Tuesday, December 30, 2008

O Tannenbaum!

Without a doubt, the Christmas tree is the biggest German contribution to Christmas and it was the centerpiece of German Christmas celebrtion. Trimming and lighting a tree in the dead of winter goes back to pagan times, but it eventually came to be accepted and morphed into Christian tradition. The tree skirt is made of straw, to symbolize the manger. The non-catholic Martin Luther is often credited with hanging the first candle on the tree to bring "illumination." The tree is decorated with cookies that are made during the holidays. The cookies also decorate the windows, as do candles as a sign of welcome and illumination.

In Germany, Christmas is supposed to be magical. The pure can see rivers turn to wine at midnight and hear Christmas bells at the bottom of the ocean. On the prairie, that belief wasn't so extraordinary, but it was special. Our German Catholic Christmas is rather meager, because it is considered a bit farther back in history when there weren't alot of goods out on the prairie. Most all gifts were homemade, but treasured.

St. Nicholas Day, December 6th, is observed when Children leave their shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill. Kris Kringle stems from the word Christkindl which means Christ Child who brought gifts on Christmas Eve--not Santa Claus!

Christmas Carols like Silent Night and O Christmas Tree hail from Germany. The Germans loved music and much of the holiday fun surrounds bells and instruments.

Advent wreaths and Advent calendars started in Germany as a way to countdown to Christmas. Christmas Eve is when the tree is revealed, and when the family starts celebrating with eating and carols.

If Catholic families lived close enough to a church, they would definitely attend Mass.

On Christmas Eve, there was a large feast and a belief that if you did not eat well on that day then demons would haunt you during the night. On Christmas day, the eating is good too... with goose, stollen (bread with fruit), lebkuchen (spice bars), and other treats.

I didn't get to journey down to our German cabin to take fresh Christmas pictures this year... so this entry is rather dismal. My apologies to our German catholic friends.

True "Reason for the Season" --Moravian Christmas

((sidenote: I was going to abandon the Christmas Landing traditions for the season, but it seems to have gathered quite a bit of attention. So I'll continue with the few I have left.))
The Moravians truly celebrate the "reason for the season" as almost everything they do is rooted back in Moravian belief and tradition. A Moravian Christmas combines religion, region, and culture. Moravia is a region in Germany and Czechoslovakia. The Moravian religion which grew from that region claims to be one of the oldest Protestant denominations, and its Christmas is a combination of German tradition with a heavy undertone of religion. The Moravians settled in clusters with several settlements in the South. Up here, the Moravians settled in nearby Chaska and there is a big Moravian Church on the Town Square.

The Moravians are credited with erecting the first Christmas tree in America-- at a Moravian mission in Georgia in 1805. Here, the tree here is a spinoff of the German Christmas tree. Take 4-poles and tie them together up top, then drape greenery around each pole. Decorate with Beeswax candles and apples--the idea here is to keep the evergreen natural and pure, like Christ. You'll see beeswax candles tied with red ribbon to represent the blood sacrafice many Moravians made in the split from the Catholic religion. This goes back as far as 1762.

Most people associate the Moravian star very closely with Christmas. This actually started in German boarding schools as a way to teach students about geometry. After the stars were made, missionaries took the stars all over the world to tell the story of Advent. It's quite a trick to make these stars, but there are several out there who have mastered it.

The center of the Christmas celebration, though is the putz, pronounced poots, comes from the german word "putzen," which means to decorate or clean. This can be a simple manger scene, but they've been known to fill entire rooms. Either way, the center must be a manger. These are very elaborate and every year the family could add a new element. It would become a game to "gaze at the putz" to determine what was new that year.... and to tell the Christmas story again.

There's food too. These cookies are simple and (surprise!) tell the Christmas story. The white ones are of heavenly objects--stars, angels, hearts, and the dark ones are of earthly objects--people and animals.

The Love Buns are part of the traditional Moravian "Love Feast" which started back in the 1700s as a means of serious fellowship. Traditionally, it starts with prayer and includes hymns and serious discussion about faith. Love buns are served with the very basic idea that you couldn't really concentrate on lofty topics if you were hungry. This is a hard concept to explain to groups of teenagers who come through, as you can imagine where the Love Feast idea reverts their minds to.

I couldn't close the Moravian bit without a small mention of the stoves in this house. It has 3 and are all very small. It's quite a triumph to actually heat the place, and I always feel as if I've accomplished something when I can get all 3 actually going on a cold December morning.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A very Schwartz Christmas

We will meander away from the cultural Christmases for a celebration of our own. It's the one time of year when Americans traditionally take pictures of themselves in pajamas, minutes after they get up in the morning, and usually with subjects grinning while sitting in piles of trash and paper in their own living rooms. We did not disappoint, and this blog is proof we liked our presents.

Despite the lousy record, it was a banner year for Razorback wear. We got shirts, hats, and caps. I got a fondue pot.

One of the most unique gifts I received was a box of papers I wrote when I was in the first grade in North Carolina. It's always fun to go back and see the person you were. In a book called "My North Carolina book," I talked about why I loved my state, state bird, region etc... I am holding up the picture that went with the paragraph I wrote on why North Carolina is the "Tarheel State".

We talked to family in Florida, Arkansas, New York, and Colorado.

Then, we set out to eat at BANK in downtown Minneapolis. If a place locks up their wine in a vault, you know it has to be good. The "C" team didn't quite measure up in terms of service, but the food and the experience was nice.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Nollaig Shona Duit

The Irish Christmas is a meager but triumphant one, reflecting the struggles and spirit of the Irish people.

Does your grandmother put red candles in the window? Mine does, and I never really realized it was an old Irish tradition that served two functions. First, it's a symbol to welcome Mary and Joseph as they traveled and looked for shelter. Secondly, it also indicated a safe place for priests to perform Mass during times when mass wasn't allowed. For decades or some say centuries starting in the 1500s, it was a crime to be a Catholic. Priests would hide in the hills and look for the red candles to know what houses they could go say Mass. Some say the candle would stay lit on Christmas Eve and could only be extinguished by a girl in the household by the name of "Mary." Most Irish families wouldn't have a problem finding a girl named Mary in the house.

Another Irish tradition that's lesser known is the story of the Wren. During the Penal Times, (when Catholics, Presbyterians, and dissenters were persecuted) there was a plot against a group of local soldiers. The soldiers were surrounded and about to be ambushed when a wren pecked on the drums and awakened the soldiers. So, you might see wrens in the homes of the Irish, and later on St. Stephen's day. That's when a procession goes from house to house. Families used to dress in old clothes and sometimes blacken their faces. While they march, they carry a pole entwined with holly branches with a dead wren at the top. (what a way to say thank you) While this is rarely done today, the tradition of visiting on St. Stephen's Day has survived. Some Irish even put out extra food for the wrens, which is a better way to say thank you.

There are no Christmas Trees in Irish history... that's for the wealthy British and later times. Instead, the poor decorated with the greenery they had... holly and berries. Since holly doesn't normally grow in Minnesota, the Irish use winterberries. Like most traditions, the "hanging of the greens" goes back to pagan times, but eventually got converted to Christianity. You would hang greens on Christmas Eve and leave them up until "Little Christmas" or Epiphany, January 6th. Americans have the Irish to thank for the Holly Wreath at Christmas.

They also decorated with what they had, often rutabagas. (which they also made jack-o-lanterns out of, but that's a different holiday)

Traditionally, the table would be set on Christmas Eve for Christmas dinner. The door would be left unlatched. This would symbolize hospitality to the holy family and any family that would be traveling during the holidays. Caraway cakes and cookies are a staple of the holiday fare. Father Christmas would visit the children.
But perhaps the most interesting tidbit of the Irish Christmas tale is the Christmas Carol that we can thank the Irish for. When it was a crime to be Catholic, the Irish found a way to continue to educate their children. They are a stubborn lot, therefore their faith survived.
So, the 12-days of Christmas was written as a catechism song to help young Catholics learn their faith. It acted as a memory-aid, so you wouldn't be caught with anything that could get you killed.
12 drummers drumming = 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle's creed
11 pipers piping = 11 faithful apostles
10 lords a-leaping = 10 commandments, of course.
9 ladies dancing = 9 fruits of the holy spirit
8 maids a-milking = 8 Beatitudes
7 swans a-swimming = 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, 7 sacraments
6 geese a-laying = 6 days of creation
5 golden rings = Pentateuch, first 5 books of Old Testament
4 calling birds = 4 gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John
3 french hens = the Trinity, of course, Father, Son & Holy Ghost
2 turtle doves = 2 testaments, the old and the new
1 partridge in a pear tree = Jesus Christ, Son of God
Out of all of the traditions, the Irish Christmas seems the most dismal, but with often the clearest reason for celebration. When you don't have much, you treasure your faith and family even more.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hanukkah on the Prairie

Yes, there were Jews on the Prairie. Many were lured to the region for the free land through the Homestead Act. Since many European regions forbid jews from owning property, the immigrants saw the chance for advancement and the prestige in owning their own land, even if it was frozen for much of the year. Several settlements sprung up in Minnesota and the Dakotas, but over the span of two generations, the jewish populace migrated to the cities where they have stayed.

More jews followed the synagogues, and there are several with a lengthy history in the Twin Cities. If jews did not live near a synagogue, they kept tradition and culture alive at home.

The hanukiah would be lit, latkes would be fried, and dreidel games would be played during Hanukkah. Instead of the gold gelt that children today use for the dreidel, children would play with rocks or buttons. Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, but over time it's received more attention because of its proximity to Christmas. It's hard for little jewish children to understand why Santa visits next door--but not their house. So, parents started giving small gifts for Hanukkah in the 20th century. Like Christmas today, it's become commercialized and celebrated with a diminished understanding of why.
Many homes had a Tzedakah box, which means justice, but is often translated to mean charity. Family members or a community would contribute to the box to bring justice to life in their community. Something like this: It's not fair for my family to have shoes while the family next door doesn't, so I'm going to bring justice to that situation by giving them shoes. It's been recorded that some groups even bought Christmas gifts for poor families--because it wasn't fair for the family not to be able to celebrate their holiday when others are doing so. It's a good idea.

Here's friend Lisa making a great dish--a type of fried jelly doughnut pictured above called sufganiyot. As you might know, all dishes associated with Hanukkah are fried to remember the miracle of oil, except for cheese to remember jewish heroine Judith. I'm sure here in Minnesota they could combine the two with some delicious fried cheese curds.

This house is special to me, because of the interpreter who is normally here. Lynn, who is sometimes known as Molly and here as Miram, knows so much about history and she engages the public so very well. I love listening to her stories, and she's become pretty special to us all. She can cook up a feast on a woodburning stove.
My favorite moment in this house, though, came last December. I routinely got assigned this house for field trips, so I told more than 1500 kids the Hanukkah story. (What do you expect with the last name of Schwartz?) Whenever I had a jewish kid in the house, I let them help tell the Hanukkah story and talk about their customs. When I asked one girl named Greta what she had on her latkes... I expected the typical answer of sour cream or applesauce... instead she said "Guacamole!"
My, how times have changed!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

God Jul part 2 (or part 1?)

It's a running joke between the Norwegians and the Swedes of who thought of what Christmas tradition first. Since the two nations have entwined histories, their traditions are actually quite similar... but don't tell them that.

Christmas is a big deal is Sweden. The tree comes from German and Christian influence with the same tree skirt of hay. The strange critter you see next to the tree is the Julebakk, which is the throwback to pagan times. There are several stories about this--some say it's like a goat or a horse--but both were very important to the culture and you see ornaments made like small goats or horses. At the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, you can buy a Julebakk of any size. (pronounced yule-bak-uh)

Dala horse (small and painted red here) is from the Dalarna region of Sweden. It was mainly used as a toy for children, and could've been carved out of the scraps of wood from the furniture that came from the woodland region. Some say the horses stem from pagan beliefs or it's a replica of Norse god Thor's horse... others dismiss it and say the horse simply reflects the agrarian nature of the area. The unique painting on it is significantly Scandinavian. The Rosemauling that you see on Scandinavian products is an art form, but no two pieces are alike. There are hundreds of types of rosemauling, and the type of painting depicted the area where you came from.

Remember the naughty Nissa of Norwegian Christmas? Here, they have the Tomte, who is equally mischievous. The Tomte protects the farmer's family and farm, and particularly at night, when everyone is asleep. It's often imagined as a small, elderly man, others say it's more like an elf. Regardless, the tomte must be fed a bowl of porriage on Christmas morning. Otherwise, he'd turn into a troll and wreck havoc doing unruly things like braiding the horses' tails together, overturning milk pails, and braking things. The tomte liked his porriage with a pat of butter on the top, and you better please him... or else. Swedish Queen Pauline says her tomte swears... or maybe there's another swearin' Swede.

In Sweden, Christmas usually begins on December 13th, St. Lucia day. The Christian martyr St. Lucia became a part of Swedish tradition, even though she was Italian and she was burned for her faith in Italy. I haven't found anything to point to why Scandinavian Lutherans embraced St Lucia, but there are several St. Lucia ceremonies or pageants at local churches up here. The traditional home ceremony involves the eldest daughter wearing white robes and a headpiece-like wreath of greens and candles while she serves her parents breakfast in bed. The other girls help out too. A sign of the times, there is currently controversy in Sweden on if a boy can be involved in the St. Lucia day processions.

Queen Pauline of Sugar Shack fame takes over as the Spinning Swede. Since the Harms house is our dressmaker, milliner, and spinner, Pauline can talk to people about fiber and about spinning in this house.

Like other cultures, you also find many ornaments made of straw. There are often workshops around the area that teach people how to make these ornaments. I've talked to a few people who've done this, and they say once you try it once, you don't try it again. It's a tough hobby... but there are numerous Swedes up here who try to keep up this tradition and many more.

Vesley Vanoce--pass the Kolaches!

Vesley Vanoce means Merry Christmas in Czech. Several settlers in the Minnesota River Valley came from the Czech-Slovak-Bohemia region, so we depict a Slovak Christmas in one of our houses.

The Kolache originally was a sweet dessert pastry from the Czech regions, but in the US it's taken on an identity all its own. You can find them sweet and jammed or salted and meat-filled. There are Kolache fesitvals in the Plains States and a few in Texas... making this treat perhaps the Czech's most far reaching contribution to the culinary world.

Vanocka (similar to challah) is the traditional Christmas bread. Alabama Kate and Melissa (known as Ludy in this house) are to the left holding their 4-braid Vanoka baked in a wood-stove oven. Not bad. (Kate is the one I can turn to for sympathy when I miss home.... grits, buscuits and sausage gravy, or just about anything. She can make the best fried green tomatoes.)

Many visitors who come through the site have Czech ancestry and they always ask about the Carp, which was the traditional Christmas entree. Many seniors have memories of a carp in their grandmother's bathtub, where she kept it until it was time to cook it. Supposedly some Czech people today let the fish go as a symbol of goodwill. I haven't met anyone who adheres to this. If it's in the bathtub, it was as good as gone in Minnesota.

Garlic is also a part of the Christmas dinner, as it provides strength and protection. A bowl of it is placed under the table. A pot of honey on the table guards against evil, and mushrooms promote good health. The Czech/Slovak people are very superstitious, and much of their holiday traditions surround that.

No lamps are lit in the home until the first star comes out; no one eats with their back to the door. The Christmas table is set for an even number of people, as odd numbers bring death. An extra place can be set to even this out. You can't get up from the table during the meal either--that also brings death. Everyone gets up at the same time to prevent being the first up, so I hope no one has to go to the bathroom. It's a long meal too--nine courses are served, but you are hungry for it because you fasted all day. Fish scales under your plate bring wealth... this could go on and on....

As if the meal wasn't superstitious enough, next comes the games. Walnut Boats are floated in water to see how long you will live... sticks are drawn to see who you will marry... and the list goes on. Think of the fortune tellers at carnivals... there's alot of that at Christmas.

Maybe the Iraqi who threw the shoe has Czech ties. Supposedly if an unmarried person throws their shoe behind their back toward the door, and the toe points to the door the person is married within a year.

Much of this happens on Christmas Eve, the so-called "generous day". I've seen research that says the meal happens on Christmas Eve, and some that says Christmas Day.... but Christmas Eve was far more important because it was "magical.

Christmas Eve, Christmas, and the day after (St Stephens Day) are all national holidays in the Czech Republic. These cultures accepted the German Christmas tree rather early, and decorated them with straw ornaments. Like many traditions, straw is placed at the bottom of the tree to symbolize the manger scene with the everlasting tree being the baby Jesus.

After Christmas dinner, no field can be crossed until midnight mass--doing so could result in death too.

Gifts are a small part of the holiday, and mainly for children. Saint Nicholas delivers gifts helped by the Infant Jesus. Infant Jesus comes through a window during the big Christmas meal and rings a bell to let the children know he's come. No one knows just wear the Infant Jesus lives.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

God Jul

If your grandmother bakes dozens of christmas cookies each year, and the family wonders why she bakes so many.... you can thank the Norwegians for that. Minnesota's Norwegian population believed the more cookies, the more prosperous and better new year. Grandma is looking out for the family.

Christmas reigns supreme in Norway, and the Norwegians reign supreme at our site. The volunteers have their own collection of artifacts and antiques that they arrange in one of the buildings. It truly makes the place feel like home, and it makes it a fun place to visit. The "Female Remedy" medicine is always good for a joke, as are the many Swedish jokes that go back and forth with nearly every visitor.

This weekend, I visited my "Cousin Britta. " I'm Sophia, who is visiting because I'm depressed due to my betrothed getting lost and dying in a snowstorm...yes, they wrote my own 2-page biography for me. I learned how to make mandelkakes and sandbakels. Ideally, every Norwegian home had an odd number of types of cookies, to symbolize good luck. We hope to make it to nine. So far, we have six including the above and rosettes, kringla, smaltringers, and krumkake.

Keep in mind all this is made in a wood burning stove. We kept the door to the house open most of the time! It got hot.

For our meals, we cooked roasted pheasant and barley with goat cheese. We made beer, beef, and barley stew on Sunday. We always had a crowd. Where's the Lutefisk? The Gundersons say they left it in Norway. But we can smell it from here.

"Julia" who is Britta and Acksel's character-generated granddaughter helped with cookies, as did "Anna," Acksel's niece. Got this straight? It took me awhile to learn the histories... but it's a game living historians play, and I wanted to try to measure up this weekend. It was fun.

In the kitchen, you'll also find a marzipan pig--they still sell these in stores today. On Christmas morning, the mother would hide an almond in the rice porriage. Whoever had the almond in their bowl got the marzipan pig, thus having good luck, good health, and good fortune the entire year.

Outside of the doorway, you'll see the Juleneg. The last sheath of wheat gathered from the field is hung outside of the door during Jul for the birds to eat with the idea that the birds will remember this and leave crops alone the following season.
Wheat or straw is pretty important to the Norwegians, and it stems from pagan times. Abundant wheat meant prosperity and luck. The Julebak is made of wheat (more on that when we cover the Swedes) as are most of the ornaments for the tree. Norwegians didn't have Christmas trees until the Lutheran church and their German ways got involved. Under the tree, you'll find straw. The straw is spread on the floor for Christmas Eve and everyone sleeps in the hay--hired help, guests, everyone is equal and on the floor. The beds are left open for ancestors to visit. When baby Jesus and the manger came in the picture, it only made straw or hay more important to the holiday.

The Nisse (niss-uh) is something like an elf. He's naughty and fiesty and he lives under the floor. If you leave him porriage, he might help you with your chores. But if he's upset or you forget him, he'll cause havoc. When something goes wrong in the house, we blame the Nisse. I'm convinced we have one at home, because I know Dave can't be to blame for every little mess... ...

One Norwegian joke before I go... do you know why the Swedish men grow so tall? Because they get so much practice looking over the mountains at the beautiful Norwegian women.

(For the Swedes reading this, I'm collecting jokes for the future Swedish blog!)