Celebrating Christmas with Dolly the Decorator

By Kelsie Hoitomt

GLENWOOD CITY – Dolores Rose Cecelia (Zielsdorf) Donovan, or better known as “Dolly” has 80 wonderful years of Christmas memories she carries with her.

It was in 1934, when she was four years old that she remembers her first Christmas, which was with her grandparents, Charlie and Ellen Draxler.

Her grandparents had just built a new house after a fire destroyed the previous one and it was in that new house that she spent Christmas after they moved in a month prior.

It was a black velvet coat with fur that Dolly remembers getting that Christmas from the neighbor, Anna Hartnick who made it for her since the family didn’t have much after the fire.

Dolly, an only child, was raised by her grandparents and lived with them until her adult life. Her mother, Marie (Draxler) Williams worked in the the Twin Cities. Her father, Erwin Zielsdorf worked on the railroad and was not around.

Christmas as a child

Despite being an only child, the holidays were never lonely for Dolly since the entire countryside neighborhood was filled with children to play with like the Drinkmans, Buschs, Brooks sisters and Petersons as well as the other Draxler kids.

It was never a dull moment as there were plenty of hills to toboggan and ski down. There was also a pond in town on the fairgrounds that was a hot spot for anyone who liked to ice skate.

“We always exchanged with the neighbors during the holidays. My grandmother was a giver, she was a believer in gifts and no one went without,” said Dolly.

As for Dolly, she usually received one gift during Christmas, which was a toy of some sort.

“I was a bit of a ‘tom boy’ so I remember one year I got a barn with the all the little animals and then another year I got a saw and hammer, but another year I did get a great big doll, I loved that doll,” expressed Dolly.

“More importantly back then we got the things we needed for Christmas gifts. My mother would get me a nice new dress or coat and of course mittens, hats, gloves,” shared Dolly.

Aside from gifts, food was in abundance during the holidays in the Draxler household.

Dolly’s mother always made her own candy each year. Cookies were also a must during the baking days; Dolly remembers decorating sugar cookies when she was old enough.

The Christmas Day meal was one centered around family origins with Austrian and Swedish dishes served like lutefisk, lefse, fruit soup, head cheese and a special biscuit called krofers.

The meal was mostly prepared on Christmas Eve before the church service.

Church was another consistency in the Draxler home as they always attended Christmas Eve, otherwise Christmas morning at Saint John’s.

“Sometimes we would go by horse and wagon if the Model A couldn’t make it through the snow,” shared Dolly.

However, one of the most favorite Christmas pastimes of Dolly’s was decorating.

“We had an imitation tree filled with ornaments from my great-grandfather,” said Dolly. “Myself and my grandparents would sit and make Christmas colored paper chains to cover the tree and popcorn strings. We also had an imitation fireplace, wreathes with real candles, oh my grandmother loved candles so we had them in all of the windows.”

“I remember Grandma always believed in sitting up at night eating herring and crackers by candlelight,” said Dolly.

Holidays in adulthood 

Once Dolly finished school, she moved away from Glenwood City after she took a job at Honeywell in Minneapolis in 1952.

She was married at the time and lived in a three story house with a tenant upstairs and her mother downstairs.

It was there that Dolly really let her love for the holiday season shine as she grew into quite the decorator and party host.

“I was the only house on the block that decorated my entire house top to bottom, inside and out so people would constantly stop by to take a look,” shared Dolly. “I had a huge tree next to the window and there were red Austrian Puff drapes and white Austrian Puff curtains, oh I really decorated.”

Life in the cities was always bustling and Dolly catered to the lifestyle by hosting Christmas parties each year.

“I entertained 20-25 people each year with family, friends and coworkers. I made at least 40 fruit cakes that I would give away,” Dolly said.

When she wasn’t hosting, Dolly would take a group of women by the car load to see the Christmas lights downtown and they would drive around to look at other decorated homes.

The holiday season always circled back to family though, as she, her late husband and his children and her mother Marie would enjoy a Christmas meal and presents together.

“My mother and I prepared the food together and we always attended Midnight Mass at the nearby Catholic church. After service we would all open presents then,” shared Dolly.

Back home

After Dolly decided to retire from Honeywell, she made the decision to move back home to Glenwood City with her mother and previous tenant, Jim. It was in 1991 and she moved into the house she currently lives in today.

“I have loved this house since I was a little girl,” said Dolly. “We used to carol during the holidays and I remember caroling at this house and it was one of my favorites because they always had it lite up. So I told myself, I am going to buy this house one day.”

Dolly has since carried on the tradition at the house in terms of decorating as the place is never without decorations inside and out for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween etc.

“I remember one year I decorated the house and I received a prize from City Hall, I think I got 25 bucks for it,” laughed Dolly.

Decorating aside, these days Christmas is now spent with dear friends that are like family to Dolly.

“I usually go to my neighbors, Tom and Mary Ann Ross, on Christmas Day and we exchange gifts. Mary Ann makes the best food and bring what I can. It is wonderful to have such good friends,” shared Dolly.