Happy Holidays - Pennsylvania Dutch Style

It’s hard to escape the Pennsylvania Dutch influence during the holiday season as many of the modern day traditions evolved from their traditions.

For instance, the central symbol of modern American Christmas’ is a decorated tree. And while the Puritans in Massachusetts were able to ban the actual celebration of Christmas, along with all of the (so called) pagan rituals associated with it, the Pennsylvania Amish, Quakers, Mennonites, and Friends faiths kept their homeland traditions going -- like the Christmas Tree.

Traditionally, they would cut off a limb of a cherry tree on December 4th (St. Barbara’s Day) and would decorate it with candies, nuts, and fruit - hoping for the buds to blossom on Christmas Day. Also, the children would place an empty plate under the tree hoping for the Grishkindel, or Christ-child to leave them treats.

Of course, there are traditions worth mentioning that did not carry over into mainstream culture, but are still practiced in Pennsylvania Dutch communities. Some of most interesting are:

Belsnickel  - Covered head-to-toe in furs and usually wearing a mask, Belsnickel's "mission" was to punish naughty children. You could say he was Santa’s opposite, but really, he was there to scare the children into doing good. Sometimes, Belsnickel would appear weeks ahead of the holiday in the windows of the house and would tap a switch on the pane to frighten the children inside. During Second Christmas (see next item), Belsnickel would appear carrying a bag filled with bells, nuts, and candy as he went door-to-door, again, hitting the windows along the way. The children would then open the door and Belsnickel would throw candy and treats onto the floor and slap the hands of the kids who were trying to pick up the sweets. There are lots of story twists to Belsnickel character, but most involve him punishing children. Dwight Schrute from NBC’s The Office, portrayed Belsnickel in their latest Christmas episode.

{The Office Tweet: Belsnickel Fact: Belsnickel doesn't use elfin slave labor. Yet another reason why he's superior to Santa. http://t.co/rdLBDZvp}

Second Christmas - While most people who celebrate Christmas do so on the Eve (24th) or the Day (25th), the Pennsylvania Dutch reserve the day after (26th), not for returning gifts, but parties, egg dying (what most people do at Easter), and Belsnickling (going around with Belsnickel to deliver treats). Some traditions actually use this day to pull pranks on each other (like April Fools Day). Sounds like a great idea to me!

However you and your family are celebrating this season, I hope you have the merriest of time and make the most of your own traditions. (And be good, or Belsnickel will be in your window.)

BTW...I’d love to hear about your traditions in the comments.

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