German Christmas Traditions Pennsylvania

History of German Christmas Traditions

In the early settlement period (1700-1800) in Pennsylvania, the celebration of German Christmas Traditions is dependent upon your religious affiliation. Historians suggest that Christmas was most likely not celebrated by the  Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and the Congregationalists.

Mostly European immigrants affiliated with the Dutch Reformed, and Lutheran denominations are responsible for the German Christmas traditions celebrated today in our country.

In this story, we are focusing mostly on celebrations and traditions outside of Christmas religious services which are unique to denominations.

America’s First Christmas St. Augustine

The first documented Christmas celebration in early America started in St. Augustine, now Florida in 1565. This community began when Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived in the area tagged as La Florida.  The  Spanish claimed the area to establish a settlement and construct a small fort to keep the French from settling in the area.

Historians found information that suggests Father Lopez de Mendoza Grajales held a Christmas service at the Nombre de Dios Mission.

Christmas in the Virginia Colonies

The first Christmas celebration in the English colonies was in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. Captain John Smith left England with 100 English people to settle in America. Unfortunately, only 40 of the original 100 passengers survived the long sailing trip. Around their settlement, it became difficult to find proper food provisions. Historians say “Although the settlers had little food with which to rejoice, they still observed Christmas with an Anglican worship service.” 

As the settlement grew constant battles with the Powhatan Indians for food and land occurred. A fire in 1698 destroyed the Jamestown political center. A year later the capital of the colony moved to Williamsburg. Today Jamestown Island is a historic site maintained by the National Park Service.

Christmas Traditions Colonial Pennsylvania

My ancestors and many others in their old country brought to America German Christmas traditions-celebrating the holiday with feasting, drinking, dancing,  playing games. and engaging in forms of public revelry.

In the 1700s when my German ancestors and the Swiss settled into the Lebanon valley, an area from Harrisburg east to Reading. They brought their religious customs, Christmas celebrations, and traditions to America.

The Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers, and Amish participated in the Christmas holiday following their religious beliefs. 

On the other hand, the Lutherans, Reformed, and Moravians celebrated the Christmas holiday, attended church services, and participated in folk celebrations.

Christmas Tree Focus of Christmas

The focus of most home celebrations is the Christmas tree, usually a fir tree from the abundant supply nearby. With help from the children, decorations consisted of stringing popped corn and cranberries to place on the tree. Tree ornaments were crafted out of brown decorated eggshells and pieces of colored paper. Additional Christmas tree ornaments include the adding of a pretzel and a pickle. Tradition is that the pickle is placed last and hidden on the tree. The first child on Christmas day that finds the pickle receives an extra gift. If by chance an adult finds the pickle they would be granted good luck for the new year.

European decorated tree
Family Christmas Tree European Handcrafted Ornaments

At the base of the tree, a Putz was set which is the Pennsylvania Dutch version of the nativity. The family crafted the Putz figures and base out of wood or clay. No tree is complete without a little basket for the children’s gifts from the parents, Christkindl, and the Christ Child on Christmas Eve. 

Belsnickel German Tradition

Another German Christmas tradition from historians includes the unannounced visit from the Belsnickel character before Christmas to find “who was naughty and who was nice.” The Belsnickel character is usually portrayed by a grandfather or uncle dressed in furs and masked. They approach the children’s house by tapping on a window with a wooden switch. This action would cause the younger children to run to the parents for protection. After some comfort with Belsnickel, he asks questions usually about the school to determine -naughty or nice behavior. Positive responses receive small treats from the Belsnickel’s bag.  

After a time Santa Claus replaced Belsnickel and the Christkindl traditions.

Amish Giving Back

The largest Lancaster County Christmas giving tradition is from the influence of the Amish community. They practice sharing with their neighbors and their community in small ways and larger ways. When an Amish family has a loss like a barn fire the Amish folks come as a group to replace the barn. 

New Year Traditions

Ringing in the New Year in central Pennsylvania brings items falling from a higher building. In Dillsburg, they drop a replica of a large pickle. Large bologna is dropped in Lebanon Pa. Roses, large scale, are dropped in Lancaster- red and York – white. In Hershey, they raise a large replica of the Hershey Kiss. Harrisburg drops a large strawberry. Note: some of these New Year traditions for 2021-2022 could be modified or canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The traditional German New Years’  day meal is Pork and Sauerkraut which is to bring the participants good luck for the New Year. The German message is to bring good luck and good fortune in the coming year because, as the saying goes,” the pig roots forward while the turkey scratches backward.” 

Mostly the Germans, Dutch Swiss, and English settlers brought Christmas and New Year traditions from their home countries which provided a significant influence on early colonial American Christmas and New Year celebrations. Many of these traditions are in practiced today. 

READ MORE: Christmas in Pennsylvania, by Alfred Shoemaker, Don Yoder. August 11, 2009

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Ronald L. Fake

Pennsylvania native from York County. After graduating from Wrightsville High School enlisted in U.S. Navy. While in the Navy working in the field of Aviation Electronics decided to enroll in college. Selected San Diego State University with a focus on urban geography and environmental studies. After graduation in 1968 worked with county and state governments, and private industry on the environmental impacts of transportation projects. After retirement started my ancestry research and today I am writing that history as a blog at https://ancestryeuropetoamerica.com.