Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas Customs

Dutch Haven, Lancaster County

Image by Tony the Misfit via Flickr

The kitchen is fragrant with the smell of baking cookies. Every inch of table and shelf space is taken up with old­-fashioned tin cookie cutters or finished cookies done in delight­ful shapes: lambs, stars, hearts, angels, and figures of people.

This is but a hint of Christmas in Pennsylvania Dutchland. It but partly suggests how these colorful and charming people have kept alive Old-World Christmas customs which they brought to America two centuries and more ago.

Who are the Pennsylvania Dutch?

In general, they are the descendants of the German and Swiss immigrants who came to Pennsylvania before the Revolution. Some, also, trace their an­cestry to the Moravians who fled religious persecution in Bo­hemia, Silesia, and Moravia. To be counted a true Pennsylvania Dutchman, one must cling to “Dutch” patterns of life, whether his family settled in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or other parts of the Middle West. Also, certain religious groups characterize the Dutch: the Men­nonites, Amish, Brethren, Lutherans, Reformed, and Schwenk­felders. The pattern is complex and interwoven; like a loomed counterpane or patchwork quilt, it is comprised of many differ­ent parts, which, all together, make a lovely and beautiful de­sign.

Early Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas Customs

When these German farmers and tradesmen came from the Old to the New World, they

Pictures from Old-Germantown. Shown here is th...

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turned willing and skilled hands to the land. They built sturdy and beautiful homes. They thought well of their adopted country. But when Christmas time came, they found to their amazement that their English and Irish neighbors paid little attention to the holy day. Shops and schools were open as usual. No trees graced the living rooms, no gifts were lovingly prepared for children. There was no Christmas cooking. Even in church, only a brief reference was made to the beloved day.

But in Pennsylvania Dutch homes children were kept home from school on Christmas Day. The traditional German custom was cherished of going to the forest to cut an evergreen tree and bringing it into the house to trim with homemade ornaments. Fragrant odors of cookies and Christmas cakes permeated Dutch homes. Old legends, such as the one which told how cattle talked on Christmas night, must have sounded strange indeed to English neighbors. Strange, too, must have seemed the custom of setting out hay on Christmas Eve so that it would catch dew from heaven-guarding from ill health and misfortune the cattle who would eat the hay.

Primarily, though, Christmas was celebrated as a Christian religious festival among the early Pennsylvania Dutch. The “Plain People,” who are comprised of the Amish and Men­nonites, disapproved of “worldly” observances. They thought of Christmas as a time to be observed with solemn dignity in church. Their Moravian neighbors, however, brought glorious music, the soft light of candles, the putz, and many another em­bellishment to their church celebration. Other groups centered as much of Christmas around the home as around the church.

Chritmas in a Pennsylvania Dutch Home

Pennsylvania Dutch Eggnog

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Christmas in a Pennsylvania Dutch home today is, in many respects, not unlike it was two hundred years ago. Except for the Plain People the tree is the center of the home celebration. Settlers in the New World brought the Protestant love of the Christmas tree from the upper Rhineland in Germany. There, the custom of the Christmas tree had been cherished for some two hundred years before the rest of Germany took it up.

On rolling Pennsylvania hillsides, the pioneers found beau­tiful evergreen trees to cut and bring into the farmhouse just before Christmas. Children kept busy for days beforehand stringing popcorn and cranberries to hang on the trees. Eggs for the cookies and cakes were carefully blown. Children then pasted strips of colored paper on the shells to make festive and gay patterns. By attaching string, the decorated egg became an ornament to hang on the tree.

Under the tree a “yard” or “garden” was set up. This minia­ture landscape had for its focus a Nativity group, the figures of which often came from the Old World, or were hand-carved by members of the family. Elaborating this setting, a “pond” might be made from a mirror and around it would be grouped some pine or moss. A “hill” might be created on which grazed carved figures of sheep or other domestic animals. The “yard” grew larger from year to year as new objects were added. Many Pennsylvania Dutch families today are fortunate enough to possess some of these original scenes made by their ancestors many years ago.

Gift-giving in Dutch rural homes has always been kept simpIe. Because children are important members of the household, it is they who receive gifts rather than the grownups. The young set out hats, baskets, or stockings to be filled with presents brought by the Christ-child, whom they call the Krischkindel or Kindlein. The child who behaves best during the year re­ceives the most nuts and cakes, these being traditional gifts of olden times. Today gift-giving also follows more modern pat­terns, but even so, the current elaborate emphasis on expensive and numerous gifts is missing in most Pennsylvania Dutch households.

Belsnickel and Belsnickles

In the olden days in certain of the Pennsylvania Dutch com­munities there came to the homes on Christmas Eve a fright­ening person known as Belsnickel. How the children dreaded his visit-especially those who had misbehaved! A tap or sound of a switch on the window and the children would cry out Der Belsnickel! The door opened and in came a tall male figure, usually an uncle or another relative. He was dressed in a sheet and thoroughly disguised by a mask. In his hand he car­ried a hickory stick. In a gruff voice Belsnickel asked each child if he had been good. Truthful answers were expected and he who admitted to wrongs was often switched smartly on the knuckles. Then came questions on the catechism or about schoolwork. If the answers were satisfactory, candies and nuts were taken from the folds of Belsnickel’s mysterious costume and tossed on the floor. While the children scrambled for these, the visitor made for the door.

In some of the Pennsylvania Dutch homes an older child, robed in white, impersonated Krischkindel. He would come with Belsnickel to light the candles on the tree and scatter the goodies. Belsnickel then assumed the role of the “checker­upper” and punisher.

Thomas Nast's most famous drawing,

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Belsnickel gradually faded out of the picture and gave way to Santa Claus after Clement Clark Moore wrote his poem, Visit from St. Nicholas, in 1822. In some way which cannot be wholly accounted for, Belsnickel became belsnickles or belsnickling. It seemed as though the idea of masquerading could not be given up, but instead of one person’s disguising himself, entire groups dressed up and wore masks, going from house to house, from farm to farm, to visit and to celebrate Christmas Eve with friends. Those who stayed at home prepared for the company by popping huge quantities of corn and laying out enormous stacks of cookies. When the dressed-up masqueraders arrived, everyone congregated in the kitchen to eat and to sing carols. Because visiting is greatly loved in Dutch communities, this quaint custom persists in many places with modifications.

A Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas Morning

Today, as long ago, everyone goes to church on Christmas morning. There, the story of Bethlehem, beloved German car­ols, and Holy Communion comprise the service of worship. Whole families go together and after church they return to fragrant-smelling homes for a great and wonderful feast. Though the Plain People frown on feasting, their less conserva­tive neighbors have a traditional meal. This has always con­sisted of turkey with potato filling or stuffing, dried corn and stewed onions, and mince pie. Sometimes baked ham, roast pig, or “hog maw” (roast stuffed pig’s stomach) is substituted for turkey, and fresh sausage, a standard item in Pennsylvania Dutch diet, is often added. Cookies and leftovers are consumed for the evening meal.

Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas Cookies

One can reconstruct in imagination what went into the mak­ing of Christmas cookies in the early days, for much the same sort of thing goes on today. For days and days before Christ­mas the cast-iron stove was fired to just the right heat for the cooky baking and the women of the household got to work in no uncertain terms. Each family had its own set of cooky cut­ters: rabbits, fish, roosters, and other animals were among the designs. Belsnickel, angels, figures of men and women, stars, tulips (the hallmark of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art) and numerous other designs were fashioned into cooky cutters by the local tinsmith. Measurements went up to a foot in many in­stances. With these cutters the housewives fashioned thinly rolled butter or ginger cookies, sprinkling them with red sugar or nuts “just for nice.”

There were other kinds of cookies too, chief of which was the well-known sand tart, “wonderful rich” with butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. The better the cook, the thinner the sand tart! Beaten egg white was brushed over the top and crushed pea­nuts or a half a hickory nut garnished these cookies.

Lebkuchen and springerle were other favorites. From the Rhineland the early settlers had brought their springerle boards, wooden molds, beautiful in their intricate designs.

To delight the children, the mothers made enormous ginger cookies, cutting them into fascinating shapes. Many of these were put on the tree as ornaments. It is said that in olden days a housewife and her daughters made enough cookies to last until Easter. Christmas cookies are still an important part of Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas festivities. Not only cookies, but Christmas cakes were important items in the early days. The day before Christmas was baking day. The big, glowing ovens attracted the children, who were put to work cracking nuts. The cakes were mixed and poured into bake pans the shape of birds, horses, lambs, and stars. The fragrance of these baking cakes filled the house, and what an array they made when, all finished, they were spread out on long trestle tables!

Pennsylvania Dutch Second Christmas

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In some, but not all Pennsylvania Dutch groups, a “Second Christmas” was observed on the day after Christmas. It took the form of a rowdy day with pranks and general cutting up. At one period preachers sternly advised against it, with the result that it was modified. Gradually “Second Christmas” became a day for visiting and for continuing the family celebrations of Christmas, stretching out the beloved season as long as possi­ble. With the Amish and other Plain People who frowned on the old boisterous Second Christmas, the day was always one of visiting from farm to farm and sampling various goodies.

Barring Out the Schoolmaster

A completely prankish aspect of Christmas that developed in some communities was the custom of barring out the school­master. This was the one time in the year when the children might conspire against their teacher. They would choose a day just before Christmas to shut themselves up in the schoolhouse. When the schoolmaster arrived, he would find the doors and windows tightly locked. Often as not the children, terrified at heart, were peering out from the windows. Finally, after re­peated efforts to get in, the teacher would receive demands for a truce. He would be told by an older child, or by a note slipped under the door, what he must do to “buy” his entrance. When he conceded, he was allowed to enter. Usually the children asked for small gifts ofcandy and nuts and various indulgences that amounted to a day of greater freedom and fewer restric­tions in schoolwork. The long-suffering teacher would send two older boys to the village store to purchase sweets and other treats. From then on, the day proceeded in a happy fashion with a general good time.

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One response to “Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas Customs
  1. My mother who was PA Dutch always saved our tree after Xmas. It was left outdoors. Once the needles dropped, she decorated it with fruit and nuts, pine cones slathered with seeds mixed in peanut butter for the birds to eat. She had a germanic name for this tradition but I have forgotten it. Do you happen to recognize tradition and , if so, what it was called?

    Thanks, Sandra

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