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Christmas Past/Yuletide Spirits Await
by Nathan Oravec
Christmas Eve, in a corner bedroom of the Hager House, two envelopes, sealed with glue and sprinkled with sugar, wait on the windowsill. The sugar, sparkling in the moonlight, will catch the eye of Christkindel as she passes; the letters inside are for her, relaying the Christmas dreams of the children who sleep peacefully on the rope bed beyond - hoping to receive gifts of candy, nuts and gingerbread Christmas Day.
Christkindel, or Christ Child, represented by a small girl dressed entirely in white, delivered gifts to the children of Germany on Christmas Eve from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. She is part of a legendary lineage that includes such traditional German Christmas figureheads from the early pagan Father Thor to the fourth century’s arrival of St. Nicholas, a bishop who awarded gifts to children for remembering their catechism and his monstrous associate, Klausbauf, who punished the forgetful.
Surprisingly, the many stories comprising German Christmas, a presentation of the Hager House, home of Hagerstown founder, Jonathan Hager, are populated with as many monsters, werewolves, and evil spirits as they are benevolent gift-givers of yore. “There were lots of good guys and lots of bad guys,” says curator John Nelson. “There were some interesting intimidation tactics used by parents in those days. Kind of a ‘better be good for goodness’ sakes’ thing, I guess.”
Stories like these have always piqued visitors’ interest, leading to the evolution of the German Christmas at Hager House, now in its eighth year. It was an appropriate homage. A native of Germany, Jonathan Hager built the home in 1739, founding the city that bears his name 23 years later. Standing at the foot of the hearth in Hager’s rustic front room, candlelight casting shadows on stone and wood and iron, one can almost feel the warmth of the yule log’s glowing embers and picture snow falling outside the window on a chilled and truly silent night in December. Not so easy to imagine, perhaps, is an existence prior to modern conveniences such as radio, television and digital video, where the sole entertainment lied entirely within the imagination - when tales were passed around the family table or the village tavern.
“Christmas in Germany was a very local event,” says Nelson, “and was celebrated differently within each village.” Because of this, customs, character names, traditions and practices varied from region to region - contributing to the cultural wealth that he shares with visitors to the house today.
Stories represented span over two thousand years of beliefs, says Nelson. Throughout the fourth century to the nineteenth, Germany was rife with superstition, folklore, legend and magic. While many may be familiar with the Twelve Days of Christmas, early Germans recognized Die Zwolfe Raunachten, or “twelve rough nights,” in which bad things were known to occur. On those nights, Frau Gode and her team of wild dogs roamed the countryside searching for a house with its door left wide where a dog would be sent to wreak havoc - but if killed by the family within, would turn into a stone. In some areas of Germany, those born on Christmas Day were believed able to communicate with animals, while those born during Christmas week were thought to be werewolves. Mistletoe and greenery adorning windows and doorways were initially used as charms to ward off evil spirits, while the three Thursdays prior to Christmas were known as “knocking days” in which children would cavort noisily throughout their town in hopes of doing the same.
While some tales may possibly be more macabre than what contemporary celebrations entail, German Christmases were not without the joy and merrymaking attributed to practices still held today; in fact, many holiday icons - such as tinsel and even the Christmas tree, itself - have their proverbial roots in German custom. The former, Nelson explains, as legend has it, was a gift, once again, from Christkindel. On Christmas Eve, while passing by a home, Christkindel noticed that a spider had spun its web over the branches of the family Christmas tree. Pausing at the window, she turned the webbing to silver as a glimmering gift to the family.
Celebrating the birth of Christ, religious icons were prominent in many German homes during the holidays. A reproduction of a Moravian Putz, an elaborate Nativity scene, is housed in a room at Hager. As with those early models that inspired it, a hidden feature exists within the majestic diorama depicting the day that Jesus was born; originally placed there to entice spectators to examine even the slightest details and perhaps grow closer to Christianity as a result.
Next to the fireplace sets a wooden cradle, a portrait of Christ resting inside. A symbol of His humanity, the tradition known as “cradle rocking”, in which German parishoners entered a manger scene and sang lullabies to the Christ Child while rocking his cradle, was a highlight for two hundred years before fading away in the sixteenth century.
Nelson, who has been with the Hager House for sixteen years, hopes that visitors might be touched by the simplicity this holiday history has to offer. “I hope people appreciate the extreme lack of commercialism. These were harsh times and often the children were lucky to get some nuts, candy and gingerbread. It gives people something to think about.”
“Christmas then wasn’t about throwing gifts at one another,” he says. “I think that’s probably the way it was supposed to be.”
German Christmas will be held at the Hager House in Hagerstown City Park from now until January 4, excluding Monday and Christmas Day. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 2 to 5 p.m. Admission is adults, $4; senior citizens, $3; children 6-12, $2 and children under 6 are admitted free. For more information, call 301-739-8393 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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