Some Old Yule Customs


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.

PA Dutch Nativity
Pennsylvania Dutch interpretation of a Nativity scene (complete with hex signs!) in the December 1952 edition of “The Pennsylvania Dutchman.” BHC Research Library Collection.

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

Mountain Mary: The Medicine Woman of the Oley Valley

mountain mary.jpg
Log channel that carried water into Mountain Mary’s milk house. The outbuildings are part of her hill farm. Photo: BHC Research Library Collection

Nearly 200 years ago, this would have been Mountain Mary’s favorite time of year as she worked around her farm in the Oley Valley. The Oley area reminded her of the Rhine Valley, where she and her family emigrated from. They came here at about the time of the Revolution. Her farm was a hill farm of about 42 acres. Her farm consisted of a log home, an outdoor bake oven, a milk house, a lean-to for her cows, several large meadows and a small cemetery plot where her mother and two sisters were buried. She was very proud of her milk house, which was cooled by a stream of mountain water channeled into the building through hand-hewn logs. The stream began as a spring high on the hill and flowed through the building continuing downstream to irrigate a meadow.

Mountain Mary supported herself by making butter from her cow’s milk and by keeping bees for honey. She would then give the butter and honey to a neighbor, who would take it to market to sell in Philadelphia. She would often send along some food for the poor.

Mary was very religious and would read her German Bible; Piety, faith and charity were central to her life. In addition, Mountain Mary used many of the native herbs and plants which grew on the hillside for healing and poultices. She would collect and dry the herbs over the years. Then she used them to make lotions and salves. Her neighbors came regularly to her cabin for help or medical advice. She often prayed with them and shared her knowledge and teas, etc. She used peppermint and spearmint to make tea. Bergamot would come a little later in the spring. Dandelions even were used to make a spring tonic to pick up spirits. Berries made excellent sauces and juice.

Mountain Mary died on November 16, 1819 at age 73. More than 1,000 people attended her funeral, which was quite an honor. Some people call her Pennsylvania’s first “visiting nurse.” There are a lot of legends about Mountain Mary, including some that developed after her death. The strangest story is that she was engaged to a man named Theodore Benz, who fought and died with George Washington’s army in the Revolution. This has never been proven, but as they say, in every legend is a grain of truth.

Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County. 


Mystery Woman #6 Answer 

Rachel Carson

A Cure for a Cut: PA Dutch Folk Medicine


When we think about Halloween today, witches are one of the iconic figures of the holiday. Part of that image is the boiling cauldron, where the witch makes preparations for her spells and conjures up many of her evil potions. While the image of the witch is often viewed as frightening, real-life folk medicine has a long history in Berks County.

Often called “Pow-Wow,” this practice can resemble our modern conceptions of witchcraft. What if you lived in Berks County or another Pennsylvania Dutch area and you accidentally cut yourself? A document in the Berks History Center collection, and written in Pennsylvania Dutch, offers an answer. It reads:  “press the thumb on the wound and say that I should not die and the wound should not bleed, nor swell, nor fester until the mother of God bears her second son, until all the water flows up the mountain.” With this little “spell,” and a bit of pressure on the wound, the bleeding was supposed to stop. The BHC Library contains other documents on Pennsylvania Dutch folk medicine and folk religion.

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.


The Hexerai Letter: Supernatural or Super Strange?


With Halloween approaching it may be interesting to explore some of the more supernatural beliefs found in Berks County. The manuscript collection at the Berks History Center Research Library holds a remarkable illustrated document from 1816 that fits this theme.

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Written mostly in Pennsylvania German, the letter prophesied that terrible events were about to occur based on the political news of the day. Called the Hexerai letter, its most striking feature is a myriad of hand drawn pictures inside. The author drew in vivid detail blood red moons, arch angels, demons, a mysterious clock, and a rendition of the day of judgment. One picture, in particular, tells the document’s story. The picture shows a devil with the number 666 written under its eyes and the name Jackson emblazoned across its forehead. That devil is General Andrew Jackson, who the author thought would soon bring doom upon the country. Produced during a time exploding with religious revival and emerging political individuality and expression, this document has much to offer researchers of the early nineteenth century.

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.


The Red Church, Red Men, and a Red Demon

The Red Church, Red Men, and a Red Demon

Dipping into the folklore of Schuykill Haven we find several bizarre accounts of the supernatural, one of them involving Old Nick himself. The earliest settler of the town beyond the Blue Mountains was Martin Dreilbelbis who migrated into that wilderness from his Moselem, Berks, home in 1775. But Martin Dreibelbis was not acquainted with his Satanic Majesty. Quite to the contrary, he was a devout man, given to the habit of reading his German bible and Psalter in his blacksmith shop and donating the land for the erection of the first parish school in Schuykill Haven.

West Brunswick Township, pronounced Braun-Schweig by the early settlers, was a part of Berks County in 1775 when the first church was built there, near Pinedale. It was known as the Red Church. The one erected on the land donated by Dreibelbis was known as the White Church. These were the first churches in Berks County North of the Blue Mountains. Red, white and blue!

One day an Indian and a white man entered Martin Dreibelbis’s forge. The red man had a nugget of silver ore which he wanted to have melted. The white metal extracted proved to be of excellent quality. Then the white man pressed the Indian to tell them where he had found the ore. On the Govvelberg (Fork Mountain) the red man indicated but refused to show them the exact spot. To this day the source of that precious ore had not been found. (Remember this is legend.)

In a semi-facetious paper, read before the Historical Society of Schuykill County in 1905. W.H. Newell recounts a fascinating bit of Indian and Stygian legendry about the Red Church and Schuykill Haven. He describes the burning of the Red Church during the Indian raids of 1755 and attributes this evil deed to the devil himself. Here is his explanation:

“The devil had been having a hard time in Europe, finally being driven out by long prayers and short swords of the saints of the church militant. Then he came to New England only to be expelled by the long sermons of the Puritans. He came to New York but was driven out by the hymns of St. Nicholas. So the Devil took refuge on the north side of the Blue Mountains.

When Satan heard of the erection of the Red Church he called a conference of his imps, the redmen, and together they connived to destroy the Red Church. When this was done he felt that his work was finished and went on to Canada to torture Jesuit missionaries.

But the Red Church was rebuilt and Satan returned to brood over his disappointment. His red imps, the Indians had fled and he alone could not shake the strong foundations of the faith of the good people of Schuykill.

Long, long years afterwards a hunter, wandering in the Blue Mountains, saw his Satanic Majesty seated upon a high rock gazing sadly below:

Upon a peak of the Mountain Blue,

The hunter saw him stand,

With a storm coat cast across his


And a grip sack in his hand.

‘Tis said he dropped a silent tear,

And looked on the vale below,

And saw what a might chage had


From the time of long ago.”

Archival Notes: Below are pictures of the existing church (the 4th church built) which is on the site of the original log church completed in 1755, and burned by the Natives in 1756. For more information please consult:

Zion's Red Church
Zion’s Red Church
View of Zion's Red Church from Cemetery.
View of Zion’s Red Church from Cemetery.