By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
In the years just before the American Revolution, the lower part of Southwark—what is now called Queen Village—was a neighborhood of scattered houses and small farms. The major street of the district, Christian Street, had a growing population of people who had emigrated from German-speaking areas of Europe, such as the Palatine and parts of Switzerland.
The winter season was a special time of year for the
Christian Street neighbors. As cold weather approached, the women and older girls helped each other in pickling, jam-making, creating candles from tallow, and drying herbs. The last of the root vegetables had to be plucked from the garden and buried under sand in the cellar to keep them for the lean months. The remaining apples, plums, and pears were picked from the trees and stewed for sauces. Corn was dried or ground into meal. The men brought in freshly caught fish or game from the meadows and marshes of the Neck, or they slaughtered a pig, which the women then smoked or preserved in brine.
Many seasonal articles could be purchased in the New Market—especially during the three-day fair of November. The market had been established around 1745 to serve people in Southwark and the southern portion of the city who found the High Street market too far of a journey. To reach High Street in those days, shoppers first had to maneuver across the fetid Dock Creek—generally crossing by the drawbridge in Front Street. Accordingly, Second Street near Lombard had been widened to accommodate space for farmers to sell meat and produce. A series of brick pavilions lined the middle of the road, providing shelter for many of the displays. In time, the pavilions were extended north and south, from Pine down to Cedar, and market stalls carried over into Pine Street as well.
During the November fair, the booths were festooned with brightly colored bunting and patchwork coverlets. In addition to the regular merchants and farmers, there were hucksters who came from far and wide to sell their dry goods, sweets, and toys. Some displayed boxes of ribbons, buttons, laces, and clasps; others offered soldiers of gingerbread and soft candy animals; others sold sprigs of mint, pickling spices, and mistletoe from the Jersey pine barrens; and still others assailed the ears with toy trumpets and whistles they were selling.
Among the Reformed or Lutheran Germans of the area, Christmastime was a period of joyful celebration. At Advent, the houses of Christian Street began to smell like baked gingerbread (lebkuchen). Mantels were decorated in the German manner, with swags of evergreens, berries, and nuts.
The bell of the Swedes’ Church rang out on Christmas Day—a reminder to the neighborhood that this was a time for prayer and contemplation. It was a long trudge to the German churches uptown, however, and people looked warily from their doors to sense how many layers of clothes they might need for the journey. The old folks said that if it snowed on Christmas Day, it meant that Easter would be green. If the sky were clear on Christmas, however, Easter would be snowy.
The following day, which some called the “Second Christmas,” was the occasion for feasting—pork or plum pudding; roast goose or turkey with sauerkraut; English mince pie.
The celebrations culminated with the arrival of Belsnickle on New Year’s Day. The older children had anticipated his appearance for days, and left little plates on the windowsill for the bounty they expected he would bring them of fruits, chestnuts, and cakes. And they tried to obey their parents, of course, since any naughtiness would carry the threat of Belsnickle’s switch. Some children were told that the baby Christkindlein would come down the chimney to bring the treats. It was he who also brought the longer days of the New Year.
The Belsnickle would often be portrayed by an older neighbor. He announced his presence by beating his switches against the windowpanes. When that failed to get a quick enough response, he would ring his bells loudly and roar to be let in the house. Once the door was ajar, a very ugly man came stomping into the parlor. He wore an old fur cap and his face was blackened or masked. The Belsnickle would whisk his switch menacingly and put on a gruff voice as he inquired of the children whether they had obeyed their parents. And had they been attentive to their lessons? Would they recite their prayers for him? He would then pronounce the verdict: It appeared that they merited sweets this year, but they must mind their behavior even more in the coming year or they would surely get a licking with the switch. Younger children might have wondered, since Belsnickle was so nasty, why their parents sat him down with a mug of mulled cider.
But Belsnickle was not the only character in the winter celebrations. Many other fantastical figures—and sometimes large crowds of them—took part. The older German settlers often referred to the levity as “mummenshanz,” while the English-speakers called it “mumming.” Mummers were groups of men, and sometimes children, who roved from house to house, creating good-natured mayhem in costumes or women’s apparel. They commonly blackened their faces or wore outlandish masks and hats that made them seem hardly human at all.
In England and Ireland, the celebrants would often perform skits with characters like St. George, the Turkish Knight (either one of whom the Irish often replaced with St. Patrick), and the quack Doctor—who despite his bumbling, miraculously brought the fallen heroes back to life, in accord with nature’s cycle of death and rebirth throughout the seasons. The merriment often took place on Christmas Eve, or on Plough Monday (the Twelfth Day of Christmas).
Christmas is coming; geese are getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny, half a penny will do;
If you haven’t got a half-penny, God bless you!
In Philadelphia and Southwark after the Revolution, the mummers sometimes retained the St. George sketch, but with modifications. St. George, for example, tended to become George Washington. More and more, they shifted their levity to New Year’s Day, providing company for Belsnickle. The revelers would gather by the doors and windows of their neighbors in the early morning and call, sing, or shoot their muskets to wake the inhabitants. It is from this custom—which the Germans shared with the early settlers from Sweden and Finland—that early Philadelphia mummers took on the name “New Year’s shooters.”
Here we stand before your door.
As we stood the year before.
Give us whiskey; give us gin.
Open the door and let us in.
The awakened neighbors, of course, had been expecting the men, and would invite them into the house for gingerbread and beer or hot punch. Then the party would move on to another house to continue the celebration.
In this way, customs of the German immigrants blended with those of other nationalities (including African Americans) to form a unique folk art. The tradition was carried on by subsequent immigrant groups, such as the Italians and Poles, and is known to Philadelphians today as the Mummers Parade, which is held every New Year’s Day.
But while the mummers found success in New Year’s celebrations, Belsnickle turned away from that day and in most places went back to Christmas Eve. Sadly, within a few more decades, the dour old man fell into relative obscurity, outshown by his brighter and more jocular cousin from New Amsterdam and New York, Santa Claus.
This article is an edited version of excerpts from “Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary America,” by Michael Schreiber. It also appeared in QVNA, the magazine of the Queen Village Neighbors Association.