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Oh! Christmas Tree (Belsnickel, Putz, and Moravian Star)

By Rebecca Price Janney, Dec 14 2017 04:14PM

As you know, I’m an aficionado of all things Easton, Pennsylvania, the backdrop for my novels, Easton at the Forks and Easton in the Valley. I would very much like to boast, along with many others in the past, that America’s first Christmas tree appeared in Easton. However, this can’t be proven decisively. Germans made up the majority of Easton’s earliest settlers, and they brought their Christmas traditions with them, so this could be the case. Whether the first tree appeared in Easton, Bethlehem, or Lancaster, I’m pleased to know Easton stood in the ranks of the first place in America to have a Christmas tree.

I recently learned those Christmas trees were actually hung upside down, suspended from ceilings! Many of the ornaments were edible, so keeping the tree off the floor meant less interference from critters.

Pennsylvania Germans are known for other holiday traditions, including Belsnickel, Moravian Stars, and Putzes. Let’s start with Putzes.

Most people talk about “Nativity Scenes” or “Creches,” but the Germans referred to the recreated setting of Jesus’ birth as a “Putz,” from the German word “putzen,”— “to decorate.” As for Belsnickel, he’s the early German equivalent of Santa Claus, but not exactly a right jolly old elf. This fellow plays tricks on people and carries a whip and isn’t afraid to use it against bad boys and girls. Leaving coal in their stockings is surely tame by comparison. This may be why in my family, we preferred St. Nick! (Actually, I never knew about Belsnickel until I had grown up. No wonder!)

Next to the Putz and tree, my favorite Pennsylvania German tradition is the Moravian Star, which is an elegant reminder to me of the Star of Bethlehem (not Pennsylvania, Bethlehem of Judea). This early 1800’s decoration was first created at a Moravian Boys’ school in Niesky, Germany for a math class. Originally red and white to represent Christ’s blood and purity, Moravian Stars became a symbol of Advent in shades of white, with 26 points. I love seeing them suspended from porches and atop trees throughout the Christmas season.

What Christmas traditions do you observe according to your family’s cultural background?

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