A traditional Christmas putz on display at the Schewenkfelder Library and Heritage Center in Pennsburg shows an interpretation of life along the Perkiomen Creek.
As children across the country eagerly await a visit from jolly old St. Nicholas this weekend, some of us out here in Pennsylvania Dutch Country may be more wary of Christmastime visitors, lest the Belsnickel decide we were not a good boy or girl this year.
The Belsnickel is a descendent of a German character, originally known as Pelsnickel or “Nicholas in furs.”
“He was sort of a ragged guy wearing the furs from the woods,” according to Candace Perry, curator of collections at the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center.
Perry says the Belsnickel has its roots in pagan traditions from the Old World. “It’s part of this tradition of these gift bringers, or these people from the woods who come out of the woods on the holidays and they would bring something to the children.” However, in comparison to the rotund and cheery Santa Claus, Perry describes the Belsnickel as a “horrible” creature.
In America, the Belsnickel “evolved from this character in furs” to a “more raggedy” type person, Perry said. Belsnickels often wore homemade outfits of old rags or women’s clothing, sometimes with a mask or a dirty face, and carried a switch and a bag of treats. Often, groups of young men would dress as Belsnickels and travel about the community to stir up some Christmas mischief.
“If the kid was bad, of course, they were supposed to get the switch,” according to Perry. “I think he actually did whip people. … He was a very un-PC character, this Belsnickel.”
Good children received treats that were scattered on the floor. Gifts often consisted of nuts and oranges. “An orange in the early 20th century was a very big deal … because they were scarce,” Perry said, adding that gifting oranges remains a lingering tradition in the area.
However, Perry believes the revelry of the Belsnickel largely died out before 1940. Today’s Christmas traditions retain little of the memory of a mischievous man coming from the woods to deliver treats or punishment. “Holidays were not always meant to be happy and Disney. Things are watered down now, less scary,” Perry said, noting that Christmas ghost storytelling also has fallen by the wayside.
Other Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas traditions have remained to varying extents. For example, cookie baking – a time honored holiday tradition – was “very important” in creating a festive atmosphere, Perry said.
“You didn’t really make them to eat so much as they were decorations. That’s why they had all those wonderful assorted cookie cutters,” she said.
According to Perry, cookies of all shapes would be decorated and displayed on windowsills as part of a household’s Christmas ornamentation.
Another Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas tradition was the putz (pronounced puts) – a miniature Christmas village set up beneath a tree. The putz – derived from the German putzen, meaning “to clean” or “to decorate” – sometimes depicts the nativity scene, but often was more secular, depicting farm or town life.
“There’s not a lot known about these things,” Perry said. “They seem to appear more early in the 20th century but the nativity scenes may go back later.”
The Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center is displaying a traditional Christmas putz until February. The scene, created from items donated to the heritage center by Ron Treichler and originally collected by former Muhlenberg College professor Robert Schaeffer, is meant to be an interpretation of the Perkiomen Valley.
The display features a church, houses, barns, different types of animals and people, fields, hills, and bottle brush and loofah trees. Perry said the display represents only a small portion of Schaeffer’s putz collection, but different items are used every year.
“There has to be a lot going on,” she said of creating the putz. “The point is that you can’t have a lot of negative space. The proportions aren’t always right, but that’s part of the fun of it.”
By the 1940s, the putz evolved to include train layouts. “By that time, when model trains became so popular, then putz and the trains sort of got melted together. … And that’s what a lot of people see when they see the putz.”
Next year, the heritage center plans to display a more modern putz that includes paper houses manufactured in Japan after World War II.
Perry said it is difficult to know the history of such Christmas traditions because people did not keep detailed records about how or why they decorated. However, the vestiges that remain remind us of our rich cultural heritage that has contributed to new traditions.