Almost every American whose family roots predate the American Revolution has fond memories of yuletide folkways, sharing with their family, the warmth and joy experienced living in a real life “Christmas Putz” we call the American homeland.
Our ancestors, so very proud of pioneering the United States since 1776, and much earlier, developed the Christmas folkway of putting a miniature landscape resemblance of our native countryside underneath the Christmas tree to celebrate religious freedom, right alongside our cherished Biblical Nativity (Crèche) scene with the birth of Jesus Christ. Even Worldly Dutch in the 20th Century, who were not overly-religious at Christmastime still respected and combined their belief in religion with their faith 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 were true PA Dutch followers of native American Christmas practices and there, below a sparkling Christmas tree, was always the traditional Nativity with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus as the Three Wise Men made their way to his sacred place of birth.
As this tradition evolved, some had incorporated a fabulous train setup with two or more locomotives traversing on various elevations in an urban and rural miniature landscape, including old-time street lights and homes that lit up when he dimmed the living room lights.
Most PA Dutch fathers and uncles took the time each Christmas to set up a PA Dutch Putz beneath their lively Christmas trees, but not all of them became eager about setting up a platform on sheets of plywood a couple of feet higher than the living room floor. Many of the farm animals were imported from early Germany, in addition to a number of hand-crafted Putz heirlooms handed down in the family.
This popular Bethlehem Moravian Dialect term, “Putz,” comes from the German vernacular “to put,” meaning that you adorn your landscape by putting something here or over there in a Christmas tree arrangement.
My Dad, a long-time resident of Fleetwood, told me Kenny Koller, nicknamed “Booksie,” once owner of the Fleetwood tavern was also an avid collector of trains eagerly to be set up on a Christmas Putz, and was a serious hobby.
Retired Kutztown school teacher, Richard Gougler of Kutztown, had also developed an exceptional model train set-up as a spontaneous collector of PA Dutch Putz memorabilia. After his passing, Gougler’s outstanding collection was saved and displayed by the Kutztown Historical Society in their Museum basement for all children and parents and relatives to enjoy celebrating the Christmas season.
Kutztown barber, Lamar Bailey had an uncle (Ivan Berger), who lived in Albany Township who also boasted an exceptional Christmas Putz layout. A few years back, Bailey’s neighbor Craig Koller, of the Kutztown Historical Society, in wanting to expand their holiday presentation asked Bailey if he would help start a traditional Christmas Putz layout at their museum. Bailey, inspired by his PA Dutch uncle to develop a rare Christmas Putz set-up, received help from other local Dutchmen, and began the nucleus of the Community’s elaborate Christmas Putz, featuring traditional operating trains and including the wonderful Putz collection of the late Richard Gougler.
An outstanding and large traditional PA Dutch Christmas Putz, the Gougler memorial train exhibit was largely the result of local PA Dutchmen like Lamar Bailey, George Bryde, and Jim Schlegel, who meticulously packed up the Gougler Putz in numerous truck loads to be fastidiously arranged in the spacious basement of the Kutztown Historical Society.
This column was originally published in 2016 in The Kutztown Patriot.