A Look Back in History: Christmas approaches in Pa Dutch country

Submitted photo
Young Mennonite men face the cold with faithful companions to attend Service on Christmas Day, a dependence of man and beast for each other.
Submitted photo Young Mennonite men face the cold with faithful companions to attend Service on Christmas Day, a dependence of man and beast for each other.

A reminder the Christian holiday, Christmas, is approaching and even if the quaint Plain Dutch sects did not drive their horse and buggy vehicles throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, the average citizen knows that the PA German/ Dutch are Christians. Just visit any American museum that displays their native folk art and religious documents that are symbolic of their everyday life plus their Christian birth certificates that are folk art passports to heaven, done in a 17th Century illuminated Germanic fraktur type style.

Early American citizens of America, the Plain Dutch and worldly PA Dutch believe that religion is a private affair and do not necessarily advocate evangelical campaigns to convert other humans to enlist in their own religious denominations.

Since from Colonial times our PA Dutch citizens have Bibles printed in German, together with all their religious church documents, these devout Christians have counted on conveying their Christian thoughts with the aid of colorful illumination drawings that conveyed the glory of God, which naturally spilled over to their folk art decorated house furniture and occasional architecture on their farm buildings and homes.

But less material are the music rendi¨tions they play to honor the spirit of the Lord. Like the brass choir that plays atop the Georgian Moravian Church in downtown Bethlehem or other churches of Moravians. Obviously, the Christmas holidays center around our PA Dutch churches where fellowship and singing with one another is shared doing traditional seasonal activities. But more than this the family Christmas tree is a symbol of brotherly love in Christ extending to one and all, including household and farm animals, as well.


Celebrating Jesus on the night that he was born, some old timers still place hay in the Christmas Eve barnyard, so that Christmas dew may be collected by the early morning sunrise to feed their animals, a primitive form of Holy Communion where man and beast share Godís eternal love of mankind. However, one needs only to stop in at a local congenial PA Dutch tavern to realize the PA Dutch people are humanitarians whose Christian fellowship is at the apex of each otherís daily lives the whole year long; but especially at Christmas, when they commemorate the birth of Christ; a humble realization that Christianity is the God given hope for a civilized society.

During Colonial times our forefathers who were thankful for having survived the voyage to America were a humble lot, never taking things for granted, but always had faith in God and followed his humanitarian principles. Sharing their wisdom and food with farm animals in a fertile territory as Pennsylvania, Rhinelanders who sometimes built homes that also accommodated farm animals, and looked after these beasts almost as equals. Any PA Dutch person whose responsibility it was to feed the farm animals on Christmas eve with the moon lit over the barnyard, knows of the communion between their Christian faith and its recollection of the Nativity scene where the Christ child is laid in the humble straw manger in Bethlehem.

A sacred feeling as one feeds his or her animals in Godís kingdom, pondering peace on earth good will toward man. To a PA Dutch ethnic person household pets and domestic animals take on significance at Christmas time as they share their humanitarian holiday spirit with both man and beast. Christian Sheppards of a kind, who have not lost the meaning of the Holy Nativity, even to the extent of sharing food and shelter with Mother Natureís creatures.

Among the immigrants that cultivated Pennsylvania from the Rhine Valley of Europe were farmers so thankful to God they shared his blessings with their live stock. Primitive farmers in a new country, on Christmas Eve when this religious group celebrated Christís birth some humble PA Dutch farmers placed hay from their brimming barns out in the barnyard. The next day after the Christmas dew had fallen on this feed it was fed to the farmerís live stock, a sort of remembrance of man and beastís humility to their creator.

Much the same way humans in the New World looked forward to a new world civilization without wars and injustices against religions or race and economic status. A legacy William Penn had offered the Rhineland farmers when he invited them to come to Pennsylvania in the 16th Century. As a humble PA Dutchman, I hope that the Christmas dew that falls from the heaven in 2013 will enlighten us all in 2014 to become a wiser and more benevolent world civilization one which will finally become a Utopian model of Peace on Earth good will toward men!

Although many of our PA Dutch people our still farmers who enjoy Christmas and New Years butcherings, preparing for the harsh winter months. Housewives also await, making dozens of cut out Christmas cookies for young and old to partake in a warm kitchen with hot chocolate or coffee over the long winter nights; a traditional exercise in creative cooking with nuts, icing and gingerbread. Providing an opportunity to meet with neighbors and friends, so many cooks fill two or more cookie containers to enjoy a respite with their friends, whether they have children in their family or not! Itís a universal treat.

Richard Shaner is director and Richard Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.