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Jerusalem Western Salisbury
3441 Devonshire Road
Allentown, PA 18103
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Office: 610-797-4242 or 610-791-4979
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The heritage of Jerusalem Western Salisbury Church is Pennsylvania German. Founded as a Union Church in 1741, the church was begun by the early settlers who emigrated from the Palatinate, Southern Germany, France and Switzerland. They came to Pennsylvania for land and religious freedom, both of which were promised for those who settled in William Penn's "Holy Experiment." They were of German Reformed and Lutheran tradition and even though their beliefs differed in a few areas, they spoke a common German language. Thus the Lutheran and Reformed pioneers cooperated in building our first church, a log cabin. These early pioneers are considered to be of "Pennsylvania German" or "Pennsylvania Dutch" origins and many of their descendants (including me) continue to worship at this site over 270 years later.
Since the church's heritage is Pennsylvania German, I thought it would be interesting to look at the some of the traditions of the Pennsylvania Germans, particularly as they relate to the upcoming Holy Week and Easter celebrations. While today some of the traditions may only be practiced by a few of the old time Pennsylvania German families or may have faded from history all together, the Pennsylvania Germans contributed the Easter Rabbit to American culture, which continues to be a major part of the cultural celebration of Easter.
This important religious day, the day that we remember the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, is known by the Pennsylvania Germans as "Griener Dunnerschdawg" or "Green Thursday." Unlike the St. Patrick's Day holiday where those of Irish descent wear green, on Green Thursday people are supposed to eat something green, a practice tied to ancient folk beliefs that this will bring good health for the year. Conversely, not eating something green may bring "the itch" or perhaps a spring or summer fever. Other folk beliefs tied to the day are that a person should eat an egg on Easter morning that was laid on Maundy Thursday. Another is that you should plant cabbage and clover seed on Maundy Thursday, or there would be no harvest later in the year. Still another is that one should mow your grass on Maundy Thursday, which would ensure that it would be healthy and grow well.
I recall fondly learning about Green Thursday and what we should eat that day (dandelion) from my paternal grandmother, Estella Susanna Smith Fink (1912-2009), who grew up in Hancock and Maxatawny outside of Topton in Berks County and near the Bogert's Bridge in the Little Lehigh Parkway in Allentown. She was for many years, a member of this church. The woman my family affectionately called "Mammy Fink" was Pennsylvania German through and through.
On Palm Sunday (as she had been taught by her grandmother and mother), I would go with her to "fetch the greens" for Thursday. Now what she meant by that was to hunt for dandelion, those annoying weeds that get a brilliant yellow flower in the summer. These weeds are actually very good for you, providing nutrients such as iron and other vitamins essential to our diets. Mammy Fink taught me to be careful when picking the dandelions, as to not destroy the tender part of this green weed. She also taught me the type or size of the dandelions to pick; "Not such big ones," Mammy would often say, "cause those taste bitter." Now I must admit I was not exactly thrilled with the thought of picking these weeds, especially when it was cold. I also didn't think I would really want to eat weeds. However, when Mammy Fink made hot bacon dressing to put on top, my tune changed a bit, and I have enjoyed dandelions with bacon dressing ever since.
The holy day of Good Friday, or "Karfreidawg" in the Pennsylvania German dialect, has several work taboos associated with it; only essential chores were done that day. Of utmost importance was that there was to be no baking that day, as Friday was usually baking day in Pennsylvania German country. One folk belief associated with this is that if one baked that day, you would bake someone in or out of the family; that is someone would be born or someone would die in the family. Garden work was usually forbidden between Good Friday and Easter because Jesus was buried in the earth for those three days.
Concerning weather for Good Friday, the Pennsylvania Germans believed that the sun would not shine clearly before nine o'clock in the morning on Good Friday. If the weather was raw and nasty that day, it was because of divine wrath. Also, there will be rain on Good Friday, even if it is only three drops.
As mentioned earlier, the largest contribution of the Pennsylvania Germans to the celebration of Easter is the introduction of the Easter Rabbit or "Oschderhaas" in the dialect. We all know today that the Easter bunny lays the eggs for Easter. Children have been preparing nests for the Easter Rabbit as far back as the 1680's in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania German children would prepare the nest by placing their hats or bonnets on the floor or table in the house or in the barnyard, yard or garden. Then they would put some paper or grass in the hat or bonnet to create the nest bed. This is where the bunny would lay his eggs on Easter Eve, provided, of course, that the children had behaved that year. Today, we tend to have baskets with grass in it to cradle the Easter eggs, but nonetheless the same concept persists over 300 years later.
The traditional Easter Eggs ("Oschdereier" in the dialect) for Pennsylvania Germans are dyed with onion skins. This produces a rich brown, rust or dark mahogany color. The longer you slowly boil the eggs in the skins, the darker the color will become. Sometimes the onion skin dyed eggs would be hand decorated by scratching away the brown color of the egg to reveal the white or lighter brown color underneath. This can be done with a sharp object like a needle or penknife. Many scratched eggs were produced as gifts and were presented in specially made boxes. Many eggs contained tulips, birds or geometric designs, as well as the name or initials of the recipient or creator. The Pennsylvania Germans also produced other colors for the eggs from madder root (red), indigo (blue), or other organic materials.
The above are just a sampling of the Pennsylvania German traditions associated with Holy Week and Easter time. If you are interested in more information about these traditions, I suggest consulting a copy of Eastertide in Pennsylvania by Alfred Shoemaker.
I have appreciated the positive responses to my articles and I am pleased that people are interested in the rich history of our church. If you have a curiosity about our church and its history, please contact me through the church office or at Finkyx@aol.com.
Joshua Arthur Fink, Historian