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
On December 21, 1917, a Red Cross worker made his way up Penn Street toward the imposing iron gates of the Berks County prison. With him, he carried a service flag and 77 “gifts” to be distributed. Meanwhile, George H. Zellers was delighted serving in an English aviation camp and Sergeant Joseph Eisenbrown sent greetings home from Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia.
The holiday season in Reading and Berks County during the first year of the American involvement in the Great War moved along at a normal pace, despite the additional distractions of war. New recruits were leaving the area for camp on a regular basis, knowing that they would ultimately participate in the war theatre in Europe.
At the bequest of President Wilson, the Red Cross began a national campaign to raise $100 million to support soldiers and civilians affected by the war. The drive ran from December 16th to December 23rd and aimed to enroll 50,000 new memberships. Adult memberships ranged from $1.00 to $100.00 and junior memberships were $0.25 each. The Mansion House at 5th and Penn Streets served as the headquarters for the drive. During that time, Penn Square was decorated with trees for Christmas and a large Santa was placed on the balcony of the Mansion House with a candle. Santa’s goal was to make his way to the other side of the balcony to light 50,000-membership candles by the end of the drive. On the first day of the drive, Reading was digging out of its second biggest snow in 5 days and 2 trainloads of coal were delivered to relieve the city of its coal shortage. The snow-covered streets made delivering the coal to city homes difficult, and in some cases, impossible. Despite these poor conditions, the people of Reading were not deterred from making their way to Penn Street for their Christmas shopping.
The Red Cross campaign was kicked off on Saturday, December 15, 1917, with the Penn Wheelmen providing inspiration. Riding a sleigh with a piano mounted on its deck, the Penn Wheelmen, led by Joseph M. Eshelman, William G. Rees and Paul E. Glase, sang patriotic songs through megaphones with various slogans of the Red Cross shouted between the songs. “We want 50,000 members! Where is your button? Have a heart and a dollar!” and “You will want a Red Cross emblem to shine in your window Christmas Eve,” were among the slogans shouted. The Boy Scouts contributed as well, raising a large Red Cross flag on the rooftop of the Mansion House. The first day of enrollment was quite successful, with 15,000 enrollees registered.
The drive brought interesting stories to the daily newspaper, like William H. Luden enrolling all 26 residents at the Boys Home on Schuylkill Avenue in the Red Cross. The most surprising participation in the drive was at the Berks County Prison in City Park. The prison raised a service flag because all 77 inmates at the prison enrolled in the Red Cross. Memberships were distributed as gifts to the inmates. At the same time, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Warden C. Herbert Schwartz on the charge of selling dope to inmates in July 1917. The Red Cross achieved its goal both locally and nationally. The amount of money raised in such a brief time was a monumental achievement; the $100 million at the time is equivalent to over $1 billion today.
Just before the Red Cross campaign began, Reading learned of its second casualty of the war on December 13, 1917. Martin Diebert, formerly of the 200 block of Front Street, was officially listed as a British casualty. At the time, Reading was beginning to experience lightless nights, an order of the fuel administrator in a effort to conserve the coal supply. By 9 p.m. only street lights were burning. The “Great White Way” of Penn Street was dark, making citizens well aware that the country was at war. Neighborhoods were also dark and an eerie feeling crept over the entire city.
The city experienced other unusual happenings as the citizens prepared for the first wartime Christmas. On December 18, 1917, a parade was held on Penn Street by the Foresters of America for Charles S. Rissmiller of Reading for his gold star. Rissmiller was a member of the Foresters and the first Reading casualty of the Great War. Also, the first coasting (sledding) casualty was reported December 20, 1917. Luther E. Schaeffer of 1223 Mulberry Street died when he and his brother hit a curb while coasting at the Spring Street Subway. Luther was steering when he and his brother wrecked. Luther complained of back pain but the boys walked home after the accident. The next day, after still complaining of pain, Luther’s father took him to the Reading Hospital. There they learned that he sustained an injury to his spine and he died two days later.
While life at home was somewhat unsettling, soldiers stationed at camp or overseas longed to be back home. Many sent letters, which were published in the newspaper as Christmas day approached. From the trenches, H. L. Rourke, 18th Canadian Reserve Battalion, formerly of Reading, wrote of his willingness to give up his Christmas cheer for the trenches abroad. At the time he wrote to George Kemp, asking him to forward his address to his friend Will Keffer, who he didn’t know had died since he joined the 18th.
After he left Camp Hancock, Joseph Eisenbrown rose to the rank of Lieutenant by September 1918. He sent home war relics, which were displayed in G. O. Glase Carpet store on Penn Square. Eisenbrown later attained the rank of Major by 1939 and served in both World Wars. Lieutenant George H. Zellers of Morgantown wasn’t as fortunate. Engaged in a dogfight with German aircraft, Zellers’ plane was riddled with machine gun fire after he flamed two German fighters on July 30, 1918. Zellers managed to fly back to his own lines only to die after landing his damaged plane. In his December 26, 1917 letter, Zellers noted that he was a quick learner. Zellers excelled in training and became a trusted flier for the British as an American officer. Zellers was a 1911 Reading High School graduate and a biology teacher in Hazelton when he enlisted. The same day Zellers’ letter was published, Second Lieutenant Ralph M. Getz of Reading received a unique distinction – he was the first officer or enlisted man in the entire United States Army to be honorably discharged from the Great War.
Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.
Alvah O. Schaeffer, a German musician, loved to play Irish songs for his friend Tommy C. Hannahoe, the”Mayor of Irishtown”. Tommy owned the Stars & Stripes Hotel, a saloon located on 514 S. 11th Street.
Longtime friends despite their cultural differences, Tommy and Alvah agreed that: “If Tommy dies first, Alvah would play music at his grave each St. Patrick’s night. Should Alvah go first, Tommy would keep Alvah’s grave green forever.”
Tommy died first on February 10, 1897 of typhoid pneumonia. Alvah kept his promise to Tommy and played “Lass O’ Galway” and “Nearer My God to Thee” over his friend’s grave that year.
Alvah never forgot his pact with Tommy. Nor did he let a St. Patrick’s Day go by without visiting his grave. Alvah continued this tryst until the day he died on March 10, 1947 at the age of 81. Alvah was buried a week later on St. Patrick’s Day in St. Peter’s Cemetery in East Reading on Nanny Goat Hill.
The tradition continues today with Tommy’s great, great-grandson, Corey Hannahoe. Click here to learn more this local St. Patrick’s tradition.
Reference: Passing Scene Vol. 1, pgs. 169-178
Researched & Written by Volunteer & Historian Corrie Crupi
The Berks History Center recently discovered several invitations from 1787, each requesting that a Miss Esther Keim accompany the sender to dances held at venues in the Reading area. While the identity of the admirer remains a mystery, his affection for Esther is clear. Interestingly, each of the invitations is written on the reverse side of a playing card.
While the recipient may have been Esther Keim Schlegel (1771-1843) of Fleetwood, circumstantial evidence suggests that the recipient was likely Esther de Benneville Keim (1774-1830) of Reading. Unfortunately for her mystery admirer, Esther never married.
The author of these invitations was not the only person who thought highly of Esther Keim. Writing in 1874, her relative Henry May Keim said that “the old people of Reading to this day speak of her many deeds of good will and charity. Her heart and means went for the encouragement of every act”.
Over a hundred years ago, New Years Eve Dinner at the Mansion House included boiled Kennebec salmon and “anchovey” sauce, boiled Jersey capon, assorted relishes, prime rib, roast ham with champagne sauce, wild turkey, venison, and Red Head duck. How will you be ringing in 2017? Do you have any memorable New Years stories?
(From the Henry Janssen Library’s Business and Industry Collection, LC 21)
Though not a traditional Christmas photo, this artifact still boasts a marvelous Christmas story. The man seated is Sylvester Korejwo, a soldier who fought in World War I. Korejwo was injured in November of 1918 and was sent home in the Spring of 1919. As he had missed the previous year’s Christmas, the family decided to keep their Christmas tree up an extra six months – just for Korejwo to see and enjoy upon his return home. He is seen here sitting in his rocking chair at his local Reading home around 1920.
Need a last minute recipe? We found this one for lebkuchen (which is very similar to gingerbread, made with molasses or honey) in the December 1952 edition of “The Pennsylvania Dutchman.” Edna Eby Heller, who supplied the recipe, called them “the Old World Favorite” and also wrote that “you must find the top secret place for storing if you want them to last until Christmas!”
For the Pennsylvania Germans living in Berks County, the Belsnickel was a character who visited homes shortly before Christmas to determine if children had behaved throughout the year. Clad in furs, he would pound on the door or window with a stick before entering a home. While he was intimidating to children – especially because he always seemed to know who had misbehaved – he did distribute treats to the children whom he would visit. This particular rendition of the Belsnickel, located in the collections of the Berks History Center, was drawn by Edward Smith (1897-1981) as an advertisement for Reading Brewery.