A Look Back in History: Christmas Heirlooms and PA Dutch Ethnicity

A traditional 1785 House Blessing done by George Frederich Speyer, active between 1774 and 1801 in Berks County decorated with a large Fraktur heart surrounded by 12 smaller hearts in German text. Note the PA Dutch winged angels at top to bless the family. (Courtesy the late Richard Machmer Collection)

The age old worship of Jesus Christ would not be complete among PA Dutch families without their antique Christmas momentos handed down generation after generation to modern times; like humble homemade sheep and shepherds to adorn their Christmas Putz and Nativity settings together with farm animals at the Savior’s manger! Furthermore, a Biblical setting that eventually expanded to become a Christmas Putz beneath our large Christmas trees to celebrate the life of Jesus Christ, which eventually encompassed secular Lionel electric train layouts to represent contemporary Christian Fellowship in the 20th Century.

But many of our older PA Dutch families still have a huge amount of traditional Christmas antiques tucked away in their attic that are only brought down to our living rooms at Christmas time to celebrate Christmas. Many are unique momentos of our humble farming culture like plaster roosters and miniature chickens that were scaled down to be part of an Americana rural Christmas Putz, including cast iron or lead figures of deer and other wildlife animals to compliment a miniature scale down scene of American civilization.

However, on occasion, our humble Christians may display a ”Haus Segen,” (House Blessing) still printed in our native PA Deitsch language that was created by an earlier generation to invoke God’s Christian blessing on the entire family, similar to a ”Himmels Brief” (Letter from Heaven) amulet. Having immigrated to Pennsylvania as early as 1683, our PA Dutch people, devout Americans, whose love of freedom of religion is synonymous with humanitarian Christian Civilization, renewing their colorful folklife every Christmas.

A regional Germanic folk culture practice among the PA Deitsch immigrants of southeastern Pennsylvania, their Christmas trees decorated with original ornaments have become a national symbol of Christmas in America. But the Nativity, once the center of their Christmas Putz under the decorated Christmas tree, has been upstaged by community electric trains and miniature villages of the modern period.

Yet, the church organs of the PA Dutch Country proclaim Christ’s humanitarian message loud and clear as congregations sing hymns in English, which were originally sung in their German dialect! As secular commercialism and materialism give way to the age old message of Peace on Earth, Good Will to Man.

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

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