Thursday, December 06, 2012

Christmas Traditions Cross the Ocean

My favorite Christmas Tradition

Over the past seven years of this blog, I have researched and shared many Christmas customs of the people who lived in Germany in the 19th century, especially those in the Rhineland. This year I wanted to write about the customs I can identify as German that carried over to my own family's Christmas.  Most of them originated in Catholic Germany, either the Rhineland (Dad), Bavaria (Mom) or the western edge of Bohemia (Mom and Dad).  I'm sure there are other traditions that are equally German and which I know nothing about, but these are the Christmas memories that were dear to us and which became part of our holiday customs, passed down when the ancestors immigrated to Wisconsin.  These German Christmas rituals were still a part of our observances approximately 100 years later.  At that time, when my sister and I were children, or as the Rhineland ancestors would have called us, "little mice", we had no idea that we were participating in preserved German Christmas traditions.
The First Sunday of Advent

The First Sunday of Advent was a very important part of the Christmas celebration in Germany's Catholic and Lutheran Churches in the nineteenth century. The German language word often used to describe Advent is vorfreude, literally "before joy," and that was what I remember about the Advent time when I was a child. The German Advent began on the first of the four Sundays before Christmas. During our childhood, about 100 years after our ancestors' immigration, Advent still maintained its importance. It was a time of anticipation, of getting ready for joy, for a celebration. There were no Christmas buffets, get-togethers, or holiday parties during this time.  Even weddings could not be held without express permission of the bishop of the Catholic diocese.  Nothing should take away the feeling of vorfreude.

The Advent wreath, I have learned, was much more common in the Evangelische (Lutheran) Church and the lighting of one, two, three, and finally the 4th candle was a religious observance for the children and the adults alike. The wreath had a place of honor in the home. That tradition did not follow my ancestors to the new land since they were Catholic but the Advent wreath is still very much a part of the Advent season in German homes. Only in the last several years have many American Catholics adopted the tradition of the wreath in the home; but it was not a part of our childhood Advent customs.

Hard Pfeffernuße also known as peppernuts
Christmas baking was a part of Advent in the 19th century. When it began, there would be much excitement as the aroma of cookies in the oven filled the air. The cookies were known as Plätzchen in Germany; a century later Christmas cookies were still being baked during our Advent time. They were sampled, sometimes more than necessary, but then they were put away in tins until Christmas arrived - just as in the German villages of one hundred years before.  In Germany of old, a large plate of the goodies baked during Advent was placed on a table in the Stube.  It was known as the Bunte Teller, the colorful plate of Christmas treats that was very much a part of Christmas Eve.  In our Christmas in Wisconsin, I don't remember a special plate of cookies near the tree, but the cookies did come out of the tins after Santa Claus had trimmed the Christmas tree.

To me, there is one recipe that the most nostalgic cookie - our mother's, grandmother's and Aunt Lillian's Christmas Pfeffernuße, all of which must have originated from the same recipe. They called these little, very hard cookies peppernuts, but they were not at all like the Pfefferrnuße that I have since purchased in German-based stores like Aldi or World Market.  There is very little history for the origin of either the soft or the hard variety of Pfeffernuße.   A Wikipedia article traces the hard variety to Germany, Denmark, and Holland.  I have also seen a web article that says the hard peppernuts were made by German Mennonites.  Discussing the question with friends, one remembered having the hard variety in the home of a neighbor of Bohemian descent.  Nowhere can I find a clue to the origin of the soft variety, made without nuts or pepper.  Recipes just say they are of German origin (something like saying hush puppies are native to North America). Our Dad especially enjoyed the hard peppernuts, and I've never come across them on anyone else's cookie platter. I had planned to share our mother's recipe but since there is no clue about oven heat, yield of batch, or how much flour to add to make the dough "real stiff," (and I've never tried to make them) you may be better off searching for the recipe, which has many variation.  Search for "Pfeffernusse, hard" on Google or Bing or trying the recipe given in the first comment on this blog post.  That one has measurements!

St. Nicholas Eve always falls during the Advent time and was celebrated in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and in the parts of France that are close to Germany's western border. I've written about the German customs in Nikolausabend/St. Nicholas Eve.  This custom partially remained a part of our family's Christmas tradition a century later. Both my sister and I believed in St. Nicholas when we were little, and were excited as darkness came on December 5.  Our Dad played the part of St. Nicholas. He didn't dress as the Saint and there was no Knecht Ruprecht. All Dad had to do was come to the front door, knock authoritatively, and shake the real sleigh bells that came from an old sleigh. We didn't want to go to the door; we waited until enough time had passed for St. Nicholas to be on his way elsewhere. Then we carefully opened the door and there was a paper bag with candy (chocolate and hard candies) and nuts.  I'm grateful that we were spared the experience of our Aunt Helen, who fainted when St. Nicholas came into the parlor at her grandparent's house.  I imagine St. Nicholas  (a friend of grandpa's) had never expected such a reaction.

Trimming the Christmas tree would never have occurred before December 24 in our ancestors' time - if they had a Christmas tree.  If your ancestors were middle class or royalty in Germany, undoubtedly there would have been a legally acquired Christmas tree waiting to be trimmed on the evening of December 24. However, even experts who have written about Christmas traditions seem unsure about who among the lower classes - farmers, craftsmen, day workers in smaller villages - had a legal Christmas tree. (Some people did cut them illegally in forest lands that were administered by a representative of the Prussian Government in the Rhineland).  One hundred years later, the Christmas tree (legally acquired) was an integral part of our Christmas in Wisconsin, even though our ancestors may not have been able to obtain one. Like its predecessors, it was never decorated until the evening of December 24.  If our ancestors did have a Christmas tree, the children were told it was decorated by the Christkind who may or may not have left gifts, depending on the part of Germany in which they lived.  Our Christmas tree was decorated by Santa Claus, and he left unwrapped Christmas gifts, not having time to do all that wrapping for all the children all over the world.

The Christkind vs. St. Nicholas. The Christkind who brought sweets or gifts, most historians believe, was an attempt by Martin Luther to put more emphasis on the birth of Christ rather than on St. Nicholas.  It was successful in the part of Germany that was Lutheran.  Gradually Catholic parts of Germany also adopted this idea of the Christkind without giving up the idea of St. Nicholas as a gift giver. Catholic Bavaria still uses an angel with golden wings to represent the Christ Child. However, the Rhineland, which I am primarily writing about, has kept the identity of their 19th century Christmas gift-bringer a secret from me. I must settle for a sentence often found in books on Christmas in Germany: "While some parts of Germany kept their belief in the Christkind, others maintained the St. Nicholas tradition until the middle of the 20th century." My sister and I received our Christmas gifts from Santa Claus and knew nothing of the Christkind.  Was this a Germanic tradition combined with an American poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Moore.   Although the Christkind angel did not bring our gifts, we had an angel with golden wings at the very top of our Christmas tree. Today's Germany does have a Weihnachtsman (Christmas man). How the Christkind fits into their Christmas I don't quite understand, and also it is beyond the scope of this post.

Between December 26 and January 6 was the time when the Christmas cookies and candies were eaten. Christmas visits to relative and friends were made, and the Christmas baking was passed around.  About 100 years ago, it was a time when the villagers in German villages, most of whom were related at some level, exercised the Christmas tradition of Christbaumloben (Christmas tree praisewhere people visited each other and complimented the decorated trees.  A shot of Schnapps was served by the owner of the tree.  In our childhood, we joined our parents in admiring the Christmas trees of our relatives and friends.  A mixed or soft drink replaced the Schnapps and later an informal meal of cheese, sausages, breads, pickles and a dessert was served, often the fourth meal of the day.

The celebration of Christmas lasted until The Feast of the Magi, sometimes called Three Kings Day.  The German customs that went with it did not last until our time.  Were they ever practiced in earlier times in the communities and the outlying farms in Wisconsin?  I don't know.  The tradition of marking the door lintels with chalk and blessing the house with holy water was unknown to our family 100 years later.  Our tradition was much simpler.  The youngest child went to the Christmas nativity scene, which was under the tree or on a table, and moved each of the Magi and the one camel to a position right in front of the manger.

Many of the Germanic traditions of my youth are disappearing.  Advent is now hardly observed except in churches; Christmas celebrations go on all during the month of December.  I miss the building excitement of a quiet Advent, and I also feel rather sad when I see a discarded Christmas tree, sometimes wrapped in plastic, out on the curb on Dec. 26.  Mine stays around much longer!

Advent Vorfreude and Merry Christmas wishes to all.

Ollinger, Josef, Geschichten und Sagen von Saar and Moselüsse



    1 cup dark syrup
    ½ cup margarine
    2/3 cup sugar
    1 egg beaten
    5 cups flour
    1-1/2 teaspoons soda
    1-1/2 teaspoons cloves
    1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
    1 teaspoon salt

    Heat syrup. Stir in margarine and sugar. Cool. Add beaten egg. Sift dry ingredients and add. The last of the flour mixture will need to be worked in by hand. Place in bowl and brush top lightly with oil Cover with foil and refrigerate about three days.

    Break off small portions and form into long rolls about ¾ inch in diameter. Slice about 1/4-inch thick and place on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake in 350-degree oven approximately 10 minutes or till lightly browned.

    This recipe for peppernuts was featured as the customer-submitted Recipe of the Week in my local newspaper in late 1989 or early 1990. U clipped it and filed it, though have never made it.

    Submitted by Mrs. Martin Bohlsen of Laguna Hills, CA, she added her personal intro to the recipe: “This German recipe was handed down by my husband's mother. It is a favorite every Christmas at our house and also to friends who have enjoyed them with us.”

    This recipe has less flavorings and spices than the recipe you mentioned. But, in these times when traditions must be grasped more-preciously than ever, I submit the recipe “for the record.”

    I am intrigued by this recipe including "brown" in the description of the peppernuts. Part of the puzzle? I searched a bit on the web and there is a recipe at for BROWN PEPPERNUTS that includes more spices and lard, which sounds more like the recipe you remember.

    In any case, bon appetit to you and I hope that you find some authentic peppernuts to enjoy as your reward for this charming post.

  2. Thank you Marilyn, for furnishing a recipe for peppernuts. It is very similar to the recipe in our mother's old cookbook. As you said, there were a few other things included such as citron, mace, and some lard - and can't forget about the nuts from hickory trees that grew in Wisconsin. Freeing the nut from its shell was part of the fall and Advent tradition. It was a thrill to get the nut from the shell in one piece.