Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Holiday Spiders, Goats, and Pigs: Learning about Different Christmas Traditions

In 2017 we received Christmas ornaments from the North Dakota Former Governor’s Residence. The ornaments were gifts from local chapters of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society of North Dakota, Three Crowns Swedish American Association, Sons of Norway, and the Ukrainian Cultural Institute. Starting in 1985, different ethnic-themed Christmas trees were decorated at the residence as each year another group donated ornaments. I have mostly English ancestry and I am not a native North Dakotan, so I was a bit confused by some of the ornaments. A dala horse, stave church, or rosemaled coffeepot with “God Jul” (Merry Christmas) I could understand.

3 Scandinavian Christmas ornaments

Scandinavian stave church, dala horse, and coffeepot ornaments (SHSND 2017.78.28, 2017.78.2, 2017.78.29)

But what is a tomte, and why were they on the tree? What was up with goat- and pig-shaped ornaments? Why would the Ukrainians put a spider’s web on the tree, or the Norwegians a stabbur (storehouse)? These just didn’t make sense to me, until I did my homework.

two small Scandinavian ornaments

Scandinavian stabbur and tomte ornaments (SHSND 2017.78.30, 2017.78.10)

The tomte and the stabbur are related. The Swedes (tomte) and Norwegians (nisse) have similar stories of a small creature with a long white beard wearing a brightly colored conical cap living in the storehouse, or stabbur, on a farm. If the farmer and his family treated the tomte well, it protected the farm and the items stored in the stabbur. If they were bad farmers or were not good to the tomte, it would pull small pranks or even ruin the farm as punishment. Every Christmas Eve, a bowl of sweet porridge or porridge with butter was left for the tomte to keep it happy. Now the tomte figure and stabbur made sense.

I am familiar with camels and sheep, even a donkey or reindeer, on Christmas trees but had never heard of pigs, goats, or spiders. I found out that in Scandinavian countries the Yule Goat might help deliver presents or could be ridden by Santa Claus instead of a sleigh. This idea can be traced back to before Christianity, when it was thought the Norse god Thor had a chariot pulled by two goats. It makes sense how the story of a Norse god with his goats could have been reimagined to be Santa Claus and a goat.

two Scandinavian goal ornaments

Scandinavian goat ornaments (SHSND 2017.78.13, 2017.78.11)

The pig is a little more complicated. In Germany, marzipan pigs are often gifted as signs of good luck for the new year. In Scandinavia, pork is an important part of the Christmas feast. It is thought that this goes back to the Old Norse religion, where the boar Saerimnir was killed and eaten every night in Valhalla, and sacrifices to the god Freyr were made for a good new year. These stories were combined and reimagined with the introduction of Christianity to become the tradition it is today. This background gave me an understanding of why there is a pig on the tree.

Two small Scandinavian pig ornaments

Scandinavian pig ornaments (SHSND 2017.78.1, 2017.78.24)

I found the spider’s web to be a lovely story. According to Ukrainian folklore, a poor family had a Christmas tree, but they had no money to decorate it. The children went to bed sad on Christmas Eve. Early the next morning, the children woke to find the tree covered in cobwebs. When the first rays of sunlight touched the spider’s webs, they turned into silver and gold, and the family was never poor again. Supposedly, this is the origin of tinsel on the Christmas tree. Also, in many European countries, spiders are thought to bring luck, and to destroy a spider’s web before the spider is safely out of the way is bad luck.

Ukrainian spiderweb ornament

Ukrainian spiderweb ornament (SHSND 2017.78.20)

In doing a little research, I learned a lot about Christmas traditions in different cultures and now have a greater appreciation for the diverse Christmas traditions of my adopted state. If you are in Bismarck, stop by the ND Heritage Center & State Museum through Jan. 2, 2020, to view these ornaments on our Community Tree.

A Visit to Burlington Homes: A Plan for Rural Sustenance

red barn

This small barn still features typical elements from its construction in 1936: the sliding barn door and the small, centered loft door with a fixed, four-pane window.

In 1934 families of lignite coal miners west of Minot at Burlington faced a bleak future. The Depression was grinding into its fourth year, employment in the coal mines was slack, and people were losing hope. The lignite coal mines never offered much employment, just a few months in the winter. Now the local lignite mines faced stiff competition from out-of-state coal mines that had harder coal that burned hotter, offered at about the cost of local lignite coal thanks to cheaper railroad transportation.1

Similar grim conditions were everywhere at that time, and the federal solution was to funnel funds to states, as state and local governments, as well as private and religious charities, had traditionally supported people facing hard times. A nonprofit group, the North Dakota Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (NDRRC), received about $100,000 to solve the destitute conditions of about 40 families by providing irrigated land, a house, a small barn, a henhouse, and a privy.

The NDRRC incorporated in 1934, and by late 1935 had purchased 640 acres for irrigable land, pasture, and home sites. It planned a dam on the Des Lacs River to provide gravity-fed irrigation water, and contracted to build about 35 sets comprising a house, barn, henhouse, and privy.2 It appears that five families left the area or otherwise did not participate in the program.

The general idea was that the families would work cooperatively to market cash crops such as strawberries, raspberries, and seed carrots to local outlets near Minot. They could also raise hens and gather eggs, and the small barn could easily house a cow and calf as well as agricultural supplies and tools. They rented to own and paid $25 to $35 a month for a few acres of land, shared pasturage, and the house, barn, henhouse, and privy. By the early 1960s the project had reclaimed the $100,000 through rent, 40 percent of the hay crop, and 25 percent of the grain crops.3 The Burlington Homes Project was closely connected to Judge A. M. Christenson, who donated many hours to advance the project’s success.

grainy black and white photo of minimal tradition home

This Minimal Tradition home has a basement and five rooms, including space for two bedrooms upstairs. The brick chimney, slightly offset door, sets of windows flanking the front door, two windows down, and one window in the apex of the gable end are features found in the Burlington Homes houses. Originally the homes had red cedar shingles, a small shed roof above the front door, and were heated with coal furnaces. From Burlington Centennial, p. 94.

small red shed

A sturdy but small henhouse with a people door on the gable end. The tiny ventilator and ridge cap are original features of the henhouses.

The architectural firm Van Horn and Ritterbush provided specifications for these small buildings, which included high-quality materials such as fir structural members and red cedar siding, and conservative building practices like 12-inch on-center spacing for the ceiling joists in the small barns. The applicant families apparently had some say in the house design, since some have elevated basements, and some had rough-in plumbing initially while others did not.

The electrician was instructed to provide rough-in electrical wiring and detailed instructions to homeowners on how to wire light fixtures and electrical switches.4 One house, recently remodeled, had the outdoor water pump just outside the front door, which provided all the water for domestic purposes, at least initially. The specifications mentioned that the applicant families were to provide their own water well and trenching for the concrete privy vault.

Today the 1.5-story Minimal Traditional homes, small barns, henhouses, and at least one privy still dot the landscape along North and South Project Road just west of Burlington. Many of the homes have been remodeled, but the barns and henhouses are a tangible reminder of difficult times and creative solutions to improve a whole community. In the 1950s some of the lots were offered on a rent-to-own basis to veterans with disabilities, and eventually all of them transferred to private ownership.

medium size red barn

Well-preserved barn at TC Landscaping in Burlington, still useful after more than 60 years.


1Burlington Centennial, 1883–1983 (self-pub., 1983), 92; “A Brief History: National Association of Rural Rehabilitation Corporations,” accessed Sept. 12, 2019, http://www.ruralrehab.org/briefhistory.html.

2Burlington Centennial, 90; Steven Martens, “Federal Relief Construction in North Dakota 1931–1945,” accessed Sept. 12, 2019, https://www.history.nd.gov/hp/historiccontexts.html.

3Burlington Centennial, 90. For further background information, see Gudmund Leonard Dalstad, History of the North Dakota Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (Bismarck, ND: self-pub., 1996).

4 Specifications for the Burlington Homes Project, 3rd group of buildings, Van Horn Ritterbush Company Collection, box 6, file 47000107, State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.