Traditions past and present

by guest blogger Rich Baringer

I always find it interesting to reach into the past to illuminate the present. Rich Baringer, our blogging personal chef, has done just that, sharing how the Pennsylvania Dutch have influenced so many Christmas and year-end traditions.

The first Christmas tree and cookies too

The Pennsylvania Dutch are credited with bringing the Christmas tree to America. The first written mention of this tradition in the United States was in 1821 in Lancaster County. The tabletop trees were often branches or limbs, which were surrounded by or decorated with apples, gilded nuts, candies in colorful wrappers and other food items and ornaments.

Gingerbread House, photo MSClipArt

The first Christmas cookies in the U.S. have been attributed to the Pennsylvania Dutch as well. Some, like the crisp sugar cookies called sand tarts and gingerbread, are still favorites today. Gingerbread people, some as big as a foot high, often decorated the outside of homes instead of being eaten.

Food often takes a starring role in holiday rituals and Pennsylvania Dutch customs were no exception.

Food was often given – and highly prized – as holiday gifts. Traditionally, children would put out a plate or a box that the Christ kindle (the Christ Child) would fill overnight with fresh and dried apples, nuts, oranges, pretzels and cookies.

Probably most cherished by kids were the clear, colored sugar candies known as “clear toys.” Any respectable Dutchie store still carries these treats in all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors.

German Christmas Feast, photo MSClipArt

The Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas feast included much of what they would have enjoyed in Germany: roast goose, sausage, smoked meats and ham, stewed red cabbage, cakes, breads.

Later, the abundant turkey became a staple of their holiday tables. Tradition holds that turkey was eaten at the end of the year because turkeys scratch backward to the past, while pork is eaten on New Year’s Day since pigs dig forward into the future.

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  1. Interesting how much influence the Dutch have on this area. Today I received a pound of homemade sauerkraut from a coworker – apparently a traditional Dutch gift given at this time of the year for good luck.

    Not entirely sure how cabbage is supposed to be lucky, but the sauerkraut is wonderful!

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