An old-time Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas. December 21, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Christmas cookie recipes, Christmas cookies, Kutztown PA, Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas traditions, William Woys Weaver
Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood enjoyed our first Christmas celebration last night, traveling the snow-covered roads to our friends Carolyn and Gary’s house deep in the Berks County countryside. We drove for long stretches without meeting a single car, and the profound quiet of the snowy night, with Christmas lights twinkling through ice-coated branches, transported us to an earlier time. We could almost hear sleigh bells ringing.
This Old World mood continued when we reached Carolyn and Gary’s, the setting of our famous Friday Night Supper Club get-togethers. As we staggered in under our burdens of gifts, Silence’s amazing cranberry stuffing, curried carrots, and a massive and colorful salad, candlelight illuminated the faces of our friends Carolyn, Gary, Rudy, Betsy, and Rob. Binks the cat was curled up next to the woodstove, while the old dog, Jones, stationed himself near the table, hoping against hope for a scrap of roasted chicken skin or another delectable treat.
The table itself was adorned with a festive red tablecloth, red-and-green napkins, more candles, and red- and green-wrapped packages at each plate. The kitchen and dining room were filled with the mouthwatering smells of roasted chicken and gravy, homemade mashed potatoes, Silence’s amazing stuffing, cranberry jelly, broccoli, and the luscious orange “pennies” of the curried carrots. Everyone helped themselves to salad and food, wine and sparkling lime water were poured, and we made our way to the table.
But what really caught our attention were the smaller plates that Carolyn had carefully arranged at each place. They hearked back to a Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas tradition that followed the first German (“Dutch” is actually a corruption of “Deitsch,” the Pennsylvania German dialect for “Deutsch,” German) settlers here in the late Seventeenth Century, and that some “Plain” groups like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites still observe on Christmas Day.
The tradition is that on Christmas Eve, each child sets out a special plate at his or her place (or a special box in one of the deep windowsills the old-time stone farmhouses boasted). In the morning, the children would discover that the Christ Child, christ kindel, had filled their plates (or boxes) with special Christmas treats. These included apples or dried apple slices (schnitz), peanuts in the shell and/or other nuts, oranges, old-time pretzels, cookies, chocolates (a comparatively late-breaking addition), and the all-important colored sugar hard candy, called “clear toys,” which itself became known as the christ kindel or kris kringle. (Sound familiar?)
When our friend Ben thinks of hard candies, I tend to think of peppermint rounds, marble-like fruit-flavored “drops,” or even the elaborate ribbon candies that resemble their namesakes. But the Pennsylvania Dutch clear toys put all others to shame. They were made in brilliant Christmas colors—red, green, gold—in elaborate molds: deer, turkeys, baskets, peacocks, Santas, you name it. (They’re still being locally hand-made by a few old-timers at Christmas, but you have to look for them; we found some gorgeous ones at the Kutztown Farmers’ Market.) In some traditions, these glittering ornaments were also hung on the Christmas tree; Tasha Tudor always hung some on her great tree with her other Nineteenth-Century ornaments. But they’re older than the Christmas tree, which only became a tradition in England and America when Queen Victoria married her German Prince Albert and he brought the charming custom to England.
At any rate, we were enchanted by the quaint, delightful Christmas plates. Though their contents (except for the pretzels) were familiar to us from our beloved Christmas stockings, it looked especially festive arrayed on the plates. We brought the bounty home, so we could share the peanuts and homemade pretzels with our parrot Plutarch and the bluejays who visit our “cabin” feeder. And next year, perhaps we’ll create Christmas plates of our own.
Meanwhile, should you wish to try your hand at making authentic Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas cookies, Silence unearthed this recipe for Kutztown Jumbles—Kutztown is the closest town of any size to our home, Hawk’s Haven, so it seemed especially appropriate—from William Woys Weaver’s fantastic and beautiful book, Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking (Abbeville Press, 1993).
3 large eggs
2 cups superfine sugar*
1 cup sour cream
5 cups pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg
Beat the eggs until lemon colored, then gradually add the sugar. Beat until light and the sugar is dissolved, then add the sour cream. Sift together the flour, baking soda, mace, cinnamon, and nutmeg twice, then fold into the egg mixture to form a soft dough with the consistency of peanut butter. Cover and set aside to ripen overnight in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Dust a clean work surface liberally with confectioners’ sugar. Using the hands, roll large scoops of dough into the sugar to form long ropes about 1/2 inch in diameter. Cut these into 4-inch lengths and join at the ends to form rings. Scatter aniseed on greased baking sheets and lay the rings on the seeds. Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are golden brown on the bottom. Cool on racks and store in airtight containers.
Note: The confectioners’ sugar allows the dough to be handled, but too much handling rubs off the sugar. It is the generous coating of sugar that gives these jumbles their characteristic “crinkly snow” appearance.
* Silence says: Hmmm. I’d have assumed “superfine sugar” was confectioners’ sugar, but guess not. So I’d use plain old granulated sugar in this recipe for the “superfine sugar.” If you’re a stickler for accuracy, you might pound the granulated sugar with a rolling pin to break the crystals up so they’re “superfine.”
To learn more about Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas traditions, and especially about the Penna. Dutch “Santa Claus,” Der Belsnickel, see our earlier post, “A whole different Santa Claus.”