Christmas and PA Dutch Traditions
by Bryan Hay
I grew up in a Pennsylvania German household, and the one memory that sticks out is the annual PA Dutch tradition of a Christmas visit from the Belsnickel, who was portrayed by my great-uncle.
Not nearly as jolly as St. Nick, the Belsnickel, dressed in his dark clothes and carrying a switch, was, at least for a kid, a less-than-welcome guest this time of year. I remember peering out the window, wondering when he would make an appearance. He may have had a broad face and a little round belly, but the Belsnickel was anything but a right jolly old elf. I never laughed when I saw him, I cried to myself.
My great-uncle’s interpretation was not nearly as frightful as the Belsnickel who visited my mom and aunt when they were kids. They remembered facing his wrath if they failed to have their Bible verse memorized in German. All of these holiday memories and a curiosity about Belsnickel lore led me to Brad Smith, guest curator at the Berks History Center in Reading
“It seems clear that the Belsnickel was a European tradition, which the Pennsylvania Germans brought with them in the 1700s,” he says. “Some accounts speculate that the Belsnickel derives from another European figure named Knecht Ruprecht, who was a companion to Saint Nicholas.”
Smith says he has seen other sources that suggest that the two are completely unrelated as Knecht Ruprecht was associated with Northern Germany and the Belsnickel was more likely derived from southwest Germany.
“What is clear is that by the 1820s, the Belsnickel is frequently mentioned in newspapers and other sources written in southeast Pennsylvania, and he was discussed frequently in the decades that followed,” Smith adds. “I think Belsnickel is the most famous Christmas tradition of the Pennsylvania Germans.”
Smith shared some other PA Dutch traditions known throughout Pennsylvania’s Americana Region, including the Christkindl, which literally means Christ Child. The tradition was that the Christ Child would bring Christmas gifts to children but would never be seen by them and “thus was very similar to the traditional concept of Santa Claus,” he says.
Smith says the tradition is covered in one of the pioneering scholarly works on Pennsylvania German Christmas traditions, “Christmas in Pennsylvania” by Alfred Shoemaker (1959). In it, Shoemaker explains how Christkindl eventually evolved into Kris Kringle.
Christmas Eve church services in the region were once conducted in high German. “In the early 1800s, the liturgy of the Lutheran and German Reformed Churches, with whom the majority of the Pennsylvania Germans were affiliated, was in High German, as opposed to the Pennsylvania German dialect the used in conversation,” Smith says. “However, by the early 1900s, the use of German was dying out.”
Smith notes other PA Dutch traditions followed during the holiday season that are no longer common. One was “Second Christmas” — a less religious day of relaxation that followed Christmas Day. It’s still followed by Old-Order groups, but the majority of Pennsylvania Germans do not.
“There’s a tradition from the 19th century where a few days before Christmas, students in a one-room school would lock their teacher out of the building, and they would not let the teacher back in unless he or she promised to provide them with a gift of Christmas candy or cookies,” Smith says. “This was practiced by other groups as well, but it appears to have been disappearing by the 1880s.
Finally, there’s one particular PA Dutch tradition that has always amused Smith — schiess in es Nei Yahr, literally, shoot in the New Year. “Pennsylvania Germans would celebrate the New Year by shooting their guns in the air,” Smith says. “To my knowledge, this is no longer practiced!”