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Pennsylvania German 
Christmas Traditions

The mosaic of ethnic backgrounds present in Amish Country have resulted in a rich tapestry of Old and New World Christmas customs. Many of the most interesting traditions are unique to our Pennsylvania German heritage.

Candles

Candles, of course, have always been a part of Christmas celebrations. In Old World Germany, Martin Luther is credited as being the first person to put candles on a tree, "to represent the glory and beauty of the stars above Bethlehem." In Ireland, the old custom was to "leave a candle burning in the window to light the way for the Christ Child on Christmas Eve." It is interesting to note the old tradition in Europe of "illumination," whereby the birthday of a prince was celebrated by putting candles in the windows.

In the Windows

Visitors to Amish Country notice that we often have candles in our windows all year, not just during the holiday season. The year-round practice apparently started several years ago when a local tourist home left its Christmas candles in the windows as a sign of welcome. The idea seemed to catch on, as people found it attractive, especially in older homes. So now this nostalgic, warm look can be enjoyed by Lancastrians and visitors at any time of the year.

The Star

The Moravian religious community that settled in Lititz has preserved for us two particularly unique Christmas customs, the Moravian Star and the Christmas Putz.

The beautiful 26-point Moravian Star has long been identified with Advent and Christmas. The star originated in the Moravian school handcraft sessions in Niesky, Germany, in the mid-1800’s. The simple 26-point version is quite common, seen hanging and lighted at night on porches in Lititz. Many people are surprised to learn that the first Moravian Star was red and white, not the lovely soft white color usually seen today.

The Moravian Church in Lititz may be the only place in America where you can see a spectacular 110-point star. While the 110-point star is rarely seen here, the design was obtained from Germany, reproduced in Lititz, and first hung in the church in 1980.

The "Putz"

Nativity scenes are popular at Christmas, and the "putz" is the Pennsylvania Dutch interpretation of the crèche. Related to the old medieval mystery plays, the putz may have originated to help children better appreciate the Christmas story. The word "putz" is from the German "putzen" for "to decorate, especially to adorn a church."

Originally, the putz consisted of wooden, clay, or tin figures arranged to depict the Nativity. There were other groupings displayed besides the Nativity scene, such as the Holy Family, the Annunciation, the shepherds in the hills, the three kings, and the flight to Egypt.

Today the making of the putz can be a family project. Decisions must be made on the background, which may involve live plants and paper painted to simulate rocks. There may be stars in the sky and angels suspended with black thread. The middle and foreground include the manger scene, often a cave, figures, animals, moss, and occasionally running water. "The aim is to depict a rolling countryside, a hillside town, and a lonely stable."

The putz can become an elaborate display, centering on the birth of Christ, but bringing in many other themes. These added figures are usually religious, such as Sir Galahad searching for the Holy Grail, or a scene of the conversion of the Indians. Some include the use of electricity, music, and narration. But the "Putz" is not to be garish, the traditional end result should "evoke a hush of silent contemplation."

"Beltznickel"

Our modern Santa Claus, of course, evolved over many centuries to what he is today. December 6th was St. Nicholas Day in Catholic countries of Europe, and the Rhineland area became the center of a St. Nicholas cult. With the Reformation these saints days disappeared, and Protestants changed the focus to Christmas Eve and the arrival of Beltznickel (Belsnickel).

He was a figure to be feared, wearing a hat, wig, and long, heavy coat. In addition to his bag of goodies, he could also carry a switch to "punish" naughty children. In the old tradition, this figure could visit at any time during Advent, arriving with ringing sleigh bells and gifts of nuts, candies, and fruits for the children. John Joseph Stoudt describes the old tradition as follows...

He throws the gifts on the floor, demanding a "piece" performed by the children. They have prepared for this for months, and they say a poem or sing a song. He remains stern, with grim, forbidding countenance. When Beltznickel’s whip rattled the windows. the children were frightened and he was a creature to be feared. Sunday School Festivals in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside continue this tradition of saying a "piece" for him, even though he may not show up.

In 1822, Clement C. Moore’s verses for "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known today as "The Night Before Christmas," presented the fat, jolly man arriving from the skies. In 1862, famed illustrator Thomas Nast gave him further touches, and by 1886 Santa Claus had basically become the character we know today. "Santa Claus" seems to have come from the New York Dutch settlers’ "Sinter Klaus," or St. Nicholas.

Indeed, even "Kriss Kringles" really comes form the German for Christ Child (Christ- Kindel). In the 1800’s, children were told it was the Christ Child who brought gifts for them at Christmas. Children left baskets of hay for His mule at the door on Christmas Eve. Apparently many Pennsylvania Germans were displeased as the name and identity changed to become associated with Santa Claus.

The Tree

Finally, let us return to the Christmas tree and its German beginnings. While it is doubtful Luther started the custom ...

It was among Lutherans that the tree first became a Christmas tradition. The earliest written record of a fully decorated Christmas tree dates from 1605, when a citizen of Strasbourg wrote that "at Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlors and hang upon them roses cut from many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gilt-sugar, sweets, etc."

These Old World Germans decorated their tree "with stars, angels, toys, gilded nuts, and candies wrapped in bright papers. Later they added tinsel and lighted candles."

It is claimed that the first known written mention of a Christmas tree in America is found in the 1821 diary of Matthew Zahn, a Lancastrian! Undoubtedly, the Christmas tree tradition was brought to America by the German settlers, and trees were fairly common by the 1820’s. It may very well be that Lancaster is the home of the Christmas tree in America!

Our Heritage

Regardless of your feelings concerning Christmas celebrations today, it is clear we owe a great deal to the Pennsylvania Germans who brought their customs to the New World. In understanding this heritage, perhaps we can better appreciate the real meanings and history behind the symbols and modern images so prevalent today.

Amish Country News Cover Article by Brad Igou (Winter 1998)

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