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A Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas

By Michele Johnson

Father Belsnickle
Father Belsnickle

The Pennsylvania Dutch, who were German, are credited with bringing many of their country’s Christmas customs to America. This helped shape the New World Christmas traditions as we know them today.


As early as the 1820’s Father Christmas showed up in Pennsylvania as Belsnickle, which means “Nicholas in Furs.” Belsnickle would travel the Pennsylvania countryside looking for the children who would receive his small gifts of cakes, nuts, and handmade toys. Father Belsnickkle carries a carved staff, a traditional craft of the German Pennsylvanians. He is accompanied by a little kitty who will be tucked into a lucky child’s Christmas stocking.


When German immigrants first arrived in Pennsylvania, they were taken aback by their English neighbors’ lack of Christmas spirit! In Germany, they had been used to a Christmas filled with joy and mirth, where friends and family gathered to sing, eat, and exchange gifts.


The Pennsylvania Dutch celebrated Christmas with many traditions. At the center of a home’s Christmas celebration is the tree, a fir cut from Pennsylvania’s abundant woods and brought inside a few days before Christmas. Children kept busy stringing popped corn and cranberries to hang on the tree for decoration and making ornaments out of blown eggshells. and bits of colored paper to adorn the tree’s branches. Around the base of the tree, a “Putz”(Pennsylvania Dutch version of a nativity scene) would be set up.


Before bedtime, each child would set out a little basket for gifts from their parents and from Christkindl, the Christ Child, who comes on Christmas Eve. They go to bed with sweet Christmas wishes.

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