Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Memories of the Belsnickel

Of all of the merry Pennsylvania Christmas traditions, the Belsnickel is an oddity.  Literally “Nicholas in furs,” the character was an ill-tempered man who roamed the countryside, dressed in old clothes and furs, and terrorized the children in all houses he came across.  His personality and habits varied from region to region and, in some parts of Pennsylvania, he was many people at once as groups of Belsnickels would “trick or treat” amongst their neighbors, begging for some of the Christmas cookies baked in massive batches and playing tricks if not satisfied.

A few first-person accounts of Belsnickeling survive, mostly published as nostalgia pieces in newspapers or other publications in the early 20th century.  One, in particular, is by Matthias Mengel, age 65 in 1895, and was first published on December 15, 1951, in “The Pennsylvania Dutchman,” Lancaster, PA.

“Particularly vivid in my memory is a Christmas eve when I was one of three or four lads who started out to act the “Belsnickel.”  Well, each of us boys carried a switch in his hand.  We dressed in the clothing we could find at home, tied handkerchiefs over our faces and filled our pockets with chestnuts and hickorynuts.  We went to the house of a neighbor where there were children, and expected to have some fun by frightening the children by our singular appearance, throwing the nuts on the floor, and belsing the children if they should pick up any of the nuts.  We tinkled our bells, entered the house and began jumping about and throwing nuts, when the head of the family, who was an old Amish, said very sternly, ‘I don’t believe in such foolishness, clear out!’ and we cleared.  You see that was an English and Amish neighborhood.  The English did not observe the German customs of Christmas and the Amish were a very plain people like the Quakers and had not festive occasions as had the Germans or other denominations in other sections of Berks, where Christmas especially was a season of feasting, merriment and general rejoicing.  We knew nothing of Santa Claus, rosy and plump, with twinkling eyes and furry dress making his aerial visitations in a sleigh drawn by reindeers at dead of night and silently, excepting the tinkling of his bells, which children are never awake at that time, for he comes only when they are asleep.”
Another account comes from pages 126-7 of volume one of The Passing Scene, a collection of books first published in 1982 that chronicle the history of Berks County.  “The Rev. Jacob Fry, D.D., a former pastor of Reading’s Trinity Lutheran Church, observed in an interview conducted some 70 years ago that when he was a boy living in the village of Trappe (Montgomery County) a Belsnickel, outfitted in ragamuffin clothes and an unpleasant mask, made his rounds on Christmas, tossing nuts and sweets within the reach of assembled youngsters.

“When the children attempted to gather them up, he’d rap their knuckles and “other parts” with a switch.  This character, common to many sections of Berks prior to 1900, was regarded with mixed emotions by the young folk—for obvious reasons.  Older kids, wise to the situation, took the whole routine good-naturedly,” the pastor continued.

photo courtesy of appalachianhistory.net
Belsnickeling traveled around the mid-atlantic region of the United States, with versions of the Belsnickel turning up in Baltimore, MD, and as far away as Indiana, where it seemed to morph into trick or treating in reverse.  According to the December 11, 1909 edition of the Jasper Weekly Courier, as quoted by Ruth Reichman in the Indiana German Heritage Society Newsletter, “Saturday night was ‘Belschnickle’ night and was observed by a large number of Jasper youngsters, who with their masks and odd makeups furnished amusement for those at home who did not venture out.  This is an ancient custom of the ‘old country’ but is still observed annually by the little folks in Jasper, who have great fun on this occasion.  Jasper is probably one of a very few places in which this custom is still observed.”

This early precursor to the custom of trick or treating is recorded by Hon. A. G. Seyfert in the December 25, 1932 edition of the Lancaster Sunday News, in his article, “A Rural Christmas Many Years Ago.”
“Belsnickel is the Pennsylvania German for Kris Kringle, or Santa Claus.  I do not know if he still exists as a character feature of Christmas time, as he did when I was a lad, or not.  Two or three young chaps dressed in the most disreputable garments, with their faces blacked, a big stick in their handle, and with pockets full of nuts and candy, would roam from house to house on Christmas eve.
“They were the terror of the children and the dogs, and their mischievous fun-making was not a welcome Christmas eve entertainment in many house-holds.  Their unannounced calls were made in a rude manner many times, and the irate housewife would brush them out with a broom.  This was great fun for the ‘Belsnickel,’ and he usually thought it a joke, unless hit hard enough to make a mark by which he was identified as one of the mischief-makers.”
Neither Henry Landis (father or son) left a written record of Christmas traditions in their household, which is a shame, but it does give Landis Valley the leeway to represent the Belsnickel in a more general way that gives our visitors a good idea of the Belsnickel custom.

Your family can meet the Belsnickel at our Country Christmas Village, to be held on Saturdays, December 1 & 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays, December 2 & 9, from noon to 4 p.m.  He has a mean word for everyone and scares villagers with his switch, but his cold heart melts for children and he has candy especially for them.  The tavern-keepers buy him off with cookies, which they also share with visitors, along with hot cocoa.

The Belsnickel also makes an appearance at our “Days of the Belsnickel” lunch and dinner tours.  Back by popular demand, these tours give you the chance to tour the decorated village, learn about the Pennsylvania German Christmas customs from costumed guides, shop for unique Christmas gifts at our Weathervane Museum Store, and have a turkey dinner with all the trimmings in our historic 1856 Landis Valley House Hotel.

Wednesday, December 5
5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Cost for event: $36.50 per person (inclusive).
Saturday, December 8
11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Cost for event: $32.50 per person (inclusive).

Pre-registration is required. To make a reservation for individuals for either of the two dates of Dec 5th or 8th (lunch program), please contact Jamie at 581-0590 or c-jschurin@pa.gov, Tuesday – Friday.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Restoration VS Conservation

Finally, the banjo is back!

My banjo, my circa-1796 violin, and a western-themed painting stored in my house were the last items that were conserved with insurance money from a 1993 fire that damaged my family home. Set by an arsonist, the fire started outside the library, burned the back of the clapboard building and spread up the second floor to the attic. It caused an estimated $80,000 to $100,000 worth of damage.

Thankfully, the firefighters who rescued the house were very sensitive to the history of the structure, keeping damage to a minimum and carrying artifacts stored in the upstairs rooms out before they could burn as well. Repairs to the house were extensive and ongoing until 2001, when it was re-opened to the public. Some of the smoke damage can be seen upstairs today (right).

The objects’ return raises another question, though. The building was restored and the objects were conserved. What is the difference?

“Conservation focuses on stabilizing and preserving historic artifacts,” says curator Jennifer Royer. “Conservators take preventative measures to inhibit ongoing or future deterioration. They use methods and materials that do not adversely affect the original materials.”

The banjo before conservation.  Notice that strings are broken
and the bridge is missing.

My banjo’s finish remained intact, though a few of the strings and the bridge needed to be replaced, the tears in the skin head part needed to be mended, and corrosion needed to be removed. What makes this conservation versus restoration is that these changes can be undone or re-done, if the need arises. The changes bring the piece, with all of the customizations it’s undergone over the years, back to a better condition that makes it exhibit-able—though not necessarily play-able. Because the bridge sits on skin that has been repaired and not replaced, when the banjo is in storage, the bridge will rest on its side, relieving the pressure on the torn skin and the pegs that the strings are attached to. When it is exhibited, it will look like it did on the last day I set it down--scuff marks and all.

The banjo after its conservation.
Notice the bridge resting on its side to relieve tension
and pressure on the strings and the skin.
 Restoration, though, is another story.

“Restoration focuses on returning an object to its original state,” says Royer. “Restorers are not concerned with changes that have occurred over the years.”

For example, Rick’s Restorations, a family-owned shop featured on the television show, “American Restoration,” will take a bicycle and sand-blast all of the old paint and finish off of it, bang any dents out, re-spoke it, and then paint it to look like new. The owner can then ride the bicycle around town and not worry about destroying it.

This is the type of thing that my house needed. Obviously, the building could not withstand the effects of weather and time without being restored, so it had to be done. New lathes, plaster, siding, wallpaper and paint will ensure that the building will be around for a long time to come.

The conserved circa-1796 violin

To those who know the house inside and out, it’s not like the fire never happened. Some good did come of it, though, as it allowed the museum to conserve valuable artifacts that might otherwise have had to wait for funds and/or opportunity to come along. My museum is in good hands and I’m just glad that my banjo is safe at home at last.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Institute Through the Years

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey, Media Assistant at Landis Valley.

Henry K. and George D. Landis, the founders of what is today Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, wanted to preserve the Pennsylvania German way of life that was disappearing before their eyes. 56 years ago, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission took their idea of preservation to a whole new level when it began the Institute of Pennsylvania German Life, a program of classes that pass down the skills utilized centuries ago.

Theorem Painting

“The late 50’s into the 60’s saw a change in the PHMC towards real professionalism,” says Dr. Irwin Richman, Landis Valley’s resident historian and former head of the Institute Program (’64-’68). “They wanted to try new things and this was something that had never been done before in Pennsylvania.”

The four-day program, modeled after programs at the New York Historical Association at Cooperstown and at Colonial Williamsburg, was originally set up as a series of lectures on various topics pertaining to Pennsylvania history, with a few hands-on courses peppered in. There were three to five courses of morning and afternoon seminars, some attended by whole families, with the day broken up by three meals. After dinner, participants could enjoy special programs in the Yellow Barn, such as concerts of 18th and 19th century music and early American plays, including Royall Tyler’s “The Contrast,” considered the first American comedy.

“One class that was really neat was one on the history of baseball,” says Richman. “At the end of the class, they all got together and played a 19th century baseball game. My son took it and had a blast.”

“There were some wonderful seminars,” remembers Lee Winborne, an Institute participant for over fifty years. “They would be like condensed college courses.” She points out that men were interested in the seminars, while women, like her, enjoyed the hands-on classes.

The octogenarian, whose home is in Virginia, but hails from Devon, PA, was raised in a family with a long interest in hand crafts. “My father made his own shoes during the Depression and he would make our Christmas presents. I was taught to do things with my hands,” she says.

Winborne’s involvement with Institute began with the Tinsmithing class taught by Phil Kelly, a renowned tinsmith who taught at Institute for twenty years. She brought her skills home to her son, Terry, who has gone on to become an accomplished tinsmith in his own right. Today, mother and son occasionally travel to craft shows close to home, plying their trade as long as it is remains a fun hobby.

“My husband, who was a doctor, always said, ‘Get a hobby, because some day you’ll retire and you’ll need something to do,” says Winborne, who has used her skills, just as her father did, to make valuable Christmas presents for her family. Grand-daughter and fellow Institute participant Emma Kibler remembers dolls “Dottie” and “Ruthie” that were especially well-loved.

Over the years, society has changed, and so has Institute. Since the 1980’s, the focus of coursework has transferred to programs that featured even more hands-on crafts, many of them unusual. Winborne remembers a stone carving class and this year’s Domestic Medicine instructor Nancy Webster, another tinsmithing alumnus, remembers taking a rifle-making course where participants brought home their own carved stock, which could be fitted with a barrel and lock. Other remarkable courses include crafting a still, building a hit-and-miss or a sterling engine, working with draft horses, and sewing an 18th century doll (right).

Long-time Institute Participant Peggy Gelnett (left)
and her Domestic Medicine on the Farm
instructor, Nancy Webster
Another change noticed through the life of Summer Institute is the rise in popularity of short and “ala carte” courses. “There used to be one workshop for all four days and now you can choose one, two, or three day courses,” says Richman, who has taught at Institute on and off since 1963, when he began working for the PHMC. He also points to the rising popularity of the children’s camp, which allows Institute participants and their children to play separately at the museum and enjoy breakfast and lunch together. Some of the children grow up to become students themselves. Institute has become a family affair for Winborne’s family, with children and grandchildren participating together.

Beth Leensvaart and her colonial toy creation.

Seminars are gaining a stronger foothold in the Institute program again, as they’ve been enhanced by becoming field trips to locations all around Lancaster County, including historic Schaefferstown, Millbach, and towns along the Susquehanna River. The program has expanded to Berks County as well, with tours to the Tulpehocken and Oley Valley regions.

Institute has changed along with the caprices of the people who participate in it. One thing remains the same: the program has catered to those with an insatiable curiosity and a desire to learn timeless skills to take home and share with friends and family

The Landis Brothers would be proud.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Manna From Heaven Slathered in Hot Bacon Dressing

“Everybody calls it Polk salad. Polk salad. Used to know a girl that lived down there and she’d go out in the evenings and pick a mess of it.” – Poke Salad Annie by Tony Joe White

One of spring’s most under-appreciated plants grows on virtually every unadulterated lawn around Landis Valley: the humble dandelion. For those of us that yearn for a good spring vegetable that doesn’t come from thousands of miles away, or from a hothouse or a pickle jar, dandelions are a godsend. Manna from heaven slathered in hot bacon dressing.

Or cream dressing. Either way, dandelions, along with very young poke shoots, were the spring tonic we eagerly awaited back in my day. Pennsylvania German tradition states that they should be eaten on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter, also known as Green Thursday) to ensure good health. Dandelions provided fiber, vitamins and trace minerals that our bodies craved after a long, lean winter so I suppose the tradition had a basis in fact. Early settlers brought them from Europe, knowing that they do very well with little to no attention from the gardener.

They were a short lived pleasure, as they are best before the flowers come out. After that, they’re too bitter and your salad would have to be more dressing than greens. That’s alright, though, as by that time spinach and early lettuce leaves would be just about ready to pluck and toss into a salad. Some say that these later dressing-encased dandelion salads are better, as bacon dressing makes just about everything great. Polly, one of our Heirloom Seed Program volunteers, used to enjoy the dressing-slathered salad on top of potatoes, like gravy, and make a meal out of it.

Dandelion’s usefulness doesn’t stop there. Once the flowers come, they, too, can be plucked and either chucked at your brother if your parents aren’t looking or, more importantly, they can be used to make dandelion wine.
Dandelion wine begins with fully unfurled, morning-picked flowers doused in boiling water and left to set for a day or two. Flower petals with as few greens attached as possible are best for this purpose, as the green parts are very bitter.

After that, sugar, lemon and yeast are added. The mixture is left to set for days as the yeast work their magic on the sugar and then settle to the bottom. If the sediment becomes thick, it could be siphoned out, but it isn’t necessary. About a year later, the drink is ready to enjoy.

And enjoy it we did. It surprises me to this day that dandelion wine is not more popular, as it was made extensively by the Pennsylvania German families that settled here in Southeastern. The best brews taste like a good sherry and are a golden amber color. My museum has a recipe for this and Dandelion Greens with Hot Bacon Dressing in the Landis Valley Cookbook, if you would like to try making it sometime. The book is available at the Weathervane Museum Store or on Amazon.com.

Photo by Craig Benner
 You can also learn more about dandelions from Mike McGrath, host of the WHYY radio show, “You Bet Your Garden” at the 25th Annual Herb and Garden Faire, this May 11 and 12 (Mother’s Day weekend) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mike will be hosting 2 one-hour question and answer sessions starting at noon and 2 p.m. on Saturday. After that, he will be signing books.