Think fast! What popular holiday is celebrated with costume dances and children running from house to house asking for treats?
Why, it would be Christmas, of course.
At least, that’s how rural German communities have celebrated it for many generations, and according to research by the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, these traditions were alive and well among the German-born ironworkers who operated the blast furnace. Catoctin in Thurmont until it closed in 1903.
The company’s oral history interviews reveal that Christmas traditions continued in the village of Catoctin Furnace until WWII, when anti-German sentiment, radio technology, and easy automobile access in Frederick led the community to absorb mainstream American culture.
But every year in December for the past decade, the CFHS has attempted to revive some of the village’s German Christmas traditions for Frederick County with the traditional village Christmas celebration, which will take place on December 4 of this year. .
While village festivities have not reverted to the fancy dress dances all night long ago, the annual event gives attendees a taste of the rural vacation world that permeated small towns in Frederick County before mass communication. and the automobile.
The main feature this year will be a large, European-style outdoor Christmas market. Local artisans, all located a few dozen miles from Catoctin Furnace, will be selling a range of handmade items not found in large retail stores. Craftsmen include a blacksmith, leatherworker, quilter, jeweler, and soap maker.
One of the main activities of the day will be the decoration of personalized wreaths, said Theresa Donnelly, deputy director of CFHS.
“We have fresh green wreaths and tight ropes, and we have a huge assortment of ornaments and decorations,” she said. “People can come and choose their own decorations, then we will put [the wreaths] together for them, or they can do it themselves.
Visitors also have the option to say ‘surprise me’ and let CFHS volunteers use their own judgment to craft personalized wreaths for guests, many of which have already been pre-sold – a sign the festival is likely to. see a big crowd this year.
You can also enjoy live music during the festival. A newly formed – and as yet unnamed – musical group of CFHSS members will perform bluegrass-style Christmas music throughout the day on guitar, violin and mandolin.
The only aspect of the festivities that will stray from historical authenticity will be the food, Donnelly said. While many traditional foods, such as hard candy made by Mennonites will be available, a local barbecue truck will set up for the day. There will also be plenty of baked goods and hot apple cider.
Perhaps the most specifically German tradition of the time will be the visit to the children of the mythical Belsnickle, a horned anthropomorphic figure similar to Krampus who questions children about their behavior – then rewards or punishes them according to their answers. However, the Belsnickle at Christmas Village will be more educational than scary, sharing its origin story as a pagan trickster figure from the Swiss Alps who was later mixed with Christian conceptions of the devil.
Elizabeth Comer, president of the CFHS, said the older residents of Catoctin Furnace, some of whom are now deceased, provided oral history interviews recounting the Christmas visits of young men dressed as Belsnickle to their homes.
The mysterious figure would announce its presence by patting its staff on the windows and doors. He created the suspense by opening the front door and throwing handfuls of nuts on the floor before entering. After questioning the frightened children and asking them to recite poetry or sing songs, the Belsnickle’s demeanor softened and he handed out gifts.
“His visits were both frightening and exhilarating,” Comer said in a 2020 YouTube video project, documenting the village’s oral histories.
The CFHS tries to add a little more tradition and programming to the Christmas Village each year. Last year, Comer contacted the German village of Wichmannshausen, to which many current residents of Catoctin Furnace trace their ancestors. Comer asked a local pastor to share videos of their current Christmas markets so the CFHS can compare how traditions have changed since their ancestors emigrated from Germany, but plans were put on hold as the market was canceled. due to the pandemic. Comer hopes to establish a relationship between the two communities when the pandemic measures subside.
Comer would also like to know more about the holiday traditions of the slave African ironworkers who worked at the Catoctin kiln until they were sold to unknown destinations in the 1830s and replaced by German wage earners. There is little contemporary documentation of their experiences, and much of what is known comes largely from the accounts of white ministers.
“[The enslaved Africans] were Christians, so they celebrated Christmas, ”Comer said. “But the slaves we know were only allowed to go to church every two weeks, and they had to go home after the service… so what they did in their quarters, I don’t think we let’s have this answer. “
It is possible that more information on the celebrations of slave laborers will come from an ongoing project to translate the Moravian Journals, an archive that records the activities of the Moravian Church in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Comer said they were the source of almost all of the non-archaeological information available on the lives of African furnace slaves, but she read them several times and cannot recall any specific Christmas celebrations.
The only other possible source of information is a bio-archaeological project that began in 2015 to find the current descendants of enslaved African ironworkers through a genomic study of some of the workers’ remains. This study is ongoing and is at the top of the CFHSS priority list.