Christmas Traditions of the Shenandoah Valley Dutch

The “holding of the day” by the people known as the Valley Dutch was based on several variables: the era, their socio-economic background and their religious affiliation.

In the eighteenth century, Christmas day was a meager celebration in comparison to today. There was no Christmas tree; no exchanging of Christmas gifts; and no singing of Christmas carols, as the majority of these hymns were unknown to the Valley Dutch. What did make Christmas day special was fresh meat for the dinner table. Right before Christmas is when the butchering was done. The weather was cold and there was less chance of the meat spoiling. If the family was a member of the Lutheran or Reformed church, the children could expect a visit from the Belsnickle. The Belsnickle was not Santa Claus! He was ugly and he frightened the children. The Belsnickle traveled from house to house brandishing his switches in the air. He would use these switches to whip naughty children. To good children the Belsnickle would hand out cakes or candies. It was the custom for the Belsnickle to receive a treat at each house. This was usually in the form of a libation. Needless to say, as the Belsnickle proceeded on this visits, he became more and more oblivious to his behavior and the severity of his whippings. One informant told me this story: her great-aunt was three years old the Christmas the Belsnickle came to visit. She was so terrified of the ugly figure that she ran and hid under a bed. The Belsnickle followed, reached under the bed and pulled her out. Her mouth was drawn to one side in terror, a condition that remained permanent. The Custom of the Christmas visit from the Belsnickle slowly faded into the past.

The end of the seventeen hundreds found many religious leaders concerned with the increasing popularity of the “Manger Cult.” Wooden cradles with figures of baby Jesus were being placed in Christian churches where they would be rocked and tenderly sung to. The ministers feared this was dangerously close to the worshiping of idols.

By the mid-nineteenth century the Germanic people had for the most part been absorbed into the Anglo community, adopting their architecture, language and customs. Christmas day was spent feasting, drinking, playing and exchanging gifts. The Dunker minister Daniel Miller preached his 1844 Christmas sermon on the practice of gift-giving: “If presents are made on this day with an eye to the gift of God’s love, they will be accepted in his eye, but if given to comply with custom or fashion they have no meaning.” The Second Christmas (the day after Christmas) was reserved for more secular activities such as visiting. The first Christmas tree in the Shenandoah Valley was erected in 1855. Frank Prufer, a recent immigrant from Germany, caused quite a sensation in Staunton with his decorated tree. With the demise of the Belsnickle, a new custom emerged that lasted well into the twentieth century, Kris Kringling, or Belsnickling. On Christmas night groups of people either walking, riding in sleighs or on horseback, would visit the homes in the neighborhood. They all wore costumes and their faces were concealed. Bells ringing and horns blowing would announce their arrival to each household. “Open your door and welcome the Belsnicklers.” The Belsnicklers would be invited into the house where they would play pranks, dance around, joke and carry on until they were offered some refreshments. Before leaving, the Belsnicklers would give the children of the house small treats such as sticks of candy and oranges. If the members of the family had been unable to identify all the Belsnicklers, the unknown ones would remove their masks before they left. Belsnickling was done just for the sheer fun of it. One of my informant’s grandmothers made costumes for Belsnickling for fifty cents. These costumes were known as “Santy-suits” and she described them as being clown-like; purchased or home-make. Sometimes a flour or paper sack was used for a mask.

During the early part of the twentieth century, Christmas trees were cut down and erected in almost every house. Ornaments were “store-bought” or homemade (stars and dolls cut out of paper, bells made from tissue paper, and swags made of twisted red and green crepe paper.) Christmas presents for the most part were meager. All the families had country ham for dinner and several different types of pies. In the more affluent homes, fruitcake and eggnog was served. Some of the special things associated only with Christmas were: oranges, raisins on a bunch, candy (peanut brittle, a hard mixture and chocolate drops), roasted peanuts and chestnuts, black walnuts, the visit of the Belsnicklers and the setting off of firecrackers.

Researched by: Gae G. Ward