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!




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: 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.

Gathering Maple Sugar

Maple sap dripping from the spile.

Each Spring, Quiet Valley makes its own maple sugar.  We all love the sweet, sticky sap that comes from these types of trees for our pancakes and for adding to all sorts of recipes, such as maple ginger salmon. This past week we started tapping the trees around the farm.  A good tap tree is about 10 to 20 inches in diameter, which makes the tree about 40 years old.  A tap is drilled into the tree and a small metal tube called a spile is inserted into the tree. The sap runs down the spile and spills into a waiting container.  In our case those are sterilized glass jars but these can be buckets or even special bags.  I was really surprised to see that the sap was clear.  (I had assumed it was going to be colored.)

The sap is clear in the bucket. Please excuse my foot in the photo; it’s keeping the bucket from falling over.

The jars are collected twice a day, but with how quickly the sap is flowing now, it might be three times a day.  Once enough maple sap is collected then we have a Maple Sugaring Event which is open to all members of Quiet Valley.  During this event the sap is heated in big vats and refined into the syrup we love.

The glass jars collecting sap.

How does this work? During the summer, the trees store sugar and nutrients in their roots. In the Spring, when the weather begins to warm, the sap begins to return to the top of the tree to help grow the leaves.  The best time to gather the sap is when it is warm during the day and cold at night.  That way the sap runs better.  You don’t have to stop at just tapping maple trees but can also tap birch trees, black walnuts, hickory and box elder. This Saturday, February 25th, we’ll be cooking down the sap and making maple sugar.

Who are you?


Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm primarily uses first person interpretation for its tours and programs.  That means all the interpreters, for better or worst, are in a particular time period and relate to someone  workings of the farm during that time. (In other words, they portray on original family member of the farm or one of their fictional children, cousins, siblings, hired hands, etc.) To clarify my above statement there are some things that first person interpretation does work very well and is a great way to demonstrate living history by making it engaging and dynamic. Notwithstanding,  I am currently struggling with who my character and who they are on the farm.

I fall into an age gap where I’m too young to be a direct member of the families who owned the farm Johan Simon Meyer’s family (1820s) or the Peter Marsh (1850s). But I’m too old to be any of their children. For a bit of help here is the Quiet Valley Family Tree.  To get around this, my character is going to be descended from a sister of Johan Simon Meyer named Catherine.  (That solves a couple of problems: 1. I can’t forget any of my character’s matralineal line because they will all be C/Katherines and 2. if I need to change time period between 1820s, 1850s, and 1890s, I just add/subtract C/Katherines. So I could be Katherine Zepper Meyer’s daughter, Catherine’s, daughter etc. ) 

One of the first characters I’m developing is a schoolmarm to help with spring school tours.  Again though, I come up with the problem of my age.  A woman in her mid to late 20s would traditionally be married during the 1890s.  If I was married during the late 1800s, then I legally couldn’t be a schoolmarm in the state of Pennsylvania.  That got me thinking about possibly portraying  a widow and then I’d be able to speak to more interesting social trend in my interpretation.


A display from “Death Becomes Her” a costume display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014.

Historically people were widowed or widowers much more often then today.  During the late 1800s, there were many social conventions that dictated periods of mourning and rules for widows.  Wealthy women would often be in mourning for 2 or more years during which time they didn’t participate in society.  They were excluded from shopping or attending weddings, balls, or social functions.  For the first year they wore black often with a veil and then for the second year grays and pale purples.  By the third year they could start introducing colors again to their wardrobe.

But what about working women who couldn’t afford to buy new clothes for mourning and still needed to work?  Often these women would remarry after they were widowed, particular if their were young children.  If the children were older and she could be financial independent, the widow tended not to remarry.  This was because as a widow she was entitled to a winder participation in society then her married counterparts.  (Widows could own property and in some states and countries even could vote.)  Older women tended not to remarry either. Younger women who didn’t remarry were, at times, viewed poorly by society for not following social conventions. That maybe a detail I’ll have to work out but at least I’ve got an idea to begin.  So now I have to work on adding a little gray or black to my costume. (perhaps pictures to follow.)