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Christmas traditions, superstitions, Belsnickel, stockings, Christmas trees, ornaments, animal lore, death, stealing
A handwritten term paper entitled, "Folk-Lore Concerning Christmas Customs", completed at Franklin and Marshall College by Robert Fehr, dated May 29, 1950. Within, Fehr details the information he gathered from Pennsylvania Dutch residents in Northampton County, including details of "Belsnickel" and superstitions pertaining to the Christmas season.
Folk Lore Concerning Christmas Customs
This will undoubtedly be a very engaging report. As to the overall time element involved it will probably be the fastest on record. Seriously though, I would have liked to have spent much more time in so fascinating a subject. Folk lore is an intriguing subject, and it covers all fields, and that is the reason why there is room for many more interested people.
Concerning this report I re-visited some of the people I had already become acquainted with through my last visits to the Amish country. Also I have recalled facts about Christmas customs, which I was told by many of my Amish friends in Northampton County.
The first person's recollections I will talk about is from miss Katie Clewell of Main Street. Tatamy Pa. Miss Clewell is about fifty-eight years old, and has lived in Tatamy about all her life. For her age, she is marvelous for her clear remembering of facts. She is a good speaker, kind hearted, and a woman who believes the simple things of life are the best. She told me of a list of Christmas customs which she knew. She told me that this following list of things would come true if worked properly. The following practices is what she gave me.
1. If a dog howls the night before Christmas, it will go mad within a year.
2. If on Christmas day you will hang a wash-cloth on a hedge, and then groom a horse with it, the horse will grow fat.
3. If you put a stone on every fruit bearing tree on Christmas Eve, they will bear more fruit.
4. Also pertaining to the above, if you beat the trees on Christmas night they will bear more fruit.
5. Also as often as the cock crows on Christmas Eve, the quarter of corn will be as dear.
6. If you turn the lights out on Christmas Eve, someone in the house will die.
7. If a hoop comes off a cask on Christmas Eve, someone in the house will die that year.
8. If you are born at sermon time on Christmas morning, you can see spirits.
9. If on Christmas Eve you will make a heap of salt on the table, and it melts overnight, you will die the next year, but if in the morning it is still there, you will live.
10. If you burn elder on Christmas Eve, you will have revealed to you witches and sorcerers of that particular community.
11. If you steal hay the night before Christmas, and feed it to the cattle, you will not be caught in any future thefts.
12. If you steal anything at Christmas without being caught, you can steal safely for a year.
13. It is unlucky to take anything out of the house on Christmas morning, until something is brought in.
14. It is unlucky to give a neighbor a live coal to kindle a fire with on Christmas morning.
15. Also if you go out to the barn on Christmas Eve, you will be able to hear the horses talk.
Also miss Clewell remembered something of the story she learned when she was a child about why stockings became associated with Christmas. She said that shoes and stockings were put near the fireplace for practically the same reason that an old boot is used at weddings - to bring good luck and to drive away evil spirits. And one time St. Nick dropped a purse down the chimney which, instead of falling in the fireplace, dropped into a stocking. Thus this custom became popular to all the children, and it has remained so to this day. Also as some added information on my part I can see how Clement Moore and his “Twas the night before Xmas” poem also made Santa Claus and the stocking more popular for Americans.
Next came the facts I received from a Mrs. Cora Sandt of Nazareth, Pa. Mrs. Sandt has long been a friend of my family, and on my many visits to her I gathered my facts about traditional customs, some pertaining to Xmas, as Mrs. Sandt is a story teller from the word go, and she likes to relate some of her experiences. She related the following, which is one version of the story of “Belsnickel”.
She told me that Belsnickel is the Pa. German for Kris Kringle or Santa Claus. She said that two or three boys of the community where she lived, would dress up in the oldest rags they could find on Christmas Eve. They would also blacken their faces, get a big stick or whip, and then with their pockets full of nuts and candy they would roam from house to house in the community on Christmas Eve. They were the terror of all the children and the neighbor dogs and cats, and their trouble making was not always appreciated in all households. Their unannounced calls were made in a rude manner at times, and many a mad housewife would brush them out with a broom or stick at times. This was fun for the boys, unless at times they were hit a little bit too hard with the broom. The houses they did enter they would reach into their pockets for the nuts and candy they had there, and throw some on the floor for the children to reach for. As soon as the children would reach for them the Belsnickel would hit him over the hand with the whip or stick he was carrying. The children would either cry or look annoyed. Then the Belsnickel would laugh, and throw upon the floor twice as many nuts and candy as were already there, and with a last crack of the whip, this time not on the children’s hand, would leave the house to roam on for some more mischief.
I, myself, remember all too well the Belsnickel that came into our house in Tatamy when I was a small child. He had a weird mask on when he got there, and I was really scared. I was just playing with one of my early gotten toys when he got there, and I was speechless. He hit me over the hands once when I went for the candy. And then he handed me a whole handful of candy corn. It was a great experience, and one which I will never forget. The Belsnickel is dying out though in most of our towns and communities, and I doubt whether there are more than several towns here in Pennsylvania that still carry on this most interesting custom.
Mrs. Sandt also told me that before Christmas the chimney was always cleaned so that Santa Claus would not get dirty on the way down. This custom I had never heard before even in my grandmothers house in Tatamy. She had told me also that the night before Xmas, the young people used to come to her house to eat cake, candy, oranges, and drink whatever was on hand, mostly cider.
Also Mrs. Sandt recalled in those days they had a real meaning to the second Christmas. All that this means now to most city people is eating what was left over from Christmas Day. This was not so about fifty years ago. The second Christmas was as religiously kept as the first, and was a part of the holidays as well as New Years.
She recalled playing some games on Xmas which were traditional, but had forgotten the names. She did remember that in some of the games you could kiss your best boy-friend, and even some of the other boys.
I also visited Mr. Stoltzfus in Bird-in-Hand this afternoon, but he is quite an old man, not a good story teller, and gave me very little. He is trying to recall the unusual when the common is just what I want, but you just can’t put that across. He did say that he believed the idea of the Christmas tree came to this country from Martin Luther. He was walking along on Christmas Eve, so the story goes, and was struck by the beauty of the heavens and the stars on this night. When he got home he told his children to go out, and bring a tree into the house and illuminate it with candles, so it would represent the beautiful heavens and stars. He said the gift giving was transferred to Christmas from another day, but he was unable to recall any more upon this aspect. He also told me that he would go out to the barn on Christmas Eve, and there he would be able to hear the cattle talk. He said this was very true. He also related that he does most of his planting by the moon, and that he didn’t recall anything particular in the almanac about Xmas. I don’t know what you’d plant at Xmas time up here anyway.
The next person I visited told me about as much as Mr. Stoltzfus, but I guess you cannot expect too much when you are just beginning in this field. This lady did not want to give me her full name when I made the mistake of telling her this article may go on file for other people to see. She had some sort of fear of her name being used, so the only thing I can use is her name is Mary Grace, and she lives at Pleasant Corners. She is a woman in her forties, and she runs a sort of flower shop. The people of the community come to her for special occasions which they need flowers, because she has some beautiful decorations.
Concerning Christmas the only thing she could tell me was how she often saw Christmas ornaments made at home in her house on Christmas. She said small funnels, painted to look like horns, was very attractive to use. Also tin sealing strips from cans made bright, cork-screw shaped dangling ornaments. Also with a cup of sugar, a third cup of water, and some string, you can create your own sugar-icicles. Also other colorful ornaments can be made from balls, tin foil, beads, spools, and colored jacks.
Some of this material as I said before had been collected by myself quite some time ago, but it was not in the field, and the people are real. Most of them also told me that the old traditions were dying out, and they were sorry to see them go. Christmas which is a Holy Day is now a Holiday. It would be wonderful most of them said if they could again celebrate Xmas as it was about fifty years ago here in America. But in this modern, progressive world we live in today much is lost of the simple and common way of life. It is truly a tragedy.
Folk Lore Concerning Christmas Customs
Folk Lore 12 Term Report
May 29, 1950
Robert J. Fehr
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Fehr, Robert J., "Folklore Term Report: Folk Lore Concerning Christmas Customs, May 29, 1950" (1950). Alfred L. Shoemaker Folk Cultural Documents. 172.
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