BISHOP HILL, Ill. — For folks longing to escape the fast-paced commercialization and glitz that has become the Christmas season, respite can be found in this historic village.
Visitors to Bishop Hill can step back into a 19th-century Christmas setting and enjoy the customs of the early Swedish settlers.
The entire community is on the National Register of Historic Places and celebrates Christmas with traditional activities and entertainment and features shops with locally made goods.
Bishop Hill was founded in 1846 by a group of Swedish religious dissenters whose beliefs conflicted with the state church in Sweden and led to the imprisonment of their leader, Erik Jansson.
Pooling their resources in a common treasurer, Jansson and his followers immigrated to the U.S. and settled Illinois to establish their own community.
“It’s a way to highlight the Swedish traditions and heritage,” Martha Downey, Bishop Hill State Historical Site superintendent, said of the Christmas activities.
“It’s a totally different environmental here compared to going to a mall where it’s glaring and piped music, flashing lights and things, which are lovely and wonderful, but here it’s very calm, very quiet and peaceful.”
The festivities opened with two weekends of Julmarknad or Christmas market Nov. 23-25 and Dec. 1-2 and continue with Lucia Nights Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7-8.
Lucia Nights activities include sidewalks and buildings illuminated with candles from 6 to 9 p.m. each night. Shops and historic buildings are open throughout both days.
Other upcoming events include the Prairie Arts Vender Rodeo from 1 to 5 p.m. Dec. 15 where artists and vendors represented by Prairie Arts will offer demonstrations and refreshments.
Julotta, a traditional Swedish Christmas Service, will be held at 6 a.m. Christmas Day. The candlelight nondenominational service will be held at the historic Colony Church and conducted in both English and Swedish.
The church was built in 1848, two years after the religious community was founded. It was Bishop Hill’s first permanent building and included living quarters in the basement and first floors and sanctuary on the second floor.
Lucia Nights visitors encounter Swedish folk characters, Swedish holiday decorations and food specialties, special music, unique gifts, folk art, handmade wares, a model train display in the Steeple Building and cookie and chocolate walks.
Lucia Nights celebrates St. Lucia, one of Sweden’s patron saints. She was martyred because she tried to give her inheritance to the poor.
“During a time of famine in Sweden there appeared this boat that was surrounded by light, and St. Lucia was at the front of this boat and she brought food to Sweden,” Downey said.
“This would have been at the darkest time of the year there, where it’s dark almost 24 hours. So they really celebrate the light in December.
“Dec. 13 is the traditional St. Lucia Day, and the tradition is that the daughter in the family will get up very early and serve Lucia buns and coffee to her family dressed in the white gown, red sash and the crown of candles.
“Lucias will be in each business and museum serving treats. They’re the girls in the white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles. They’ll be serving of cookies or other sweet treats.”
There also will be some hijinks by way of Swedish folk characters roaming the village.
“We have ‘tomte,’ which is a somewhat mischievous fellow, but he brings good luck,” Downey said.
“If you’re a farmer, you want a tomte to live on your farm because maybe you have a rake or a hoe that has fallen down and the tines are sticking up, he’s going to push you away so you don’t get hurt. So on Christmas Eve, you want to feed him porridge so that he stays. They have little red hats and are like gnomes.
“Then we have the ‘Julbock,’ which is the Christmas goat. That guy is totally mischievous and he may jump out behind a tree and scare you. He may upset your rain barrel. He may cause a limb to fall.”
Simple decorations grace the village during the holiday season.
“The Swedish tradition is you have the last sheaves of the harvest and you put it out on a pole for the birds. Some will have some wheat sheaves or a broom corn sheave outside their building,” Downey said.
“There are a few twinkle lights outside, but you’ll see more twinkle and traditional Christmas when you’re inside the shops.
“Most every private residence, business and museum in town has a lit single candle in every window.”
The opening of Lucia Nights is marked with the lighting of the park Christmas tree and caroling around the tree at 6 p.m. on Dec. 7.
Entertainment is on tap each night in the village’s historic buildings.
A local group, Hammer and Pick, will play at the Colony Steeple Building through Friday and Saturday evening, Dec. 7-8.
The building, constructed in 1854, houses the office, museum and archives of the Bishop Hill Heritage Association. The Steeple Building with its four clock faces originally was intended to serve as a hotel, but instead was used over the years as dormitory living quarters, a school and other uses.
Music by the Cantabile String Trio will be performed at Vagnhall Galleri located on second floor of the Prairie Arts Center from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Dec. 7. The building was constructed in 1857 and is one of the original handmade brick structures in the community and served as a blacksmith shop.
The Bishop Hill United Methodist Church will host a chili and soup supper, and other restaurants also will be open.
The second night of the Lucia Nights features the same activities plus a barn dance in Colony School at 7 p.m. with music by the Rusty Pickup String Band and callers Gail Hintze and Jim Hicks. The Peoria Singers will perform during the break.
The Colony School is the home of the Bishop Hill Old Settlers’ Association and was constructed in 1861.
Also on Dec. 8, the Mountain Men will provide the tunes in Vagnhall from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
“The shops and museums are open throughout the holidays, so if people don’t get here during those events, they can still continue to visit and pick up Christmas items,” Downey said.