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Jerusalem Western Salisbury
3441 Devonshire Road
Allentown, PA 18103
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Since the early heritage of Jerusalem Western Salisbury Church is Pennsylvania German, in December I am focusing on some Pennsylvania German traditions of the Christmas season. It should be noted that our church's heritage is that of the "Gay Dutch" or Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, as compared to the "Plain Dutch" such as the Amish; our ancestors celebrated Christmas with fanfare (along with the Moravians in Bethlehem), while the "Plain Dutch" did not. While today some of the traditions may only be practiced by a few of the old time Pennsylvania German families, nonetheless the Pennsylvania Germans contributed many aspects to the present cultural celebration of Christmas.
Our Pennsylvania German ancestors were church people, so foremost in their minds for the celebration of Christmas was going to church on Christmas Day, the holy day, rather than Christmas Eve. After the church service, they would gather for a meal, with many of the family coming together for Christmas; the meal was probably the most elaborate and largest of the whole year.
Because the Pennsylvania Germans worked throughout the summer, they used the Christmas Season as a sort of vacation time to visit family and friends and travel to visit grandparents and other family. In fact, the Christmas season lasted until Epiphany (January 6), the traditional day that the Wise Men or Magi visited the Christ Child.
Gift giving has long been a part of the Christmas celebration, tracing its roots back to the biblical story of the gifts that were brought to the Christ Child by the Magi. The story is recorded in Matthew 2:11 (King James Version) "On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." People continue to give gifts in celebration of this part of the Christmas story.
Many cultures have a special gift bringer for the Christmas holiday. While much has been written about the contribution of the Christmas Tree by the Pennsylvania Germans, the evolution of today's gift giving Santa Claus can be traced, in part, to "Kris Kringle," actually a misspelling and misnomer. The Pennsylvania German tradition of the gift giver is actually the Christ-kindel or Christ child. Linguistically, the name Christ-kindel was changed over time to Kris Kringle, who now bears no likeness to the original Christ-kindel, but rather has been merged with St. Nicholas and Sinter Claus.
So who was the Pennsylvania German Christ-kindel? Just as Santa does today, the Christ-kindel (or Grisht-Kindel in the Pennsylvania German dialect) visited homes on Christmas Eve after everyone had gone to sleep. The Christkindel is a childlike angelic figure who delivered Christmas gifts and deposited them in baskets that had been set out by the children before they went to bed. He usually rode on the back of mule or ass, so the basket was filled with straw for the mule. How does the Christkindel come in to the house? Why, through the key hole of the front door, of course! Once safely inside, he is able to see his way about the house by the lighted candle in the window. He then puts gifts in the baskets, such as nuts or small cakes.
Above: a representation of the Christkindel with his mule arriving on Christmas Eve, along with Sinter Klaus.
One of the reasons we put candles in our windows, especially on Christmas Eve, is so that the Christkindel can see his way when he comes at nighttime. The candle tradition is actually very old and shows hospitality to those who have not yet arrived home. Similarly, in other cultures, the lighted candle in the window on Christmas Eve is to show hospitality to Mary and Joseph who may come seeking shelter that night.
Another Pennsylvania German Christmas tradition is that of the Christmas Dew. When I was little, my Mammie (paternal grandmother Estella Susunna Fink Smith [1912-2009]) would put bread outside on the porch on Christmas Eve and I always wondered why (she said it is what her mother used to do when she was little). Through research I was able to determine that it was the Christmas Dew. The dew that falls on Christmas Eve was believed to have special properties, especially medicinal. It was believed that eating this bread the next day kept away the fever. Similarly, the farmers placed the animals hay about the barnyard so the Christmas dew would fall upon it. It was believed that when the farmer fed it to his animals the next day, the animals would be protected from death for the coming year until next Christmas.
The last Pennsylvania German tradition I wish to expound upon is the tradition of erecting a "putz." This comes from the German word "putzen," meaning to decorate. The Moravians have been famous for creating elaborate putzes, or representations of the birth of Jesus, with live moss and other plants. A Manger or Nativity Scene is the genus for any putz and should always be the center of such a display. Over the years, the putz began to become more elaborate with the addition of villages scenes and other people. Eventually, wind up trains and then electric trains were added to the putz, adding life to the otherwise static display. Also, over time, the putz began to be displayed with the Christmas Tree, either under the tree or near it.
Certainly, the putz is the Pennsylvania German Christmas tradition that I have most intimately been acquainted with over my lifetime. Since I was a very little boy, I always helped to display my Nana's Manger Scene. When I was about 5 years I received my very first manger scene, which was added to over the years. When I was a little older, I received a more elaborate manger scene with a cardboard stable that had once belonged to my great grandmother (this began my fairly large collection of Manger Scenes.) As I got older, I also received houses, people, and trains, each year making the display larger.
Today, my wife Jennifer and I are privileged to build our traditional putz each year in the church for Christmas, utilizing the 27 inch Fontanini figures imported from Italy that were donated by members of the church in memory of loved ones. We try to make it look natural, with plants and moss, rocks and wood, building it in the Pennsylvania German tradition, adding a focal point of an appropriate visualization of the Christmas story to our sanctuary during our celebrations of Christmas at Jerusalem Western Salisbury Church.
I am very pleased that people are so interested in the rich history of our church and the area. If you have a curiosity about our church and its history or would like to share any artifacts, pictures or other memorabilia of the church, please contact me through the church office or at Finkyx@aol.com.
Joshua Arthur Fink, Historian