10 Lancaster County Holiday Traditions
Lancaster puts its own fun spin on the holidays.
The holiday season in Lancaster County is a joyous time of fond memories and festive traditions. If you are weary of the consumerism and crowded shopping malls, step back into a simpler time and enjoy some old-fashioned Lancaster holiday traditions, and draw the focus back to your family, faith and community. Here are ten local Lancaster County holiday traditions:
1. Hiding a pickle
A very old PA Dutch Christmas Eve tradition (originating in Germany) was to hide a pickle ornament deep in the branches of the family Christmas tree. The parents hung the pickle last, after all the other ornaments were in place. In the morning, the child who found the pickle first would receive an extra gift. The first adult to find the pickle traditionally would get good luck the whole year.
2. Leaving an empty plate under the tree
Instead of leaving a treat for Santa on Christmas Eve, PA Dutch youngsters would leave an empty plate under their Christmas tree for the Grishkindel (Christ child) to fill with sweets for them to eat.
3. The first Christmas tree
One of the first known written mentions of a Christmas tree in America is found in the 1821 diary of Matthew Zahn, who lived right here in Lancaster.
4. The Belsnickel
The Belsnickel is a traditional German character known for visiting children a few weeks before Christmas to help determine who was naughty and who was nice.
5. Hanging the Moravian Star
The Moravian Star was adopted by the Moravian Church as a symbol of the birth of Jesus, and represented the star of Bethlehem. Traditionally, the star is hung on the first Sunday of Advent and remains up until Epiphany, January 6, or the time of the coming of the Magi. You can see Moravian Stars throughout the county, but especially in the town of Lititz.
6. Dying eggs for the tree
Early Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas traditions include dying eggs with onion skins – we now associate that practice with Easter, but it was an originally a Christmas activity. The festive eggs would then be used to decorate the tree. Another traditional holiday decoration in Lancaster is a pretzel.
7. Ringing in the New Year
Among the unusual items that will be dropped to ring in the New Year in various towns around Lancaster are a red rose, a shoe, and a 100 pound bologna.
8. Springerle cookies
Springerle cookies were among the traditional ornaments used to adorn PA Dutch tabletop trees. They are made plain (anise, almond or vanilla flavored) or painted with edible gold. Some are also in the form of hand painted ornaments. You can find them locally handmade, one at a time, as they have been for hundreds of years.
9. Pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day
The traditional PA Dutch New Year’s Day meal is pork and sauerkraut, which is thought to bring good luck and good fortune in the coming year because, as the saying goes, “the pig roots forward while the turkey scratches backwards.”
10. Giving back
The biggest Lancaster Christmas tradition comes from the influence of the Amish culture in our area. Giving back to others. The Amish share what they have with their neighbors – from helping an elderly neighbor put up their tree to volunteering in the local shelter and inviting others into their home for Christmas dinner. Afterall, that is what the true Christmas spirit is about.
Part of the joy of the season is reminiscing about what makes your family unique. Ask your parents & grandparents about their holiday customs growing up. Whether you choose to begin new traditions with us here in Lancaster County, or to continue old ones from years past, celebrate what makes you family, and enjoy this holiday season.