Belsnickel is often described as malicious and belligerent. But in this drawing by Ralph D. Dunkelberger (1894-1965), Belsnickel is made to look more like the kind and joyful Santa Clause that we know today. Dunkelberger was a local artist who was born in Reading and went to the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art. Many of his works feature local scenes, people, or cultural figures, including this depiction of Belsnickel that many Pennsylvania German children would have known.
In this Dec. 12, 2014 photo City Councilman Jeff Waltman photographs the city’s official Christmas tree in Reading, Pa. Waltman fought to save the 50-foot Norway spruce that many residents compared to the spindly tree in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and the city is now embracing the “Peanuts” theme. (AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam)
Some of you may recall the “Charlie Brown” Christmas Tree that graced Reading’s streets two years ago. It was so named because the tree was so dilapidated and depressing that it reminded many residents of the fictional character’s tree. News of Reading’s sad tree reached national news outlets and became a local celebrity.
After the holidays wood from the tree was turned into several items, including these ornaments made by Steve Weber, a carpentry instructor at the Reading Muhlenberg Career & Technology Center. This small piece of Berks History is now commemorated in the BHC Museum Collection.
H.R. Keplinger, of Lancaster, is a keen student of symbols and the myths which underlie them. Several years ago he turned his attention to the fasnacht, or fat cake, that makes its appearance annually, on Shrove Tuesday, at the beginning of the Lenten season. Remember the old saying in your home “Der letscht aus em Bett is der Fasnacht heit?” The delicacy and the folklore connected with the day are both distinctly Pennsylvania Dutch. The English serve hot cross buns on Good Friday. The underlying myths giving origin to these customs are very much alike.
“Why is the fasnacht round, with a hole in the center” asks Keplinger. He finds an answer in Smith’s Classical Dictionary. The form of the cake is the ancient symbol of the sun.
“Why is it fried in lard?” From the same source Keplinger shows the boar, or wild pig, was the ancient’s symbol for winter. In mythology Adonis, representing the sun was killed by a boar representing winter. Venus, Adonis’ mate, lamented the loss of her companion until summer once again restored Adonis to life. The end of the winter solstice therefore marked the triumph of the sun over the boar, winter, and the doughnut, the product of the grain fields, was fried in the fat of the boar to seal the triumph.
“Why, at the beginning of the Lenten season?” Kepligner asked himself. Because the sun regains his revivifying power at the “time of the lengthening of the days,” which corresponds to our Lenten season.
We submit Keplinger’s conclusions and deductions for the perusal of our readers. His ideas are at variance with the traditional concepts of the origin of the fasnacht. The name itself implies something else. In English it would be a night of fasting. We will welcome the suggestions of readers.
Archival Notes: While the recipe for making fasnachts is simple, there is great variation in the customs of making fasnachts. Culture and customs are fluid changing with each generation as they add their mark to their traditions, or with their passing their knowledge is lost. While the debates will rage on about the proper preparation and production of fasnachts, as long as they are delicious we can all enjoy them.
Shrieking sirens pierced the calm of night in late October, 1942. Startled birds zoomed skyward, their wings flapping against the limbs of denuded trees as they sought to escape from their forest shelters, frightened by the screaming whistles of the alert signals emanating from the roof of the Rehrersburg fire tower. Ted Apple, lone motorist on Roue 83, doused the lights of his car and mumbled to himself:
“Rotten luck caught in a blackout 20 miles from nowhere.” No use complaining, he mused. He would sit in his car and wait, until the world stirred once more. Things might be worse, much worse!
Clap!Clap! the sound of horse’s hoofs on the black macadam approaching from the direction of Rehrersburg! What Paul Revere was aboard tonight?!
“Whoa! There!” to the horse, and then “Hello, there,” to the parked auto came a voice out of the stygian darkness of Blue Mountain.
“Hello,” responded Ted Apple, welcoming the presence of a fellow mortal.
“Get out of the car and find shelter came a crisp command, I am district warden here. Be quick about it!”
“Walk alongside and I’ll show you to Spook House. It’s an all-night blackout and you will have a roof over your head in case it rains or snows.”
“Spook House,” repeated Ted as he clambered out of the car and trudged along the mountain road with his erstwhile companion. “Doesn’t sound very inviting on a night like this, now does it.”
“Oh, don’t let that bother you. Old Jake Schwalm’s ghost has been flitting about the attic for 20 years and thus far he has never harmed anyone. He’s just struggling to get out of the rope.”
“Out of the rope?” Ted Apple was puzzled.
“Yep, Old Jake got his head mixed up in an old trunk rope hanging from one of the rafters and after that Jake was hanging there, too. The noises you will hear are Old Jake trying to get loose. Well, stranger, there’s the house, you won’t need a key.” Then with an unpleasant chuckle the modern Paul Revere fired his parting shot “Pleasant dreams, Ichabod- Giddap Bess, I see a lantern burning in Widow Braucher’s cottage.”
Confound the fellow’s impertinence! Wasn’t it bad enough to be shanghaied in a mountain cabin on Halloween without a yokel’s superstition for mental diet while he whiled away the hours? But on second thought and with a shrug of shoulders, he, Ted Apple, a man of the world, a world which apparitions never invaded, would make the best of it and tomorrow at the Lamb’s Club in Baltimore he would regale his friends with a lurid tale of his adventures.
Bare floors, bare rooms, paneless window frames and hingless doors, Ted’s fingers fumbling in the blackness of night discerned. A musty stench, eloquently proclaiming the decay; eerie creaking noises, subtle unintelligible, creepy, uncanny jangled his senses; weird fluttering sounds of loathsome bats swirling about his bared head; the pit-pit-pat of scurrying rats as the scampered hither and yon, playing a game of leaping over his shoe-tips: grimy, filthy and clammy were all the boards he touched and a death like chill coursed along the ganglia of his spine when his numbed fingers touched the latch which opened the staircase door.
“Pull yourself together man,” he told himself. “Ghosts indeed,” he scoffed. In sharp staccato he began to whistle to himself. “What was that?” his tune broke off. A sepulchral echo of his tune seemed to be wafted down the winding staircase. Was it a whine, a groan, a gasp sucking for breath through strangled tubes? Old Jake had hanged himself in that attic.
“Something rolling or scraping the attic floor,” he tried to reason but his senses became taut when the rolling sounds drowned by an unearthly roar, not unlike the rumble of distant thunder. The rolling began again, the scraping was repeated at intervals and the “yeep yeep” of some doleful tune continued to echo his whistled notes. Subconcious reflexes won their mastery, mercifully, as Ted crumbled to the floor in an unconscious stupor.
“Hi there stranger,” shouted the Paul Revere early next morning.
Unsteadily Ted regained his senses.
“Saw your car there on the highway,” explained the warden. “Thought I would check up on you.”
“Thanks,” was all that Ted could muster.
“Don’t bother, I had to come this way anyhow. Got a lot of walnuts drying on the attic here and squirrels play hob with them rolling them across the floor. Guess they are dry enough now to put away. Funny sound those squirrels make when they are rolling nuts, don’t you think so?
Ted did not answer. Instead he walked to the staircase opened it and listened. The scraping, rumbling, thunderlike noises were clearly audible.
“All right, I understand about the squirrels and the nuts, but what is that sounds.”
“Oh! Ha! Ha! Did Old Jake’s ghost get you? That, my city friend is no more than the branches of the Old Walnut tree scraping the roof of this cabin when the wind blows.”
The Lamb’s club of Baltimore never heard the tale that Ted Apple had to tell.
When a man writes his autobiography it deserves to be taken seriously, for it is the literary kin of a death-bed confession; but when the autobiographer is a professional clown such as that delightful rogue, Hugh Lindsay, it is difficult to determine whether he is not plying his old trade and kidding his readers as he did his audiences under the big top. In reproducing the story of Lindsay’s abruptly terminated romance in Hamburg, Berks County, we may be perpetuating a tall story emanating from the vagaries of an egomaniac. But the story is good in its own right, and whether true or otherwise it bears retelling here.
Lindsay’s show was playing in the town of Hamburg. After the show was ended a dance was held in the tavern and as the wee hours of the morning came, young couples began to pair off, homeward bound. Lindsay was standing on the hotel porch “looking for a chance.”
After the crowd thinned out the clown-performer espied two girls standing alone on a side road. Boldly he approached them and in English asked, “May I see you home?”
Demurely one of the maidens replied in German, “Yah, ich denk du kannscht.” Realizing that a party of three was a bit unwieldy, Lindsay asked the second girl whether she would welcome another young man as an escort. To this the girl drawled a giggling, “Yaa.”
Hailing his fellow-actor, Pursel, who responded with alacrity the two couples set out upon a four mile trek through darkness to the fast recesses of the Blue Mountains. When they reached the home of the girls, who were sisters, they found that all of the doors to the house were locked.
“Kummt en anner mohl,” the girls suggested to the young swains. But a four-mile hike after midnight should not go unrewarded with a gate-goodbye reasoned the young men. When the girls left them to try other entrances to the house the Romeos waited patiently for the front door to open for them.
Alas! Time passed and no door was opened. After a while the weary wooers heard someone stirring at a window on the second floor, just above them.
From their lofty position the girls taunted the persistent would-be lovers, challenging them to climb up to the window. Out to the barnyard rushed the hopeful ones and there they found a ladder on one of the hay wagons, probably the side of an old-fashioned Leeder Wagge. They carried this heavy equipment to the house, erected it against the side leading to the room from which the girls had addressed them and then the two of them began to climb toward their romantic objective.
Lindsay climbed up first and reached the top rung of the ladder poked his head into the window from which the girls had called; Pursel was clambering after him when Alas! Alack! The ladder was pulled out from under them. Pursel dropped to the ground and Lindsay was suspended in mid air, holding onto the window ledge until he was forced to let go and drop to earth.
On the ground they lay, helpless while the father and the brothers of the girls rained blows upon them with heavy clubs and horse-whips. While they laid it on the Dutchmen shouted:
Robbers do- tunner wedder, hock druff for doms,” which is Lindsay’s dialect rendition.
Lindsay lost his hat in the scrape and both young Lotharios carried welts on their bodies for some days afterwards. They took their revenge at cursing the “Dumb, Dutchmen.”
Archival Notes: The series of Scholla posts titled LIncy’s Luck are derived from Hugh Lindsay’s autobiography
History of the Life, Travels, and Incidents of Col. Hugh Lindsay The Celebrated Comedian for a Period of 37 years. By Hugh Lindsay. O.P. Knauss, Book & Job Printer. Macungie, PA. 1883.
Hugh Lindsay was one of the most famous showmen in Berks County history. Born in 1804, he spent many years performing as a circus clown and puppeteer throughout eastern Pennsylvania and neighboring states. He also worked as a hotel keep throughout Eastern Pennsylvania in locations such as Reading, Maidencreek, Sinking Spring, Wernersville, and Bethel to name a few. He spent his final years of life living at the base of Cushion Peak near the site of Grand View Sanatorium.
A daughter of a president of the United States and the fourth High Commissioner of the Phillipines were the principal figures in a romance which began and was climaxed in the Windsor Forges home of Miss Blanche Nevin of Churchtown, Lancaster County. Francis B. Sayer, incumbent High Commisioner of the Phillipines is a son of the late Robert H. Sayre of Behtlehem, PA. Miss Jessie Wilson was the daughter of the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.
Miss Blanche Nevin, hostess of Windsor Hall was a talented woman whose artistic attainments command high respect. At the commission of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania she finished the statue of Gen. Peter Muhlenberg, Revolutionary hero, which now graces the capitol in Washington. The interior of her home was decorated with pieces of sculpture of her own molding and there are many persons who will remember the life-size image of a lion which stood guard on the lawn of her home. The lion was said to have been modeled upon the work of the Berks County artist, Ben Austrian, entitled “His Majesty, the King.” The mansion in which she lived was an historic spot. In earlier days the old ironmasters of the Jenkins family resided there. The surrounding area was a veritable fairyland.
The three daughters of President Wilson were friends of Miss Nevin and were her guests on numerous occasions. On the occasion of one of their visits Francis B. Sayre, a nephew of Miss Nevin, was paying a visit to Windsor Hall. There he met the Wilson sisters, Jessie, Margaret, and Eleanor, and a romance born between the young man from Bethlehem and Jessie Wilson of the White House. The announcement of the engagement was made in 1913. It was made from the Nevin home in Churchtown before it was announced by the White House.
Miss Nevin was a poet as well as a sculptress. She penned the wedding song for the bride. It’s title was “Jessie, Come, Come in.”
When Paul McNutt was relieved of his duties as Governor-General of the Philippines in order that he might assume the post of Federal Security Administrator the governor-generals position was not filled. Instead of naming someone to that post Francis G. Sayre, a son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson was assigned to the Philippines as High Commissioner with all executive duties and prerogatives.