Frohe Weihnachten!

How Frederick's German Ancestors Influenced Today's Christmas Celebrations

By Gina Gallucci-White | Posted on 12.01.13 – Feature, History

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner  and Blitzen.

But do you know Krist Kindle, an angelic messenger for Kris Kringle who leaves good children gifts in straw baskets? How about Weihnachtsmann, the Christmas man who wears a green coat with fur trim and helps deliver gifts to good children? Or Belsnickel, a bearded man who carries wooden switches and coal and questions children’s behavior.

While these might not ring a bell in most corners of the United States, many Frederick residents know them thanks to the heavy influence the city’s German ancestors have on local Christmas celebrations which continue today.

Pat Ogden, a docent for Schifferstadt Architectural Museum, is in the process of writing a book dedicated to the historic 1758 structure and its German founders, the Brunner family. “My research has shown that the three most important things to the German settlers during that time were faith, family and hard work,” she says.

While there are no written records of holiday celebrations, Ogden believes that during early settlement days families would gather on religious holidays to celebrate with a big meal. If the settlers had time to decorate, it would have been very simple. They may have grabbed some evergreens or pine tree branches.

Presents were most likely not exchanged because the settlers tended to be non-materialistic people. Schifferstadt’s original cast-iron five plate stove, the only one in the United States still in its original position, has a Bible verse still inscribed on it—“Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

“The verse preceding it speaks of not putting your treasure in earthly possessions because they are possessions that can decay or be stolen,” says Ogden. “Rather put your treasure in heaven where eternity is.”

Influence on Today

When it’s time to decorate Schifferstadt for the holidays, officials honor the simplistic style of the land’s founders, including pine and evergreen decorations. “We really want to reflect that older traditional German style,” says Melanie Gettier, Frederick County Landmarks Foundation administrator.  The museum annually participates in the Museums by Candlelight tour, which will be held Dec. 14 this year. “We always get a lot of foot traffic on that day,” Gettier says.

Schifferstadt will also be one of the homes featured in Celebrate Frederick’s Candlelight House Tour on Dec. 7 and 8. “We jumped at the chance” to be featured, Gettier says. “The houses that they have on the tour this year really cover a range of years and styles. In a way, you are seeing this nice little summary of typical Frederick homes. You are seeing homes built in the 1950s, some were built in the 1800s early 1900s, and, of course, this one in the 1750s. It’s a nice snapshot of the fabric of Frederick.”

“That’s why we are here today,” Ogden adds. “We are in Frederick because of the strength of these people.”

ChristKindleMarkt is a popular German tradition that dates back to the late Middle Ages. The outdoor market features handmade crafts, food and drink. Two city churches founded by German congregations, Evangelical Lutheran and Grace United Church of Christ, have joined together to each host a celebration. Evangelical’s will be Dec. 6–8, while Grace’s is set for Dec. 7.

“As you walk around, you see your friends,” says the Rev. Robert Apgar-Taylor, pastor at Grace. “It’s a social gathering but it’s a place to buy presents. [A way] to get unique presents you would not find at a mall. …This is a really traditional way to celebrate German Christmas.” More than a dozen vendors are expected at each church where a popular German red wine with spices will be served.

“Gluhwein has different recipes and everyone makes it just a little bit differently depending on where you are and who’s making it,” Apgar-Taylor says. “In Germany, after ChristKindleMart it’s actually served in a commemorative mug so you buy the mug full of gluhwein and then keep the mug.” Locals collect the mugs in dining rooms even having a shelf dedicated to their collection, Apgar-Taylor says. The mug is large enough to dip cookies into the wine. Grace will be selling mugs with the church logo on it and they may be filled with the German wine or hot chocolate. The church plans to do a different mug each year.

Christmas stollen, a heavy bread with fruits and nuts baked inside, along with a German style of sugar nuts will also be available for purchase. A craftswoman from Pennsylvania will be demonstrating the art of German paper cutting called scherenschnitte at Evangelical. The church’s choir will sing German Christmas carols and a harpist and brass orchestra will also be playing as part of the event.

“We are trying to keep as much to a German theme as possible,” says Alan Imhoff, Evangelical committee chair. Since Frederick is a sister city with Schifferstadt and Morzheim, Germany, Imhoff visited the two cities several years ago while serving as a city alderman.

The idea for the market came up last year while Evangelical Lutheran was preparing for their 275th anniversary. “We wanted to use the event to kick off our anniversary year,” Imhoff says. “It was loved so much [last year] we decided to make it an annual event.”

This is the first year for Grace to host the event. “It was always in the back of my mind as a really good outreach tool for the church,” says Apgar-Taylor who started at the church last November.

During his first service, he translated his sermon for members of the visiting Schifferstadt group. Apgar-Taylor is fluent in German and studied in upper Bavaria for a year. He was asked by some local residents if he would be interested in performing a German Christmas Eve service.

“I had not really thought there would be a need for that or a desire for that so I thought, ‘If you all want to do it then we’ll do it,’” he says. “So we talked about it and prayed about it and decided to go for it.” Although an ice storm hit the area, around 30 people braved the slippery streets to attend the all-German language service.  “People said they were amazed how much of the service they understood just because it sounded semi-English. Certain words they would get here and there. …We had a really nice time.” This year, the ceremony has been moved to the Sunday before Christmas, Dec. 22.

The Frederick Children’s Chorus will perform its 19th annual performance of the Messiah Sing-A-Long on Dec. 23 at the Weinberg Center for the Arts. Featuring the works of German composer G.F. Handel, a 20-piece orchestra joins a chorus of singers on stage as well as in the audience.

While many towns and cities have holiday or Christmas parades, Frederick celebrates the season with the Kris Kringle Procession. The parade, set this year for Dec. 13, features local children’s groups including Boy and Girl Scout troops, high school marching bands and area dance troops. Participants walk the downtown parade route, no vehicles are included in the march from Patrick Street toward the city’s tree lighting in Baker Park. The event is meant to present an old-world theme of the holidays, says Jennifer Martin, marketing and special events coordinator for the Office of Special Events for the City of Frederick.

“Kris Kringle is the centerpiece of the procession,” she says. “Plus, a number of other German characters [like Weihnachtsmann and Belsnickel]. It’s a good medley of old traditional characters with current ones. …It’s a great way to kick off the holiday season.” And remember Frederick’s German origins.