Christmas without commercialism

December 18, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Forget those piles of shiny wrapped packages piled underneath the Christmas tree, the toys peeking out from fur-lined stockings hung from the mantel, and the sparkling lights strung about the house and yard for the holidays. Be prepared instead for a few simple gifts, a heavy dose of religion, some superstition and decorations so natural they still smell like the forest.

"German Christmas" at the Hager House Museum in Hagerstown's City Park celebrates German holiday traditions untainted by post-World War II commercialism, curator John Nelson says. He and fellow historian John Bryan will lead tours through the Hager House, each room of which has been decorated to reflect German customs dating from at least the fourth century.

"Our purpose is to educate and enlighten about German Christmases," he says. "There's more meaning here because there's no commercialism in it."


Traditionally, each region in Germany celebrated Christmas in its own way due to geographical isolation and religious and political differences, Nelson says. A display in the Hager House's kitchen illustrates some of these holiday variations through the use of dolls that represent different gift givers in the German tradition.

Adjacent to the kitchen, the sewing room's displays include a mask, broom and chains. These were the traditional tools of the Berchtenrunners in Southern Germany, people who honored the Goddess of Crops at Christmastime by going from farm to farm demanding payment from farmers for the goddess' services, Nelson says.

"It sounds more like an American Halloween, but it was part of a German Christmas," he says.

In Hager's Trading Post, Nelson tells of German holiday superstitions that range from the "very serious to the very strange," including:

  • Don't clean the stables during Christmas Week or witches will catch you.

  • Don't take a bath during Christmas Week or you will catch a cold.

  • If you're born on Christmas Day, you will understand the language of animals.

  • If you're born during Christmas Week, you'll become a werewolf.

German children's customs - including using Advent calendars and wreaths, writing to Christ Kindel for gifts, and warding off evil spirits - are illustrated in an upstairs bedroom. The upstairs hall leading to the master bedroom contains such holiday adornments as mistletoe, which was used in Germany to repel disease and old age, Nelson says.

Customs involving Christmas trees and other greenery - including hanging trees upside down to keep hostile spirits at bay - are shown in the master bedroom. And an adjoining bedroom holds the display which Nelson and Bryan consider the crowning jewel of the exhibit - the Moravian Putz.

"This is our highlight," says Nelson, pointing to the L-shaped table topped with sand, landscaping features and tiny figurines. The sprawling Nativity scene, which traditionally used tree stumps to symbolize the cave in which Moravians believed Christ was born, holds a hidden secret targeted at getting viewers to closely study the scene.

The Herald-Mail Articles