This is the 40th year that folks have been turning up for the holidays at The Landing, the historic interpretive village along the Minnesota River. And Rich Williams has made it to almost every one of them.

"I've been to 38 of the 40," the Savage man said.

That means he's witnessed quite an expansion in the number of buildings open in December: from seven to 14.

It means he's witnessed lots of changes in the site itself. Goodbye icy Porta Potties, hello toasty-warm, sustainable geothermal restroom complex, with a whole roomful of purring machinery in the back to make that brief but vital visit a treat, right down to the upscale tile walls and the radiant heat wafting up through the floor.

And he's seen a metamorphosis in its sensitivities to multiple ethnicities and cultures. Gone is the old "Murphy's Landing," with its suggestion that only white settlers mattered much. Gone is "Christmas" as part of the title: It's the "holidays" now, complete with a set of Hanukkah candles in the window of one of the homes.

In short, holidays at The Landing are a study not only in 19th century pioneer history but in our own recent changing times.

The biggest lurch forward: The rescue of the site by the munificently funded Three Rivers Parks District, based in Hennepin County, which is gradually going through its buildings and restoring them from slowly decaying to arrestingly painted and furnished.

At this time of year, the site becomes as well a history of the evolution -- even, in some ways, the creation -- of "Christmas" as the holiday we know today.

"Does this look more like your home?" costumed tour guide Trudy Hoag asked a group of second graders from Breck School last week as the first school-group holiday field trip of the season arrived at the Tabaka House, the grandest home on the site and the one meant to mimic most closely the Christmas we now know.

"No," one kid said flatly -- thinking perhaps of the already-opened and weirdly antique presents arrayed around the tree.

From the organizers' standpoint, though, whispered The Landing's site manager, Jefferson Spilman, this is the culmination of a procession through the site that's meant to take visitors through the whole evolution of American celebrations of the holiday at the same time they make their way from primitive cottages to fancier homes.

"When you're in the fur trader's cabin from the early 19th century," he said, "you're seeing little to no reference to Christmas," consistent with what we know of the time itself. "By the 1850s, German settlers are bringing in trees, Advent wreaths, St. Nick ..."

Finally, it's the 1890s Victorian with its Christmas cookies, its Brit-style Christmas pudding a la Dickens, its Christmas cards and tree ornaments, its pine swags along the entryway to the dining room. That's what the tour guide means by "like your house."

For a group of kids for whom the 1970s are ancient history, though, it's a moment of some existential confusion. Asks one of them of a guide pretending to be straight from the 19th century:

"Did you have kids back then?"

It's a fun field trip on one level, said teacher Carrie Jensen of Breck as the kids crossed the village green. But it's also an important part of teaching them about a type of history that many of us picked up from our own grandparents but that is becoming increasingly remote.

"Our school [which is private] is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, so we are able to celebrate Christmas in school," she said. "But I still worry about passing on that sense of ancestry and religious holidays" in a world in which some of those ties are weakening.

After four decades, "Folkways of the Holidays" is The Landing's "signature event," Spilman said, something that for many is their primary tie to a site depicting life in the Lower Minnesota River Valley from 1845 to 1889.

The buildings range from a French-Canadian style fur post built by the son of Jean-Baptiste Faribault all the way up to recent reproductions, but mainly it is 19th-century buildings from around the region that have been moved to the site and arranged to form a "village."

At the center are church, town hall, train depot, homes, all the way out to farmsteads a short walk away. At one of them, a pair of people-friendly Guernsey steers with the cute beginnings of future horns now wander the premises, happy to approach a stranger and have their rough fur petted.

Back in the village proper, standing before a general store with Christmas-themed toys in its window, volunteer Williams observed that the commercialization of Christmas dates to way, way back in time.

"If you look at the Shakopee paper in the 1880s," he said, "it's 'Come get your toys, your treats, your oranges,' which were then a big treat. We're trying to show in our store what you would have seen then."

No Black Friday, though, surely?

"No Black Friday."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285