“Christmas in Pennsylvania”: An Exhibition at Glencairn Museum

Glencairn Museum News | Number 12, 2016

 

Feather trees were often enclosed with a miniature cast iron fence to imitate the fencing around Victorian houses. The round bases resembled the wooden buckets used in Germany to hold live evergreen trees.

 

Christmas in Pennsylvania features vintage objects and images from the National Christmas Center and Museum (Lancaster County) and the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University (Berks County). “I’m very excited about the material we have on exhibition this year. We’ve developed close working relationships with other institutions with Christmas collections, and they have loaned us some real treasures,” says Ed Gyllenhaal, who curates the Museum’s collection of religious art as well as the Christmas exhibitions assembled each holiday season.

What was Christmas like in the countryside in southeastern Pennsylvania? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, homemade cardboard Christmas ornaments were popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch:

“In the country, where trees may be had for the cutting, a little ingenuity will enable any family to have a beautiful Christmas tree at very little expense. With a few sheets of bright colored paper, some pasteboard, some gay tarletan and a generous supply of popcorn, one may make cornucopias, gold fish, stars and balls, Christmas fairies, and graceful festoons enough to decorate a large tree very handsomely, with an outlay of less than one dollar” (The Bucks County Intelligencer, December 22, 1874).

 

Figure 1: This late 19th-century Christmas ornament depicting the gates of heaven with angels flying above was made in a Pennsylvania Dutch home from cardboard, cotton batting, tinsel, and small chromo-lithographed pictures. The image is also found on tombstones. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.

 

The cardboard used to make homemade tree ornaments was recycled from old boxes, and the shapes were often based on patterns found in women’s periodicals. Small chromolithographed pictures could be purchased or adapted from the colorful trade cards handed out at stores. Sometimes the cardboard was covered with cotton batting, edged with tinsel, and sprinkled with images of angels and stars. The subject matter of these ornaments includes religious images such as the gates of heaven, anchors (a Christian symbol of hope) and crosses, as well as everyday household objects.

 

Figure 2: During the late 19th century, some Pennsylvania Dutch families would create an evergreen bower in their parlor or dining room to display their Christmas ornaments. The bower, which might cover three walls of the room as well as the ceiling, sometimes took the place of a Christmas tree. Ornaments and late 19th-century German Nativity are on loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.

 
 

Figure 3: In Pennsylvania Dutch communities a Christmas gift giver known as Belsnickel made the rounds from farmhouse to farmhouse on Christmas Eve. The name Belsnickel is derived from German and means “St. Nicholas dressed in fur.” This Pennsylvania Dutch “Nicholas” came carrying treats or presents to reward obedient children who could recite a Bible verse or say a prayer. However, Belsnickel was also ready with a rod, switch, or buggy whip to punish any badly behaved children. The Belsnickel dolls pictured here were used by Pennsylvania Dutch families early in the 20th century. On loan from the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University.

 
 

Figure 4: The Belsnickel usually made his rounds alone, carrying a backpack or sack full of nuts and cookies to reward well-behaved children. However, when a group of young people went out “belsnickling” they were generally expecting a handout: “There were numbers of bell-snickles going from house to house in quest of cakes, wine, apples, or whatever else the good housewife might place at their disposal” (The Carlisle Herald, January 2, 1873). Photo courtesy of the Don Yoder Collection, Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University.

 
 

Figure 5: Gladys M. Lutz (1909-2007) has been called “the Grandma Moses of the Lehigh Valley.” Twelve of her acrylic paintings on wood belonging to her series, “An Old Fashioned Pennsylvania German Christmas,” are currently on loan to Glencairn Museum. The traditions she illustrates are drawn from her childhood memories. Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University.

 
 

Figure 6: “The Belsnickel was the Pennsylvania German counterpart of Santa Claus. He was not a kind, fat, jolly Santa Claus. On the contrary, he wore a weird mask, a queer black bearskin cap decorated with porcupine quills and small bells . . . He threw good things on the floor for the children to pick up. If a child had been naughty, he would give him a sharp switch of the whip before he was allowed to pick up anything” (quote by Gladys M. Lutz, artist). On loan from the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University.

 
 

Figure 7: “Before the introduction of the Christmas tree here in Pennsylvania, the Christmas gift bringer was the Christ Kindel or Christ Child. He deposited his gifts in different containers. Children set their hats or caps along the wall. They set straw bread baskets or plates on tables or on the floor“ (quote by Gladys M. Lutz, artist). On loan from the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University.

 
 

Figure 8: “The housewife placed food such as cookies, sausages, etc. into a basket out of reach of animals outdoors hoping that the Christmas Dew would be deposited on it. On Christmas Day, the family ate the food, hoping to remain healthy throughout the year” (quote by Gladys M. Lutz, artist). On loan from the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University.

 
 

Figure 9: “[Christmas] was observed by attending Christmas services—listening to the high German sermons, having the churches decorated, and singing high German Advent and Christmas hymns” (quote by Gladys M. Lutz, artist). On loan from the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University.

 

And what was Christmas like in the city of Philadelphia? The first live Santa Claus at a store is believed to have appeared in Philadelphia in 1841:

“Criscingle, or Santa Claus. Much as our young readers have heard and imagined of this worthy character as the bountiful patron of good children on Christmas Eve, they probably never expected to behold the real personage in the very act of descending a chimney, as our friend Parkinson [a confectioner and restauranteur] has shown him over his well thronged shop door in Chestnut street. He was decidedly the attraction yesterday and last evening, and monopolized more than his share of the attention of the young folks, which is usually bestowed with undivided admiration on the bon bons in the windows” (The Philadelphia North American, December 25, 1841). 

For many families, a trip to downtown Philadelphia on the trolley or train marked the beginning of the Christmas season. Market Street was home to the “Big Six” department stores: John Wanamaker, Gimbel Brothers, Strawbridge & Clothier’s, Lit Brothers, Snellenburg’s, and Frank & Seder. Each store tried to outdo the others with elaborate window and in-store decorations, Christmas concerts featuring audience caroling, toylands for the children, and even the opportunity to visit with Santa himself.

 

Figure 10: John Wanamaker published the first department store Christmas giveaway booklet in Philadelphia in 1879. Santa Claus is depicted on the cover in a green suit, going down the chimney. This eighteen-page booklet, which includes only two pages of advertising, features Christmas poems, stories, engravings and cartoons. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.

 
 

Figure 11: Wanamaker’s Christmas giveaway booklet for 1909 shows Santa arriving in a Herring-Curtiss Flying Machine, which was on display inside the store the previous summer. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.

 
 

Figure 12: Stetson Hats were manufactured in Philadelphia from 1865 until 1971. Miniature hat boxes with miniature Stetson hats like this one were a popular Christmas gift; inside was a gift certificate that could be exchanged for a full-sized hat, fitted and trimmed. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.

 
 

Figure 13: Molded glass Christmas tree ornaments were invented in 1870 in the small German town of Lauscha, when a glassblower blew a bubble of glass into a pinecone-shaped cookie mold. Lauschan families produced Christmas ornaments as a cottage industry in home workshops; men did the glassblowing, women did the silvering, and children helped with the decorating. In 1880 F.W. Woolworth placed an order for these ornaments from an importing firm in Philadelphia. Sales were so strong over the next few years that in 1890 Woolworth traveled to Lauscha personally and placed an order for more than 200,000 ornaments. Ornaments on loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.

 
 

Figure 14: “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a popular Christmas carol, was written in 1868 at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. Lewis H. Redner composed the music, and the Reverend Phillips Brooks wrote the words. Material on loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.

 
 

Figure 15: Candy, cake and ice cream have been a favorite part of Christmas celebrations in Philadelphia since early in the 19th century. Some of the largest sugar refineries in the world were located in the city, and a number of candy manufacturers made Philadelphia their home, such as Whitman’s, H.O. Wilbur & Sons (Wilbur Buds), and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. Special products, such as Tastykake’s De Luxe Fruit Cake, were made especially for the Christmas season. Objects on loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.

 
 

Figure 16: Christmas villages beneath the tree were popular throughout the 20th century. In 1947 Bachman Bros. in Philadelphia began manufacturing Plasticville, USA, a line of injection-molded plastic buildings and accessories for toy trains and Christmas villages. Many Americans saw plastic as a symbol of post-World War Two progress. Plasticville, with its child-friendly, glueless, snap-together construction, quickly became the most popular brand of train buildings. Plasticville city on loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.

 
 

Figure 17: The 1950s Plasticville city beneath Glencairn’s tree this year, featuring Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, is on loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum in Lancaster, PA.

 

Glencairn Museum wishes to thank Patrick Donmoyer of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University, and Jim Morrison of the National Christmas Center and Museum in Lancaster, PA, for their generous loan of objects for the Christmas in Pennsylvania exhibition. Christmas in Pennsylvania, World Nativities, and the Christmas in the Castle tour run through January 8, 2017.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.