There are two Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas customs which, unlike the Christmas tree and Santa Claus, are of ancient, possibly even a pre-Christian origin.
My grandfather Steigerwalt was a farmer in Carbon County. Each Christmas Eve, just before the hour of midnight, he went out to the barn and placed a pile of hay in the open, in the barnyard. There it lay during the course of the night so that the Christmas dew could fall on it.
In the morning my grandfather then fed this hay, heavy with Christmas dew, to his cattle, believing by doing so that his horses and cows would prosper until the next anniversary of our Saviour’s birth.
The folk mind – not knowing the origin of this custom – gave it an interesting significance. It is the “grischtkindel” or Christ Child – not Santa Claus- who brought our Pennsylvania Dutch forebears their presents on Christmas Eve.
The “grischtkindel” had no reindeer – he made his rounds on a lowly ass. And, said the folk, the hay in the barnyard on Christmas night was intended for the Christ Child’s beast of burden.
Another custom, quite like the one we have just discussed, is putting out a loaf of bread on Christmas Eve – either on the windowsill or in the yard. Again it is let lie there through the night.
In the morning, before the family eats its Christmas breakfast, the mother of the household breaks of the bread, wet with the Christmas dew, and gives a piece to each member of the family. It is eaten with the belief that then health and happiness will continue until another Christmas rolls around.
These are customs which were formally generally to the whole of the Pennsylvania Dutch country. Today they are, regrettably, followed in but a few families anymore. The time has come, I think to revive beautiful custom such as these.
Excerpt by A.L.S. Found in the December 1949 issue of the Pennsylvania Dutchman, BHC Research Library collection