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The Rich Christmas Traditions of Central PA

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania lies a region steeped in time-honored traditions and a rich cultural heritage. Central Pennsylvania, with its vibrant tapestry of history and customs, celebrates the holiday season with a unique blend of folklore, culinary delights, and age-old rituals. From cherished Pennsylvania Dutch influences to European-inspired markets, this picturesque region unfolds a fascinating tapestry of holiday traditions, embracing a captivating amalgamation of old-world charm and modern festivities.

The Christmas Traditions of Central PA

Belsnickel: The Mischievous Yuletide Figure:

One of the most intriguing holiday characters in Central PA is Belsnickel. Dressed in furs and wielding hazel or birch branches, this curious character arrives, unannounced, to visit children during the holiday season. He's neither entirely sinister nor purely benevolent, with a reputation for rewarding well-behaved youngsters with nuts and fruits but also for lightly swatting the behinds of those less behaved. This mischievous yet endearing gift-bringer, steeped in German folklore, adds a touch of playful whimsy to the festive celebrations, making him a cherished and memorable part of Central PA's holiday folklore.

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European-Inspired Christmas Markets:

Drawing from European influences, Central Pennsylvania features bustling Christmas markets that encapsulate the spirit of the season. Markets offer an array of handcrafted goods, delightful treats, and traditional decorations. These markets are a testament to the region's diverse immigrant history.

Located in Bethlehem, this traditional German-style Christmas market offers an enchanting holiday experience. Christkindlmarkt features a variety of vendors selling unique gifts, ornaments, and delicious seasonal treats. Visitors can enjoy live music, handmade crafts, and the ambiance of charming wooden stalls amidst the festive decorations.

For a curated full list of markets, you can click here to visit this website.

Second Christmas: A Time of Relaxed Celebrations:

Second Christmas, rooted in Old World European customs, especially German traditions, is observed by the Pennsylvania Dutch in Central Pennsylvania. Celebrated on December 26th, it extends the Christmas festivities. Families gather for more relaxed, informal gatherings, continuing the holiday spirit with shared meals and gift exchanges. Over time, its observance has diminished among the broader population but remains prevalent in Amish communities and those deeply connected to German heritage. For them, it symbolizes cultural legacy, honoring past traditions, and maintaining a connection to their heritage in Central PA.

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Menorah Torch Run in Luzerne County:

The Menorah Torch Run in Luzerne County, a cherished annual tradition spanning over 50 years, illuminates the Hanukkah celebrations. This enduring event involves a group of dedicated runners who transport a flame to kindle the menorah at the Jewish Community Center in Kingston. Commencing on December 18th, coinciding with the beginning of Hanukkah, the run embodies the essence of the festival of lights. While Hanukkah itself holds minor religious significance within Judaism, this symbolic torch run represents the spirit of unity, hope, and community. Its enduring legacy reflects the commitment of the local Jewish community in Luzerne County to celebrate and share their cultural heritage, fostering connections and spreading joy during the holiday season.

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Moravian Stars and Decorative Traditions:

The Moravian star, a dazzling and intricate multi-pointed ornament, embodies a cherished decorative tradition in Central Pennsylvania. Originating in the Moravian church during the 19th century in Germany, these radiant stars symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. When Moravian settlers arrived in Pennsylvania, they brought this tradition, adorning their homes with these luminous stars during the holiday season. The mesmerizing Moravian stars, crafted from paper, wood, or other materials, embellish windows, porches, and trees, adding a touch of enchantment to the festive atmosphere.

Additionally, the Central PA region boasts an array of decorative traditions intertwined with the holiday season. Among these is the Christmas pyramid, another heritage brought by Moravian immigrants. This four-sided frame, decked with delectable treats like cookies, candies, and fruits, has been a cherished fixture in households since the mid-18th century. Its display and ornamental allure continue to captivate residents, serving as a reminder of the rich cultural heritage that enriches the holiday celebrations in Central Pennsylvania.

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Quirky Superstitions and New Year's Beliefs:

Central Pennsylvania, deeply rooted in Pennsylvania Dutch traditions, harbors a delightful assortment of lighthearted and amusing holiday superstitions that add whimsy to the festive season. One whimsical belief involves the idea that the first person entering your home on New Year's Day should ideally be a tall, dark-haired man. This tradition, passed down through generations, suggests that this individual will bring good luck to the household for the upcoming year. On the flip side, welcoming a fair-haired woman could supposedly bring misfortune, so she's often playfully shooed away!

Another charming superstition involves refraining from doing laundry on New Year's Day. Locals believe that washing clothes could wash away a family member in the coming months! To avoid this potential mishap, many households put off their laundry chores until after the first day of the year has passed, adding a whimsical touch of avoidance to the festivities.

Intriguingly, some Pennsylvania Dutch communities also observe the custom of placing an upside-down Christmas tree in their homes. Originating from a practice to deter pesky mice from stealing edible ornaments like dried apple garlands, the upside-down tree hangs from the ceiling, showcasing an array of delectable treats. This quirky tradition showcases a blend of practicality and festive charm, making the holiday celebrations in Central PA all the more unique and whimsical. These playful superstitions add a sprinkle of merriment and eccentricity to the holiday season, embodying the fun-loving spirit of the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage in Central Pennsylvania.

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Culinary Traditions and Festive Gatherings:

The holiday season in Central Pennsylvania is also marked by culinary delights and festive gatherings. Families and communities come together to share special meals, exchange gifts, and partake in age-old customs, fostering a sense of unity and tradition.

Central Pennsylvania, particularly influenced by Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, boasts an array of traditional foods that play a significant role during the holidays. One such beloved dish is the scrumptious "Pork and Sauerkraut." This hearty and savory meal, often enjoyed on New Year's Day, symbolizes good luck for the coming year. The pork, signifying progress as pigs root forward, and the sauerkraut, resembling a wealth of riches, are slow-cooked together, creating a delightful blend of flavors that has become a time-honored tradition.

Another culinary delight synonymous with the region's festive season is the warm and comforting "Boilo." This Lithuanian-inspired holiday drink, adopted by the coal region of Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA), is a concoction of citrus fruits, spices, honey, and inexpensive alcohol. Boilo warms the spirit and serves as a staple beverage during holiday gatherings, reflecting the region's diverse cultural influences. These delightful culinary offerings are just a glimpse into the rich and flavorful tapestry of foods that grace the holiday tables across Central Pennsylvania, evoking a sense of warmth, community, and tradition.

In the cradle of Central Pennsylvania, the holidays resonate with the echoes of time, weaving a captivating narrative of cultural fusion and enduring customs. This enchanting region stands as a testament to the resilience of tradition and the warmth of community, where every festive season welcomes cherished practices passed down through generations. As we bid adieu to another holiday season in Central Pennsylvania, the echoes of Belsnickel, the aromas of Boilo, and the twinkling lights of Christmas markets linger, serving as an enduring testament to the rich heritage and enduring traditions of this captivating landscape.


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