go to the Cities practically every year to see all of the lights. We’d go on New Year’s. We’d stay at my cousin’s, and then we’d go around to all the places in the Cities and see the lights. We really enjoyed it,” she said.
Once the Rundles started their light display, they kept going.
“One thing led to another. It grew every year. We just kept adding to it and adding to it. We had a lot of gingerbread and soldiers. And then we tried to do different things with them. One year, one might be standing on his head or we might put them in a different place or a different display. My mother bought our manger scene. She gave us money for anniversaries and birthdays … Tammy (Anita and Doug’s daughter) has it now. She sets it up,” Anita said.
When Anita stopped doing the Christmas light display, she sold much of what she had.
“But I’ve still got a lot of it out in the shed,” she noted.
“We kept it up a couple of years after Doug died in 1992. Then we quit. He was the electrician. And it got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore,” Anita said.
Christmas in July
The Christmas displays occupied the thoughts of Doug and Anita Rundle year around, it seems.
“Doug and a friend of his from Boyceville went up north one year in July to work on a cabin. His wife and I were going up for the weekend to join them,” Anita recalled.
“Those two nuts went garage-saling up there. And they came across a great big Santa Claus. I’ve still got it. I still set him out. Our friend had one of those big tool boxes in the back of his truck. They laid Santa in the back of the truck. Then they were going around to garage sales with Santa — in July. I love to garage sale. My heart still beats a thousand beats a minute when I go to a garage sale and I see a set of candles or a Santa Claus or something,” Anita said.
“Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. The whole house still gets converted (with Christmas decorations),” she said.
When she was growing up, Anita attended the Fox Settlement country school near Sand Creek.
“We had the stage and the draw curtains, and the practicing. It was just marvelous to perform for the Christmas program. Lots of good memories. That was always fun. It was a big deal. I always got a new dress or a new outfit at Christmas,” Anita recalled.
“We were poor farmers. We didn’t get what the kids get nowadays. We’d get one present under the tree. And that was a big deal … but I really looked forward to that new outfit, to wearing it to the program at church and at school, and to stand up and do the part and sing.”
On one particular Christmas, the new outfit did not turn out quite as planned.
“I remember one year, we came home, and the program was that night. And I had a new skirt and a blouse. And do you suppose I could find that blouse when we got home? It was gone. It wasn’t in the house. It wasn’t in the car. It was gone. So I had to wear another blouse,” Anita said.
“The next day, my dad was coming down the driveway, and here was that blouse, laying in a package. It had fallen out of the car, and the wind had blown it. And he found it. I was devastated. It was my new outfit. And I didn’t have the new blouse for the Christmas program,” she said.
“I wish I had a picture of Fox Settlement, the school and the two outhouses out in back and the merry-go-round and the whole works. Now there’s no way to get a picture because they have torn it down,” Anita said.
“You think back, and you really wish you would have gotten a picture. I wish I could find someone who has a picture of Fox Settlement … when you’re younger you don’t think about it. Even in my 40s I didn’t think about it, but now I wish I had a picture,” she said.
Anita has wonderful memories of Christmas Eve when she was a child.
“On Christmas Eve, we always went to my grandma and grandpa’s. My dad came from a big family of ten. My mother did, too. But hers would be later. Christmas Eve we would go to my dad’s family. And that was always Christmas Eve. You always got to wear your new outfit. Everybody did. All of the cousins. It was always a special thing,” she said.
“I can remember being at Grandma and Grandpa’s on Christmas Eve. We’d have supper. And then we would listen to the Christmas story (read from the Bible). Then we went and opened presents. But we always had the Christmas reading first. I think that’s gone by the wayside anymore now for most people,” Anita said.
“I look back on my growing up, and I’m very thankful. We didn’t think we were poor. Everybody was the same way,” she said.
“Today they say you shouldn’t do things like eat cream on bread. We used to eat that all the time when I was a kid. But look at the kids today. They are eating potato chips and drinking (soda) pop. Maybe the cream and bread wasn’t so good for you. But we survived,” she said.
“I’m a Christmas baker for Norwegian food. Lefse. Fattigman. Krumkake. The whole bit. I have to make it,” Anita said.
“We get together as a family (to bake). Doug used to be my lefse turner. Now Tim (their son) does it. I roll it. They bake it. (Tammy) makes the rosettes. We usually have a family baking day. We have so much fun. We still have to have lutefisk, too. Doug bought a small package in Ridgeland one time as a treat. And it turned out that the kids liked it, and some of the grandkids, too,” she said.
“When we’re set up with the table here — it has five leaves — it stretches (across half the house). But that’s Christmas. People getting together and eating together. Doug’s family always liked oysters. I’d rather have the lutefisk,” Anita noted.
“Tim had to help decorate so much for Christmas when he was younger that now he says he doesn’t like decorating. It interferes with his deer hunting. So I told him, ‘Tim, when I die, you’re going to end up with all of my Christmas decorations. Then I can look down from Heaven and say, ‘doesn’t it look nice with all those decorations,’” Anita said with a laugh.
But the Christmas traditions of your family have a way of soaking into the fiber of your being.
One time her son came across a real find at a garage sale in the Twin Cities and bought a variety of lefse-making equipment, including a griddle and the round board to roll them out.
“Tim was tickled pink he’d found that lefse surprise up there in the Cities. I’ve got I don’t know how many lefse griddles already, and if I ask him if he’s going to help me make lefse, he says, ‘no’ — that he has done it enough already. But that’s what I mean about the tradition carrying on. Sometimes you can’t help yourself. And if I ask him to help me make lefse, he will,” Anita said.