The German and Swiss immigrants who came to Pennsylvania around 1700 brought with them their own beloved Christmas traditions, which are still alive and well in Pennsylvania Dutch communities today, and have helped to shape all Americans’ Christmas traditions.
When German immigrants first arrived in Pennsylvania, however, they were taken aback by their English neighbors’ lack of Christmas spirit! In Germany they had been used to a Christmas filled with joy and mirth, where friends and family gathered to sing and eat, exchange gifts and make merry. Few colonists in the north paid much attention to the holiday, letting it pass by without celebration like any other day. The Pennsylvania Dutch responded by celebrating their most cherished Christmas traditions from home and creating a few new ones.
At the center of a home’s Christmas celebration was the tree, a fir cut from Pennsylvania’s abundant woods and brought inside a few days before Christmas. Children kept busy stringing popped corn and cranberries to hang on the tree for decoration and making ornaments out of blown eggshells (leftover from baking Christmas treats) and bits of colored paper to adorn the tree’s branches. Around the base of the tree, or somewhere nearby, a “Putz”—the Pennsylvania Dutch version of a nativity scene—would be set up, the figures and setting often handmade by the family out of clay or wood. Finally, each child would set out a little basket for gifts from their parents and from Christkindl—the Christ Child—who came on Christmas Eve.
But before children could receive any gifts, the children were visited by Belsnickel. He would arrive unannounced on an evening in December, usually portrayed by a masked uncle or grandfather clad all in furs and make himself known with a rap on the window pane with the wooden switch he used to beat naughty children. “Der Belsnickel!” screamed the children as they ran from the frightening creature, but soon enough, their parents would gather them up and sit them down in front of Belsnickel. In a rumbling voice, Belsnickel would ask each child if they had been naughty over the past year; an honest admission of guilt would earn you a rap on the knuckles, but lying resulted in an even worse punishment! Once every child had been judged, each was asked to recite a prayer or prove something they had learned in school to earn a small treat from Belsnickel’s bag.
Even after Belsnickel and the Christkindl were replaced by the Santa Claus we know today as Christmas gift-bringer, the tradition of “Belsnickling,” where groups of masked young people went door to door entertaining on the nights preceding Christmas, continued for many years.
A simple and delicious treat from the Pennsylvania Dutch of central Pennsylvania.Open Recipe
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup melted butter
- 2 eggs
- 1½ cups flour
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- Pinch of salt
Pour melted butter over sugar in a bowl and beat until smooth and creamy.
Add the eggs, beating one at a time, into the mixture.
Sift the baking soda through the flour; add the salt and add to the cake mixture.
Stand the dough in a cold place for an hour.
Roll out on floured board, quite thin. Cut into small rounds or other shapes. Sprinkle with sugar and bake in hot oven (400-farenheit) for 10 minutes.