For the 18th Century Deutsch — or German — settlers of the fork between the Saluda and Broad rivers, Christmas (“Weihnachten” in German) was by far the most important holiday of the year. It came to liven the winter, and from all accounts, what a joyous celebration it was! It was so big that records of the people of the Dutch Fork show that the celebration took two main days and the 10 days thereafter. Dec. 26 became known as “Second Christmas Day,” and the holiday had its ending on Twelfth Night, the Feast of Epiphany, Jan. 6. These dates fell nicely within the framework of midwinter pre-Christian celebrations representing the 12-day gap between the Solar and Lunar calendars.
Christmas joy came from celebrating at once the birth of Christ and the triumph of light and life over the demons of darkness and death. In the old country from pre-Christian times on, evergreens had represented the continuation of life through the season of death and were a magic charm against the evil spirits of winter. In the new country, an important Dutch Fork ritual consisted of bringing the holly, ivy, cedar, smilax, mistletoe, and other evergreens into the home. They were placed over picture frames and doors and on mantels.
Christmas trees, although originating in Germany, were not in the homes of the early Dutch Fork settlers but were reserved for the communities’ Lutheran churches. Mrs. Vinnie Shealy Mayer (1890-1984) recalled that in 1900, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church always had a tree in its sanctuary while the homes she knew had none. At St. Jacob’s Lutheran, Mrs. Mayer recalled a large tree “placed up front.” She said, “It was a holly tree full of berries and it reached the ceiling.” It was decorated with strings of popcorn and berries and sometimes candles. An annual children’s Christmas service was conducted around it.
I have found only one mention of a Christmas tree in a home in all the writings from the Dutch Fork. An 1859 passage describes how the newly popular chrysanthemum can bloom at Christmas so that “children can, with bouquets of natural flowers, decorate their Christmas trees, at the innocent festival which impresses upon their minds the beautiful legend that the Savior was born when the old year died.” This mention provides two bits of information: firstly, that these trees were largely the province of the children who decorated them with the symbols of life, and, secondly, that the tree itself was a holy symbol that represented life coming from death — in the manner of the ancient winter solstice customs from pagan times.
The Mexican poinsettia had not yet been venerated as the Christmas flower in the way it is today; the holly reigned supreme in the early Fork. Her hardwood forests were full of them. This must have struck an ancient chord because prehistoric Europe had done homage to the earth goddess who had two sons: the holly king, sovereign of the winter, and the oak king, ruler of the summer. The oak lost its leaves in winter and was lush in the summer, but the holly was green in the dead time of the year. The mistletoe had special magical significance as “the golden bough” that would remain green on the leafless oak. Father Christmas always carried a sprig or pinned one to his coat. Santa Claus did not exist. Even Father Christmas was a rarity — he was English after all. The predominance of nature in the Christmas rituals indicates man’s closeness with the natural world in that era. No plastics, no tinsel, no electric lights!
As it had been in medieval Germany, the celebration in the Dutch Fork was always church-centered. Church services were always held on both Christmas Day and Second Christmas Day, then on the Sunday after Christmas and on Epiphany. The taking of the Sacrament was the highlight of all. Communion wine was made by a parishioner from his or her own arbor as is still the practice today in the rural Lutheran churches of the Fork.
Although primarily holy days of rejoicing, a Dutch Fork Christmas also had its important secular aspects, many of which originated in 14th and 15th century Southern Germany. The season was a time for unrestrained exuberance, feasting, and song. Dutch Fork settlers would have found it odd that the Puritans of New England forbade by law any recognition of Christmas, including punishments for anyone who did so. No bright colors, no song, no decorations with holly, no feasting, and certainly no dancing. How very strange!
The early Deutsch settlers practiced many of the secular traditions of their German ancestors, and we have written proof of several such customs that came to the Fork unchanged from the old country of the 1600s. The most popular was the practice of Christkindleschiessen or Weihnachtsschützen, which was the traditional shooting of Christmas gun salutes, still practiced in Bavaria, the Black Forest, and the Swiss Alps. For example, today, on Christmas Eve night, the mountains of Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps are made to echo with the sound of guns. The men of the village fire volley after volley to guide the Christ Child to the village — until midnight, when silence signifies His arrival. The modern German celebration is far more organized than it was in the Dutch Fork, when simply everyone with a gun was said to fire across roofs and stretches of silent winter fields in order to frighten away any evil spirits that might be lurking about.
Our most important Dutch Fork author, Dr. O.B. Mayer (1818-1891), recalled that a fellow physician, P.B. Ruff, was born on Christmas Eve, 1801, “while his father’s friends and neighbours, as was the custom in those days, were firing guns around, about, and under the house.” Mayer recalled from firsthand experience in the 1820s and ’30s that the young men of the Fork “retained many of the wild, frolicsome habits which their forefathers brought with them from the Fatherland.” He continued, “Perhaps the wildest of these was to ramble throughout the night of Christmas Eve, in companies of a dozen persons, from house to house, firing heavily charged guns; and having thus aroused the family they would enter the domicile with stamping, scramble to the blazing fire, greedily eat the pratzilies and schneckilies [spiral rolls], imbibe, with many a rugged joke and ringing peal of laughter, heavy draughts of a compound liquor made of rum and sugar, butter, and allspice stewed together” in a hot mull.
Mayer concluded that with a loud racket, the raucous crew would then “rush out into the night, breath smoking in the cold, to visit the next neighbour.” This went on in all the neighborhoods throughout the Fork. Today’s shooting of fireworks at Christmas — not New Year’s — that is still to be heard in rural communities of the Fork probably derives from this ancient custom. Mayer was the grandfather of beloved Columbia physician Dr. O.B. Mayer, III, who died in 2000 at the age of 102.
The old custom of Fasching is also still practiced today in Southern Germany. Young unmarried men bearing clanking chains and large cowbells visit door to door nightly throughout the 12 days. They wear outlandish costumes representing gruesome ogres, weird hairy monsters, and quasi-frightful, fanciful, shaggy-haired animal creatures. The young marriageable daughters of the family are to take special note. The men are given mulled hot spiced wine and baked treats very much as were the revelers in the Fork a century ago. No doubt the Fasching masqueraders represent the demons and evil spirits of the winter that the coming light will drive away. It appears that the Dutch Fork revelers merged the German customs of Fasching with Weihnachtsschützen.
We are fortunate to have a superb early memory of Christmas in the Dutch Fork of the 1840s. Kate Monts of Pomaria recalled that children hung their stockings and found them filled with cookies, gingerbread men, molasses candy, perhaps a pair of new, specially decorated home-knit stockings or mittens to wear to church, and always a few stuffed cloth toys. The boys on one rare occasion were made to feel grown up when they got pocketknives. Kate’s grandmother always came to spend the 12 days with them carrying a homemade willow basket bulging with what she called Christkringels — “masterpieces of pastry.” These were the same fancy Christmas cookies made in the shapes of various characters still created in parts of Southern Germany today and called Christkindles.
Mrs. Monts described these pastry masterpieces as “little boys and girls wearing suits and frilly dresses … with currants, dried fruit, strips of pepper, cloves, spice and cinnamon bark for dress and facial expressions.” Her granny made clowns and soldiers, preachers, babies, animals — “dogs especially — little fuzzy ones with great coconut hair, great bird dogs and hounds with floppy ears.”
Mrs. Monts concluded, “We wouldn’t have eaten these dainties on Christmas Day for anything, but by Second Christmas Day the novelty had somewhat worn off.” Some got broken, and gradually they disappeared, she said, bringing as much joy to the palate as they had done to the eye.
Her mother’s Christmas dinner ended with pound cake and blackberry wine. Mrs. Vennie Mayer listed Christmas fare as turkey, baked goose, duck, hen, noodles, dumplings, sweet potatoes, sauerkraut, various custards, rice puddings made with cinnamon and raisins, pound cake, eggnog, and a frothy wine — or whiskey-laced syllabub. No mention was made of fruitcake in the early Dutch Fork. But by mid 19th century, a favorite was Japanese Fruit Cake, served with ambrosia. Though rare, the cake is still made today and is worth the trouble. It was my mother’s favorite. She was known for it, and the recipe she used is below.
One of my favorite stories associated with a Dutch Fork dessert concerns the legendary Dutch Fork rice pudding. O. B. Mayer recalled that it was served with a hole in the center into which was poured a potent, sweet homemade wine. As they ate from the center, they kept filling the ever-widening hole with wine. While the women cooked and baked in the great outdoor brick ovens, the men hunted. The hunting party’s host would have a big dinner served at his house when they returned. Game was plentiful and supplemented the holiday fare.
Secular New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day were not particularly special days. They were simply two of the holy days of Christmas leading to the real New Year’s Day of Jan. 6, the church’s new year — Epiphany — and the joyous and unrestrained Twelfth Night celebration.
Working during the 12 days of Christmas was considered very bad luck. Even threshing, milling, spinning, and weaving were avoided. My mother recalled less than 30 years previously that washing on New Year’s Day would surely bring a death, as you would be “washing someone out of the family.” Still current in the Black Forest, from which many of the Dutch Fork settlers came, as I found during my travels there in the 1980s, is the belief that washing on this day brings great misfortune, and white linen on the clothesline signifies that there will be need for grave clothes as shroud in a family member’s coffin.
From that somber reflection, we pass to something more cheerful. Here follow three favorite Dutch Fork Christmas recipes of old, recorded by my mother half a century ago. The first is perhaps the simplest recipe known to man, and the second is one of the more complicated. The third is a must to serve with the second at your Christmas family dinner. They may be found in Juanita C. Kibler’s Dutch Fork Cookery: A Treasury of Traditional Recipes from the German Kitchens of Central South Carolina, published with little fanfare in 1989 and hailed by Atlanta food historian Joseph Dabney in 2010 as a “Southern classic.”
Probably the most venerable survivor of Dutch Fork cookery is what the people of the area call “Stickies.” Stickies are simply the pieces of pastry left in trimming an encircled pie plate or the scraps left over from cutting out biscuits. These scraps are prepared this way: Allow some butter to reach room temperature and cream it with sugar. Roll the dough to a ¼-inch thickness and cut it into 6- or 7-inch squares. They don’t have to be all the same size. Place 1 heaping tablespoon of the butter-sugar mixture in the center of a square, fold the square ⅔ of the way, and then fold the remaining ⅓ back and pinch together. Place on a greased baking sheet and bake at 400 F until lightly brown. It is optional to pour or brush a little cream over the stickies and return to the oven until medium brown. Some variants add cinnamon and/or a little vanilla flavoring to the butter-sugar mixture, but as my common-sense mother would say, why complicate a good thing? As I found in my travels in Germany, the name derives from the German Stücken, meaning most appropriately “scraps” or “pieces.”
Japanese Fruit Cake
Mother recorded this 1890 recipe, which she used to make the cake most appreciated by our family members. Up until her death, she complied with our kin’s requests to make them this cake.
2 cups sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup whole milk
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 mounded cup raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
Beat eggs. Add sugar and continue beating. Add butter and stir together flour and baking powder. Add alternately with milk. Bake ⅔ of the batter in 3 layers. In the remaining batter, add the raisins and spices and bake in two layers. This second batter will bake a pretty brown color. Assemble the layers alternately beginning with the white layer.
Use this filling between layers, on top, and down
1 fresh coconut, finely grated
2 lemons, grated rind and juice
2 cups sugar
1 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Boil all ingredients until the mixture begins to thicken. Spread between the layers while warm, and stick the layers with fork tines or toothpicks to increase the absorption of the filling. If the cake is good, it will weigh heavy!
There are many variations of this recipe, but Mother liked this one best, and it is the one she included in her cookbook:
1 fresh grated coconut
6 or 8 oranges peeled and diced into small pieces
Sugar or honey to taste
¼ cup raisins (optional)
1 cup heavy cream (optional)
½ or more cup crushed pecans (optional)
1 or 2 bananas
To the oranges, add the raisins, coconuts, sugar, pecans, and cream. Add sliced bananas last and mix well. Chill and serve with pound cake or Japanese Fruit Cake. Mother bought a fresh coconut and grated it. She always said that this made the real difference between good and great. Finally, as Mother wrote, “It’s especially nice to put a heaping tablespoon of whipped cream on top of the ambrosia or pound cake before serving.” Fröhliche Weihnachten!