Christmas Traditions: The Belsnickel

It is often said that the past is a foreign country and when we look back at it, we will find many strange and unusual customs and traditions. This is particularly true with historic celebrations of Christmas.  Traditionally in Germany, a character called the Belsnickel would visit children alongside Saint Nicholas. Many cultures have an assistant accompany St. Nicholas/Santa Claus during his visits to punish the children who need to correct their behavior. Traditional in German, St. Nicholas’ Day is December 6th.  That is when St. Nicholas and the belsnickle would visit, for on Christmas Eve the Christ Child would bring presents.

The belsnickel is often glad in rags and patchwork, sometime he blackens his face or wears a mask to appear more fearsome. He carries candy or treats for the obedient children along with switches or rods for those who have been misbehaving.  Naughty children were also made to do a penance such as recite a Bible verse or poem for their transgressions. Generally the belsnickel was someone from the local community usually an older man, or a woman, who knew what the children had been up to during the year.  I suspect it was somewhat of a social honor to portray the belsnickel. The person had to be trustworthy and able to properly gauge the punishment for the misbehavior. As the tradition of the belsnickel continued in Pennsylvania, the man was often rewarded with food for his social function.  The person selected as the belsnickel may have been a community elder who may have needed some charity that time of year.

The belsnickel tradition was very popular during the 19th century. It even survived in places until the early 20th century but seems to have merged with Santa Claus as they years have gone on. Here at Quiet Valley, were keep the Belsnickel traditional alive during our Old Time Christmas celebration.  Visitors come down into the cellar kitchen-this was originally the whole house built around 1764-where they meet Jacky Depper.  This young boy welcomes the visitors and explains that they are now waiting for the Belsnickel who soon arrives amid much door banging and bell ringing.  He went about the room tapping naught children with his bundle of sticks and rewarding the good children with candy. It was a sight to see. Next year when you are looking for something fun to do, remember us and come see the Belsnickel.

The Quiet Valley blog is written by Kat Muller in here first year working at Quiet Valley. This blog posts represents her last, new event for the year!




Some Fun Facts about Christmas Cards

For many people, myself included, December marks Christmas Card season when our post boxes contain little envelops with updates from friends and family rather than bills and junk mail.  Like many of our modern Christmas traditions, Christmas cards can be traced back to the mid-1800s.

With most historical events or occurrences, historians and archaeologists can only give a estimate or a window of time when something took place. Yet with Christmas cards we have an exact year and even the people who came up with the first card.  (Though I do imagine there is some nameless person who sent a Christmas greeting with some artwork.) In 1843, Henry Cole commissioned artist J. C. Horsley to produce the first Christmas Card. Cole had revolutionized the postal system in England; thus, perhaps, these first cards-more akin to post cards-were either a great marketing strategy for his mailing system or just a time saving factor on Cole’s part. The first card was a three part picture with a family feasting in the middle and performing charitable acts on either side.

While it took a little while to catch on, Christmas cards became very popular during the late 1870s. Christmas cards were often produced by many small companies and newspapers often had fun reviewing them and proclaiming with has the nicest illustrations or sentiments.

Today, many of us would not necessarily agree with our Victorian counterparts.  Many cards produced during this time period featured anthropomorphic animals, cherub faces poking out of flowers, dead animals, and such like.  While these images and greetings seem odd to us today, they were meaningful to their intended audience.  Christopher Davis in his blog Vaults of Thought, delves into the symbolism behind two noteworthy cards picturing a dead wren and another with a dying frog as his opponent flees the scene. Some cards, such as the dead wren, hearken back to older traditions such as the Hunting of the Wren. Young boys and men in Ireland would capture a wren and then beg from door to door asking for food or money for the “wren” aka the boys.  Heather Dale, a folk singer who tells tales of older traditions, has a little song  about it.  Victorian culture was also obsessed about death. There were rules regarding proper mourning patterns that could impact a family’s lives for years after their relative was deceased.  I think some of that culture found its way into ever aspect of their lives, even Christmas cards.

Allison Meier has an article here with lots of images of those traditional cards.  Not all of them look very much like Christmas cards and picture everything from owls on bicycles to cats with parasols.  I personally was surprised with the cards containing sea shells.  I suspect they could almost be holiday advertisements, sort of a “Merry Christmas from a great place to holiday.”

Christmas cards saw a revolution in 1915 when the book style cards were printed by the company that became Hallmark.  Their cards contained an image on the front, a greeting, was folded once, with an envelop.  The soon outpaced the postcard style cards and are now standard.  Many people liked the book style cards because they could write more but not a whole letter.  Nowadays Christmas cards can be pop up cards, light up, play music, and even record personalized greetings.  Imagine Cole and Horsley’s surprise if they saw how far their little cards have gone.

The Quiet Valley Blog is written by Kat Muller during her first year at Quiet Valley as she learns about the farm, life in the 1800s, and the animals.

Christmas Superstitions

While it is only halfway through November we are starting to get things ready here on the farm for our last big event of the year: Old Time Christmas.  This candle lit lantern tour explores the historic celebrations of Christmas during the 1800s, a live nativity, visits from the Belschnickel, and more.  To help get ready for this event, I’ve been reading  Christmas in Pennsylvania by Alfred L. Shoemaker.  While a little heavy on primary sources for the casual ready, it is a great source of information exploring early celebrations in Pennsylvania by various religious groups from those who did not observe Christmas such as the Puritans and Quakers, to those who certainly did such as the Lutherans and the Moravians.  Working my way through one of the early chapters I was struck by how much folklore and superstition revolved around Christmas time and I’d thought I’d share some with you.

Many of the people who settled in this part of Pennsylvania came from the Palatinate region of Germany and believed very strongly in the supernatural power of the surrounding environment.  They also believed they could influence it as well. That belief found root in America too. Growing up in Chester County, Pennsylvania I remember hearing this particular story in regards to Christmas: Animals could speak on Christmas night.  Shoemaker includes a little poem found in Henry L. Fisher’s Olden Times from 1888.

I used to love and sit and watch

The cobbler’s cut and the tailor’s stitch;

To hear the learned arguments,

Between those learned disputants,

Concerning elf, and ghosts, and witch,

and whether they were black, or white,

or oxen, talked on Christmas-night.

The idea of animals speaking is a common folk belief but most of the Pennsylvania Dutch beliefs take place between 11pm and midnight.  During this time the animals talk, you can see your future husband or wife, cut dowsing rods for water or iron, or cast silver bullets to kill you enemy. Make sure to mark your calendar and be awake at that time.

Some of my favorite Christmas superstitions involved predicting what the next year will bring.  For example: many people believed that if the ground was white at Christmas it would be green at Easter. If the ground was green at Christmas it would be white at Christmas. Or if the geese waddled in mud between Christmas and New Year they will do so every single month of the following year, i.e. it will be a wet and rainy year. Perhaps the best superstition of all was that if you changed your underwear between Christmas and New Year’s you would get boils.

Quiet Valley Blog is written by Kat Muller as she explores her first year on the farm.

Historic Food: Sauerkraut and Scrapple

When I think of traditional Pennsylvania foods I tend to think of two dishes (thought not combined) sauerkraut and scrapple. Both of these dishes conjure to mind thoughts of early days in America.  I think that image comes to mind because both food items tend to preserving second choice foods.  While I grew up eating sauerkraut maybe once a year and enjoying, scrapple was something not permitted in my childhood home.  Thus I was interested to learn more about the process involved in making both of these dishes for our Harvest Festival here at Quiet Valley.


Fermented foods play such a large role in human history and prehistory.  Food manipulation and preservation has allowed us to survive in unending climate variations.  And while things that are old and moldy may not be everyone’s favorite treats, we are alive today because our ancestors figure this out.  Fermentation is used to detoxify poisonous plants and make them edible. Most of the time fermentation is the process of preserving food for a later date.

Making sauerkraut is surprisingly easy. In the garden at Quiet Valley we grown numerous heads of cabbage.  These cabbages are gathered from the garden usually 10-20 heads at a time. We have two wonderful cabbage experts who work those heads down into thin slices.  Fun fact: did you know cabbage plants will regrow heads? If you slice them early, you will get miniature heads growing back in their place.

Once the cabbages are sliced thinly they are placed in a large stoneware crock and salt is added.  The salt causes the cabbage to release water and keeps dangerous bacteria from growing.  Salt does encourage bacterial growth but it’s the kind that causes fermentation and not spoilage. The salt causes the cabbage to release water.  The cabbage is pounded down to the bottom of the crock and the salt water forms a protective seal over the top. This is allowed to ferment for at least a couple of weeks but some people do wait a couple of months.

Once it it ready, according to Gary (one of the founders of the museum and the resident sauerkraut expert) we scoop out the top and bag it up.  Here at the museum we freeze the sauerkraut for Christmas time.  But it can just as easily be canned or eaten straight way. Traditionally the Pennsylvania Germans would eat sauerkraut and pork as part of their New Year’s celebration because pigs rout forward and it will bring good luck.

The Quiet Valley Blog is written by Kat Muller as she explores the farm museum throughout the year.  Follow along with Kat and learn about the farm!

Historic Food: Apple Butter

One of our favorites fall activities here on the farm is making some of the best traditional food around.  At Harvest Festival, along with the craft demonstrations and games we prepare heritage recipes for friends and family alike.  For this blog post I am taking a closer look at the processes involved in some of these classic dishes.

Apple Butter

Apple Butter has everything to do with apples and nothing to do with butter at all.  Apple butter is similar to apple sauce but has been cooked for such a long time, usually with apple cider, that the apples have caramelized turning it a dark brown.  It has a creamy texture reminiscent of butter or jam and often eaten like them spread over toast or bread.

At Quiet Valley we work hard to make apple butter in a traditional manner.  Days leading up to our Harvest Festival we have an apple party.  All the apple dishes for the whole event are prepared including apple butter and apple pies.  The apples are peeled, cored, and cut into disks.  We use a special copper lined pot that we make the apple butter in. The day before we start making apple butter, we fill it about halfway up with apple cider and start it boiling.  Once it has reduced by about half in goes the cored apples until its full.  All day we keep the fire burning and stir the pot full of apples.  Many a visitor has helped out too!

Historically there used to be cider and apple butter parties where people would gather and take turns making these seasonal items.  It was also a great way to meet friends, find someone to marry, make business arrangements and come together as a community. After about 8 hours the apple butter is ready to can to help the deliciousness last longer.  We sell these wonderful jars at Harvest Festival and if you are lucky enough, Old Time Christmas too!

Food is important because it brings together a sense of community. Food builds connections across time, language barriers, and gender.  Next time you pass a plate, think about passing it to someone completely new.

We also make scrapple and sauerkraut too!

Building Partnerships

It is always important in business to build partnerships with other businesses.  This is particularly true with ones that share similar goals or products as your own such as carpenters working closely with electricians; as well as forming partnerships with dissimilar businesses as a way to expand potential customers and clientele.  This is particularly true with museums. We all struggle at times to draw in an audience and are often faced with similar challenges to overcome.  Recently, Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm has been working towards building partnerships with a couple different institutions.

East Stroudsburg Area School District has an amazing teacher in Mr. Bob Labar.  He teaches history but works on incorporating technology into the classroom.  In the spring, he reached out to Quiet Valley to see if we could build a partnership.   Quiet Valley is perfectly geared for the curriculum his students study in their history classes, colonial through the mid 1800’s. Throughout the year, as they study the students are going to be relating their lessons back to Quiet Valley.  Since they incorporate technology with their lessons, they are going to be talking about Quiet Valley on social media and producing little videos we hope to share with our visitors.  Keep an eye out on our website and social media to see them.  This is a great partnership because it introduces a new age group to Quiet Valley, helps us engage with a new promotion strategy, and even allows us to reach out to prospective volunteers.  It also allows a group of students a good case study for their history lessons that allows them to connect with the past and answer that constant question of “why should we care?” (or in teenage speech “so?”). We are really looking forward to building this partnership throughout the year.  We hope to be able to grow the program into a cyber-classroom and teach students on other continents about Quiet Valley.

The second partnership I want to update you on is with the National Museum of Industrial History down in Bethlehem. NMIH has a large collection of industrial machinery that were used for historic trades and crafts.  As a Smithsonian associated museum, big institutions like that don’t always pay attention to-or wish to partner with- us smaller ones.  For our 43rd Annual Harvest Festival our theme is “Forgotten Arts and Craft”; we reached out to NMIH to see if there is anything they wished to demonstrate.  To sweeten the deal, I spoke to them about my research on iron smelting.  If I did a presentation or two for them, would they be willing to do a presentation or two for us? The answer, a resounding yes.  NMIH will be out demonstrating a printing press and have invited an associated flint knapping group to come out as well. This past weekend a group of us gathered at NMIH and did a smelt and produced a bloom of over 16 pounds of steel.  It was the first time steel was made a Bethlehem since the furnace closed down in 1995.  Pretty cool. Make sure to stop by and say “Hi” to NMIH at our Harvest Festival in October.

The Quiet Valley Blog is written by Kat Muller as she explores the farm museum throughout the year.  Follow along with Kat and learn about the farm!

Stump the Interpreter: Widow’s Weed


Its great when visitors are interested in history to ask questions that lead to amazing discussions with interpreters.  This summer we’ve had a lot of great questions that have helped expand our understanding of life during the 1800s. This week’s questions was about Widow’s Weed during the mid to late 1800s.

Widow’s Weed is an 18th century term for the black crape widows would often wear while mourning their loved ones.  It comes from the Old English word waed meaning garment.  Prior to the Victorian period, it was considered customary to mourn lost loved ones but the Victorians took it to a whole other level.  They developed and encouraged certain rules of behavior that were particularly focused on widows.  It was customary for a widow to go into what was called full mourning for a year.  During this time she was to wear a veil (the widow’s weed) over her face, she not permitted to attend social functions, or generally be seen out in public.  Then for another half year to a year she was in half mourning and was permitted to attend some social occasions and could start adding more texture to her black wardrobe.   During her last six months of mourning, the widow could start adding more color to her clothes including white, gray and light purples.  (The Met in New York had a great display about mourning fashion. )

After her period of mourning ended, women were expected to remarry-particularly if they were young and had inherited money.  A widow was some what socially dangerous; she no longer had a male protector (either father or husband) and as a widow could own property. This could give her a freedom unknown to her peers.  Because of they were able to engage with men as slightly more socially equal standing.  A widow can gain some power without loosing her reputation. This side was often seen in political cartoons through the 1800s.

Men had it a bit easier.  If they were a ‘junior’, they couldn’t drop the junior from their name until their father was buried.  Men’s mourning clothes was not that different from their regular day wear. A widower was generally expected to be in mourning for about 6 months to a year for his wife.

Mourning was very expensive.  Like today’s wedding shops, the 19th century saw mourning parlors where people could go and buy anything they needed.  Going into mourning could bankrupt a family.  Often times frugal family members would just overdye their clothes to make them black.  Armbands were an option as well. Nevertheless, proper society considered them socially inappropriate for anyone not in uniform.  This was often the method used by individuals who did not have a lot of disposable income.

World War I really saw the end of the strict Victorian standards.  With so many people dying during the Great War it was just impractical to keep the strict traditions.  And the 1920s, saw the transformation of the widow’s black dress into the little black dress.  Today, while many people still wear black to funerals, it is not always necessary.  Its considered more appropriate for people to look well attended and to honor the memory of the person.

Now you know a little bit more about life during the 1800s. This blog is written by Katherine Muller, Executive Director of Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm.  It is intended to help visitors explore and learn about life on the farm throughout history and as Katherine explores and learns more about the farm too.


Stump the Interpreter: 1800s Toiletries cont.

In my previous post we addressed a question raised by a visitor regarding 1800s toiletries, specifically toilet paper and toilets.  This got us curious, what about toothpaste and toothbrushes.

Toothbrushes and Toothpaste

It seems that people have been trying to clean their teeth for as long as we’ve had civilization.  Some of the earliest recipes to make toothpaste were written by the Egyptians and Babylonians around 35000 BC.  Throughout most of history toothpaste was a powder that was rubbed onto the teeth with a frayed stick, a finger, or a cloth. The Egyptians seemed to prefer a toothpaste with lots of grit….yum.  Ingredients such as charcoal, crushed burnt bone, oyster shell, sand, and pumice are common ingredients.

By 1600 BC the Chinese were selling chewing sticks from aromatic trees to clean teeth.  They invented recognizable toothbrushes around the 1400’s.  This consisted of bristles made from boar neck hair attached to a bone or bamboo base.

18th and 19th century toothbrushes

The first commercially produced toothbrushes were made around 1780 by William Addis in England.  Toothbrushes were not exceedingly common for most of American history.  It is estimated that only 1 in 4 Americans owned a toothbrush in 1920. Toothpaste was usually burnt bread mixed with spices such as cloves, salt, and vinegar.

A dentists named Peabody produced a toothpaste that contained soap in 1824.  Soap was an ingredient in toothpaste until 1945.  Many toothpastes during the mid 1850’s contained chalk powder.  And many cookbooks contained recipes for toothpaste that involved charcoal.  By about 1850 toothpaste began being sold in jars usually with labels like “Creme Dentifice”.  And finally toothpaste began being put into tubes by Dr. Washington Sheffield in 1890.

Amazingly tooth care hasn’t changed too much but our technology and methods have gotten updated.  So now you know something new.


The Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm blog is written by Kat Muller, as she explores and learns about the farm during her first year employed here.  This blog post is part of a series answering the questions posed by visitors and often times stump or puzzle the interpreters.

Stump the Interpreter: 1800s Toiletries

Some of my favorite questions as a living history interpreter are ones that deal with ordinary activities we tend to overlook in our daily lives because they are so common.  These activities happen without us thinking about it.  For example, when walking from the bright sun into the Cellar Kitchen at Quiet Valley a visitor asked”can’t you turn on the lights?” Well, in 1820 there is no electricity to turn on; we have to light lamps or candles. That really gets a visitor thinking and lead to some interesting research on toilets, toilet paper, tooth brushes, and tooth paste.  Here is what we found out:

Toilets and Toilet Paper

The Romans were rather advanced when it came to most things including toilets.  They very famously had public ones where dozens of people could go at the same time connected to a sewer system with flowing water to wash things away.  Seems rather odd to us but privacy is a very new cultural trend.  Archaeologists, such as Ann Olga Koloski-Ostraw, are discovering that Romans even had some in their private homes. The first flushing toilet was famously invented for Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1596.  She did not care for it at all.  It was noisy and if she went to the room with the toilet the courtiers would know what business she was about.  A chamber pot or a toilet stool could easily be brought to you for your necessary needs. The embarrassment of people seeing you take a trip to the toilet or to by toilet paper took a long time to overcome.

The first practical flushing toilet appeared around 1778 and was invented by Joseph Bramah.  Toilets started to catch on in popularity but there was a problem.  Unlike the Romans, there were little to no sewer systems.  Most toilets lead down into a cesspool under the house or outside the house.  Most ordinary people had an outhouse or just dumped their waste into the street. It wasn’t until 1859 that the first planned sewer systems were built in both America and England.  By the 1890s sewage treatment plants were being built to help prevent disease such as cholera and typhoid. The Victorians started many campaigns aimed at living better lives and focused on everything from cleaner water to education.

It took a rather long time for toilet paper to appear on the scene.  The earliest toilet paper seems to have been invented in China around the 6th century. The first commercially made toilet paper was Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water Closet.  There were flat sheets instead of the roll to which we are all accustomed. The advent of a flushed toilet changed what was used as toilet paper.  When people used privies it didn’t really matter what was used as toilet paper since it went down a hole.  So items like corncobs, straw, water, and sticks were common. But these items couldn’t make it through the bends and turns of pipes.  Newspapers and pages from catalogs were used in outhouses to such a point early Old Farmer’s Almanac’s were printed with a hole in the corner to be easily hung on a hook.  It wasn’t until about 1930 that toilet paper was a commercial success since prior to that people were embarrassed to buy it in stores!

There are some fun facts to brighten your day.


The Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm blog is written by Kat Muller, as she explores and learns about the farm during her first year employed here.  This blog post is part of a series answering the questions posed by visitors and often times stump or puzzle the interpreters.

Stump the Interpreter: History of Hunting

Everyday offers another opportunity for the interpreters to learn something new at Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm.  Many times these lessons come in the form of questions from our visitors.  If you have ever been to Quiet Valley and gone on our tours, you’ve probably visited the 1820s Cellar Kitchen where we discuss life early in the farm’s history. We mention a little bit about hunting which prompted a visitor to ask, “What did you hunt and what were the regulations about hunting?” Great question! Here is what we’ve found.

Many of our ancestors came from Europe from the 1600s onward.  In Europe no one but nobility hunted wild animals; this was considered poaching and was punishable by hanging (at least in England).  People poached all the time and there was generally public support for poachers because often time they were just trying to feed their families.  For example, in the tales about Robin Hood, he originally becomes an outlaw because he poached on the the king’s deer.

The idea of the common person hunting was laid out in William Penn’s Charter in 1683. If you owned the land, you could now hunt on it.  This was one of the many incentives  for people to move to the new world. By the early 1800s many of the animals that once roamed Pennsylvania’s woods were becoming rarer. In 1801 the last bison was shot in Pennsylvania.  By 1820 Johan Simon and Susan Meyer, owned the property that would become Quiet Valley, would have probably seen deer, elk, stag, black wolves, and mountain lions. But by their children’s generation they would have been rarely sighted.

The first regulations regarding deer hunting were introduced in 1869 establishing hunting season as September 1st through December 31st.  In 1873 it became illegal to kill a fawn in spotted coat and hunt on Sundays.  Chances are deer would not have been nearly as plentiful in the 1820s as they are today but they would have still been present.  When the Meyer family hunted it was probably for small game such as birds or rabbits.  Refrigeration wasn’t possible yet in 1820, its much easier to consume a small amount of meat then try and store a whole elk in the middle of summer.

Thank you for the great questions visitors! Keep them coming!

This blog is written by Kat Muller, administrator at Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm, in her first year of working at the farm. Follow along on her discoveries and (mis)adventures as she learns about agriculture, animals, and much more.