Saturday, December 10, 2011

German Christmas in Jefferson City One Hundred Years Ago

The German immigrants to Jefferson City brought their Christmas traditions with them, chief of which was the Christmas tree. As early as 1871, just a few years after the Civil War officially ended, the local newspapers reported that the various German organizations, like the Germania Club, Turners, and singing societies, held Christmas parties in their halls with Christmas trees, singing, and dancing. For Christmas 1871, the just opened public school at Monroe and Miller, which had strong German leadership, held a Christmas party with gifts and singing. It was reported that 1,200 persons, including 600 children, attended after standing in line for hours to get in. It may have been the first public appearance of a Christmas tree in Jefferson City, because Christmas trees were not yet popular on the American scene at this time.

German traditions were always part of the Christmas observances in all four German churches in Jefferson City: St. Peter Catholic; Trinity Lutheran, then at Monroe and McCarty; Central Evangelical (now Central United Church of Christ); and the German Methodist Church on the corner of Broadway and Elm. The latter two are in Munichburg. These churches had Christmas services on three separate days: Christmas Eve especially for children, Christmas morning, and on the day after Christmas, called Zweite Weihnachten or “Second Christmas.”

In December 1891 the Evangelical women held a Christmas supper and bazaar in their new church, just finished the month before. According to the newspaper, the supper cost 25 cents, and the women sold numerous items suitable for Christmas gifts. In 1906, when many homes in Jefferson City were still without electricity, Central Evangelical Church had a Christmas tree with electric lights that dazzled everyone. Candles had been on their annual Christmas trees since the beginning, and the congregation was happy to get rid of them because of the fire danger, let alone the trouble of lighting and extinguishing them all. There were no commercial Christmas tree lots then, and members of the four German congregations provided cut cedars from their farms.

At Trinity Lutheran, the Christmas Eve service was devoted to the children. Children of the Lutheran parochial school filed into church for the impressive Christmas Eve service, where they sang in German and one by one recited memorized Bible verses to tell the Christmas story. Afterwards, they were treated with small, brown paper sacks of hard candy. Then they went back to their homes to open gifts, which had been mysteriously placed under the Christmas tree while they were in church.

In the smaller German Methodist Church, the Sunday School children sang traditional German Christmas songs like Kling, Glockchen, Kling-a-ling-a-ling (Ring, little bells, ring-a-ling-a-ling). The young children, dressed all in white like the Christkind (Christ Child), stood in front of the congregation on Christmas Eve and rang little bells while they sang. In German tradition, ringing bells announced the arrival of the Christ Child in our midst.

Later, the children were given hard candy in little containers made to look like Santa Claus. (One of these is still displayed today at Christmas in that same church building, now a residence, along with a 120-year-old German Weihnachtspyramide, a revolving Christmas pyramid tree, also a German tradition.)

Christmas became commercialized in Jefferson City by 1900, according to the great explosion of newspaper ads for Christmas gifts. High Street merchants put Santa Claus in their December ads and announced the best prices for clothing and candy for Christmas gifts. But there were very, very few ads for toys!

Businesses in German Munichburg also went commercial for Christmas in the beginning years of the 1900s. The big Moerschel Brewery on Dunklin suggested giving a case of Muenchener beer for Christmas, which you could pick up at the brewery or have delivered to your residence by horse-drawn wagon, at no charge. Busch’s Florist began advertising cut Christmas trees for those who did not want to go out into the country and cut their own.

Grocery stores, saloons, even barbershops gave out free turkeys to attract business. In 1912 the newspaper reported the Southside pool hall at 704 Jefferson Street gave away 35 fresh turkeys on one December Wednesday alone. Can you imagine that? Were they alive? Fresh killed? There were no frozen turkeys in those days. And on a weekday, in a pool hall?

What may have been Jefferson City’s first community Christmas tree was described in the December 14, 1915, newspaper. The carpenters’ union built a 50 x 50 foot platform for a community Christmas tree 30 feet high (that’s three stories high!) on the courthouse lawn. What held it up? Did it have electric lights and decorations? Did the mayor give a speech?

German Christmas traditions flourished in individual homes. The Germans had small, tabletop cedar Christmas trees in their homes well before they became common in the general population. The candles were mounted in small metal candleholders that were secured to the branches with small clips. They were lit only on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, because the candles didn’t last very long and people celebrated Christmas as only a one-day event. (It didn’t begin the day after Thanksgiving!) The tree was decorated with red paper bells, papier-mâché birds, fruit, nuts, pinecones, and other symbols of nature. Delicate, blown-glass ornaments imported from Germany became available about the same time that electric lights came into homes, around 1890–1910.

Reformer Martin Luther was successful in convincing Germans to shift the date for Christmas gift-giving from December 6, the Catholic feast day of St. Nicholas, to December 25, the accepted date of Christ’s birth. But German families in Jefferson City continued to use December 6 as Kriss Kringle night, when St. Nicholas’s helper visited houses to see if the boys and girls were being good or bad. I can personally vouch that one year I got a lump of coal in my shoes that I set at my bedroom door on December 6. That was a serious sign to shape up before Christmas.

Some families gave presents around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, in keeping with the visit of Luther’s Christ Child to the family. Others, perhaps influenced by Clement Moore’s popular poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” in which Santa Claus came down a chimney during the night, waited until Christmas morning to open presents.

The traditional Christmas dinner in Germany centered around a Christmas goose, but immigrants to Jefferson City quickly replaced it with the abundant American turkey. Traditional German stollen (candied fruit and nut bread) and cookies still highlight many Munichburg and Jefferson City Christmases today.

Cookies include lepkuchen, a honey or molasses cookie, which is made from different recipes according to what part of Germany the family came from; springerli, the square, anise-flavored cookie with a delicate pattern imprinted on it; and pfeffernuesse, or pepper nuts, a spicy cookie that may have black pepper in it.

Frohe Weihnachten! Merry Christmas!

Copyright 2011 by Walter A. Schroeder.


Best wishes for 2012! Make a resolution this year to help the efforts of the Old Munichburg Association, or to get involved with your own local community, wherever you are! We bid you peace.