A Look Back in History: Holiday customs of the PA Dutch going by the wayside

Of particular attention is the 1822 historic golden carved eagle within the 1754 Salem United Church of Christ which symbolized the new nation’s freedom of religion, consistent with William Penn’s vision of a religious Utopia.
Of particular attention is the 1822 historic golden carved eagle within the 1754 Salem United Church of Christ which symbolized the new nation’s freedom of religion, consistent with William Penn’s vision of a religious Utopia. Submitted photo
The rare 1785 Fraktur Haus Segen (House Blessing) done by Friedrich Speyer (1774-1801), an itinerant scrivener who sold his Pennsylvania German broadsides in Berks County. This particular format is similar to a German House Blessing broadside printed at Augsburg, Germany in the 18th Century. Known as the Christian house blessing, including was a 12-hour religious reminder in the text, of each additional heart.
The rare 1785 Fraktur Haus Segen (House Blessing) done by Friedrich Speyer (1774-1801), an itinerant scrivener who sold his Pennsylvania German broadsides in Berks County. This particular format is similar to a German House Blessing broadside printed at Augsburg, Germany in the 18th Century. Known as the Christian house blessing, including was a 12-hour religious reminder in the text, of each additional heart. Submitted photo

One only needed to stop in at a local congenial PA Dutch tavern or social frolic to realize the PA Dutch people are humanitarians whose Christian fellowship is at the apex of each other’s daily lives the whole year long. But especially at Christmastime when they commemorate the birth of Christ, a humble realization that Christianity is the God given hope for a civilized society.

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

Here in the 21st Century, much of earlier customs has gone by the wayside, but many of our older PA Dutch families still have a huge amount of traditional Christmas antiques tucked away in their attic only to be brought down to living rooms at the Christmas time part of year to celebrate this important religious holiday! Many are unique mementos of our humble farming culture like plaster roosters, miniature chickens, donkeys that were scaled down to be part of an Americana rural Christmas Putz, but also included cast iron or lead figures of deer and other wildlife animals to compliment a miniature scale downed scene representing an American civilization our descendants were so brought to be a part of. However, on occasion still, our humble Christians may display a “Haus Segen,” (House Blessing) that were still printed in our native PA Deitsch/Dutch language created by an earlier generation of printers to invoke God’s Christian blessing on the entire family. They were similar to a “Himmels Brief” (Letter from Heaven) amulet.

Having immigrated to Pennsylvania as early as 1683, our PA Dutch people are as devout of Americans as there are, whose love of freedom of religion is synonymous with a humanitarian Christian civilization long represented in their folk character, renewed every Christmas. A regional Germanic folk culture practice among the PA Deitsch immigrants born out of southeastern Pennsylvania, their Christmas trees decorated with original ornaments had become a national symbol of Christmas in America. Setting up scenes in each Putz that became in and of themselves a homage to American ideals and the progress that freedom loving Americans had developed in our land of opportunity. Many of our old-time relatives were true PA Dutch followers of these native (to) American Christmas practices and below a sparkling Christmas tree, it was paramount and always the traditional to include a Nativity with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus as the Three Wise Men made their way to his sacred place of birth.

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But less materialistic were the equally important music renditions they played to honor the spirit of the Lord. As the brass choir that once played atop the Georgian Moravian Church in downtown Bethlehem or other churches of Moravians, obviously, the Christmas holidays center on our PA Dutch churches where fellowship and singing with one another is still shared today in doing traditional seasonal activities. But more than this, the family Christmas tree remains a symbol of Brotherly Love in Christ extending to one and all that includes household and farm animals to our rural farming families.

Celebrating Jesus on the night that he was born, there are still a few old-time farmers that still place hay in the Christmas Eve barnyard, so that Christmas dew may be collected by the early morning sunrise to feed their animals. Perhaps a primitive form of Holy Communion where man and beast share in God’s eternal love of mankind, but generally, we PA Dutch never celebrated Christmas in July! And for those curious of the phrase or practice can literally be traced to a North Carolina girl scout camp in 1933.