Today, all across America, as many people leave rural settlements to move to the city, and as rural areas struggle with the challenges of urban sprawl, ethnic folk traditions and customs can find themselves in decline. However, the ethnic Walloon Belgians1 of Northeast Wisconsin take much pride in their heritage, and Walloon Belgian folk culture retains much prominence in the rural communities of Brown, Door, and Kewaunee counties2, even 150 years after their ancestors first settled there.
One of the most intriguing examples of folk tradition in Wisconsin's Walloon Belgian settlement is the celebration of the Kermiss festival. The Walloon word Kermiss comes from Kirk-Messe, which means 'church mass', and it originated in medieval times as an annual celebration commemorating the anniversary of the dedication of the church. Later, it became more exclusively associated with the harvest season and thus became a festival much like Thanksgiving, in which people give thanks for a bountiful harvest. While the Pilgrims are famous for this celebration, it was actually popular in many European nations. In Belgium, the Kermiss dates back to the 1300s.
The First Belgian Kermiss in America
Walloon Belgian immigrants to Wisconsin, who first settled in the area between Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay3 in the mid-1850s, celebrated their first Kermiss in America in 1858, in the small town of Roseire4. By 1858, most of the Walloon settlers had already been living in Northeast Wisconsin for at least two years. The landscape was still mostly untamed wilderness at that time, and working the land was difficult. However, after two years, the Belgians decided they wanted to have a Kermiss, even if it would be difficult to prepare. It seemed a positive thing to do, as they were tired, a bit homesick, and definitely thirsty for something to celebrate.
Preparations for the first Kermiss were indeed difficult, but the Belgians were hard workers, and the idea of having their first Kermiss in America was all the motivation they needed to get the job done. They walked from Roseire to places as far as Dykesville, Green Bay, and even the grist mill in DePere to buy supplies for the upcoming festival. This meant walking up to 160 kilometres (100 miles) for a round trip! With the supplies the men and women gathered, the women of Roseire prepared enormous quantities of food, for Belgian pies5 were, and still are, a Kermiss delicacy.
When Sunday finally arrived, Father Daems, the Catholic priest who first inspired these settlers to come to the area, said mass to his Roseire congregation, and soon, Belgians from all the surrounding villages began to arrive. It was the first time so many settlers had reunited since their arrival in this new land, and all were overjoyed to gather together with their old friends. A band of musicians formed, and the joyful Belgians danced in the streets to the music and ate the fruits of their harvest.
Kermisses in the Early 20th Century
Soon after that first Kermiss in Roseire, communities such as Champion and Brussels, among many others, began organising their own Kermisses. The first Kermiss was simple compared to these subsequent celebrations. Later Kermisses lasted for two or three days and included a variety of games and other festivities.
Today, some very elderly members of Wisconsin's Walloon Belgian community can still remember and sing Kermiss songs, and some can even speak Walloon, a language related to French, which is still spoken in rural areas of southern Belgium6.
Many older ethnic Walloons in Wisconsin might also recall that the men and women had very specific jobs to do in preparing for a Kermiss. The women would bake hundreds of pies on the Friday and Saturday preceding the festival, often assisted by the women of a neighbouring town, who would celebrate their own Kermiss another weekend. They cooked these pies in outdoor ovens, which were attached to wooden 'summer kitchens'. In these incredible structures, the women could bake 30 to 40 pies at once! Sadly, most of these structures have been demolished or are left in a state of disrepair, as people do not use them anymore.
Meanwhile, the men would go to the lone butcher shop in the area, for the Kermiss was one of two occasions during the year when the Walloon Belgians ate beef, chicken, or meat other than pork7. Once there, they would take a number and celebrate at the nearby saloon until it was their turn to buy meat, which they took home in horse-drawn wagons. It certainly seems like the men had the better part of the work arrangement!
On Sunday, the festival officially started with a mass at the church at around mid-morning, followed by an outdoor dance called a 'dust dance', which received its name because the Belgians were giving thanks for the crops they had harvested from the earth. Next, the brass band would begin to play in the hall, and the dancing would continue inside. Monday, Labor Day, was a holiday, and on Tuesday a square dance was held for the older people.
Ultimately, the Kermiss celebration became better organised in the early part of the 20th Century, since technology and transportation had improved considerably in the time since the first Kermiss. Hence, besides celebrating for a longer period of time, people played games in addition to dancing and eating. Some of the most common games played at early 20th Century Kermisses included climbing a greased pole, chasing greased pigs, and races on foot and with horses.
The Kermiss Festival Today
Today, the Kermiss is still celebrated in many communities in Northeast Wisconsin, although now it only lasts for one day, and many of the old traditions, such as Kermiss songs and traditional games, have been lost. Though the tradition has continued to change over time, each of several villages still has a specific weekend during which they celebrate. Traditionally, the Brussels Kermiss occurs on the first weekend of September. Likewise, other villages have their own designated weekend during which they celebrate. Some smaller communities have smaller, more familial Kermisses on the same weekend as other larger communities, which take a more commercial approach.
Many Kermisses today are sponsored by local restaurants, but the food is still very authentically Walloon. Walloon Belgian recipes have been diligently passed down through the generations, and one can sample a great variety of traditional Walloon dishes at the Kermiss. These include Belgian pies, of course, chicken dumplings, and fresh rolls, as well as:
- Booyah - a soup containing chicken, ox-tail, and a variety of fresh vegetables.
- Trippe - a type of sausage made with pork and cabbage.
- Jutte - a dinner of pork, potatoes, and cabbage cooked together.
Catholic mass is also a key component of the modern Kermiss. The Catholic faith is still very strong in the ethnic Walloon communities of Wisconsin, and many of the Catholic churches there have very closely-knit parish communities.
While some aspects of the Walloon Belgian Kermiss festival have perished, others continue to thrive. Truly, Wisconsin's Walloon Belgian community is a rarity in that so many aspects of the old culture still prevail today, 150 years (roughly four generations) after the first Walloon Belgians came to the area. The Kermiss festival is a great event at which to enjoy a truly unique cultural experience.