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Holly jolly history: From nostalgic Christmas postcards to hymns in native languages, Becker County Museum hosts new seasonal displays

Cliff Oftelie's collection of historical Christmas postcards show familiar holiday scenes and scenarios while also revealing some lesser-known myths of the past. Santa Claus, for example, didn't always wear the red and white suit he's now famous for; at other times and places in history, he's been depicted in long robes of red, blue or green. Marie Johnson / Tribune1 / 7
A collection of antique furs, rarely brought out of storage, is on display now through Jan. 6 at the Becker County Museum. The collection includes everything from an old buffalo skin coat to more 'modern' fur wraps, stoles and hats. Marie Johnson / Tribune2 / 7
A collection of aged and foreign-language Bibles is on display this holiday season at the Becker County Museum. Marie Johnson / Tribune3 / 7
Christmas trees, poinsettias and other holiday decorations -- many of them antiques themselves -- adorn the Becker County Museum during the holiday season. Marie Johnson / Tribune4 / 7
A large collection of antique Christmas postcards, on temporary loan from Detroit Lakes resident Cliff Oftelie, is on display now through Jan. 6 at the Becker County Museum. Many of the holiday exhibits now on display have been loaned by local members and patrons who want to share their private collections with the public. Marie Johnson / Tribune5 / 7
A lighted, playhouse-sized gingerbread house in the basement level of the museum offers kids a unique place to play and get their pictures taken. Marie Johnson / Tribune6 / 7
Detroit Lakes violinists Fern Belling and Todd Voss performed for the Becker County Museum's Holiday Open House on Nov. 28. The annual open house gives visitors a chance to see the museum's new seasonal holiday displays, admission-free, while enjoying some coffee, sweet treats and live music. Marie Johnson / Tribune7 / 7

Cliff Oftelie has been collecting historical postcards for about 30 years.

A frequenter of local farm and estate sales and member of the Twin City Postcard Club of Minneapolis, he's managed to amass about 1,200 cards from around the Becker County area, particularly from old resorts. It's a passion of his: the 67-year-old Detroit Lakes man is a lifelong lover of history, and a collector since boyhood.

Among Oftelie's treasure trove of postcards is a colorful and nostalgic subgroup of Christmas cards. He has dozens of them. Most of them feature ornamental artwork depicting classic holiday scenarios, such as Santa Claus bringing toys to children. A few have black-and-white photographs in place of artwork. Some feature Christmas poems or greetings, wishing the receiver a "happy Christmas" or "all life's blessings," for example.

On most of the cards, Santa Claus is donning his famous outfit, a red and white suit with a matching hat. But a few of the cards show him in other, lesser-known attire from myths of the past—a long robe of blue or green.

Many of the cards say 'Made in Germany' on the back, Oftelie says, because before WWI, "the Germans made postcards for America." After the war, that relationship ended.

"The golden era" of postcards, he says, "was 1910 to 1960. That's when people always sent cards."

Most of the Christmas cards in his collection are from 1915-1922, though he's got some going back to the 1890s, all the way up to the 1960s.

Usually, he keeps them framed and hung up in a hallway in his home, but "they're not very noticeable there," he says.

So, this holiday season, he chose to share them with the community. He's temporarily loaned his Christmas postcard collection to the Becker County Museum.

"I can look at it anytime," he says of his collection, "but if I can share it and let the citizens of Detroit Lakes look at it, it's good for me."

He's not alone in his thinking. Emily Buermann, the museum's program director, said scores of museum members, patrons and other local residents have donated holiday items for display over the years.

"Many of them don't have enough room at their own homes to show all their holiday collections," she explains, "or they like to share what they have with the whole community."

Oftelie's Christmas postcards debuted last Tuesday, Nov. 28 at the museum's annual Holiday Open House, held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The museum offered free admission during that time, as well as sweet treats and coffee for visitors. Local violinists Todd Voss and Fern Belling provided live music for the event.

"It's our way of welcoming the public in on the first day of our holiday displays," says Becky Mitchell, executive director of the museum. "It's been an annual event for many years, always on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving."

The goal of the holiday displays, she says, is simple: "To get people in the holiday spirit."

This year's displays include Oftelie's postcards (exhibited in a large glass case at the top of the lobby stairs), as well as collections of furs, quilts, ice harvesting tools, native language hymns, Bibles and more.

Buermann says the furs "rarely see the light of day," but were brought out to be seen this holiday season. They date back to a pioneer-era buffalo skin coat but also include more 'modern' pieces like ladies' fur wraps, stoles and hats.

Also making a rare appearance are some locally donated sewing machines and handmade quilts, which Buermann says are too delicate to be displayed very often. They're usually carefully stored away, she says, but this season "we wanted to put the spotlight on those."

A small display on ice harvesting is also in the spotlight, in light of the release of "Winter Harvest: A History of the Becker County Ice Industry," a new book that was commissioned by the museum. The exhibit includes some early tools of the trade along with old photos of unnamed ice fisherman (the museum is looking for the public's help in identifying them).

In addition, there's a display of aged and foreign-language Bibles—appropriate for the Christmas season—in a glass case near the entrance to the museum's upper level. Next to that is an interactive display of holiday hymns in Becker County's native languages; visitors can choose to listen to a hymn in Ojibwe, Swedish, Norwegian, German or French.

In the lower level of the museum, a playhouse-sized gingerbread house offers fun for kids (and a perfect photo op for parents).

Even the Christmas trees, ornaments and other decor around the museum could be considered part of the holiday exhibits. Most are antiques, and have been donated or loaned by local residents.

The Becker County Museum's holiday displays are up now through Saturday, Jan. 6. The museum, located at 714 Summit Avenue, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 per day for adults, and free for kids and museum members.

For more information, call 218-847-2938 or visit the museum's Facebook page.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their young son and daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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