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November 21st, 2012

Harvest Home

In Pennsylvania Dutch country, where I’m from (and where Organic Gardening is produced), many churches celebrate a festival called Harvest Home in late summer and early fall. It is a throwback to much earlier harvest traditions brought over from Europe and adapted for American use. A hundred years ago, the festival would have been marked by members of a church congregation bringing a selection of their best home-preserved foodstuffs to share with the less fortunate. As you can see from these century-old photos, Pennsylvania Dutch women canned every type of produce in abundance, and so they had plenty to share. Nowadays, church members typically bring store-bought canned goods to church on Harvest Home Sunday, because, sadly, many people have been taught to fear home-canned foods. But displays full of corporate logos and bar codes can’t match the beauty of these natural and healthy offerings from years ago!

Canned fruits and vegetables, relishes and preserves are presented along with fall flowers and sheaves of grasses at this Harvest Home display in a Bucks County church in 1907.

Canned fruits and vegetables, relishes and preserves are presented along with fall flowers and sheaves of grasses at this Harvest Home display in a Bucks County church in 1907.

Potted plants join the mounds of onions and other produce on the altar of this Allentown church in 1906.

Potted plants join the mounds of onions and other produce on the altar of this Allentown church in 1906.

The pastor of this Reformed church in Lehigh County was happy to have his portrait associated with this beautiful Harvest Home display circa 1906.

The pastor of this Reformed church in Lehigh County was happy to have his portrait associated with this beautiful Harvest Home display circa 1906.

I hope everyone’s harvest was successful this year and that you had enough for your families and enough to share. Happy Thanksgiving!

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February 2nd, 2012

Happy Groundhog Day!

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Pennsylvania’s most famous prognosticating rodent, Punxsutawney Phil, today predicted six more weeks of winter. Phil and his cousins have been helping meteorologists since at least 1886, but the tradition of using animals to predict when spring will come is much older, dating back to pre-Christian Europe. This day marks the height of European winter, when farmers would begin anxiously scanning the environment for signs that spring was on its way. In Europe, hedgehogs or badgers were often enlisted as forecasters. When Pennsylvania German farmers brought the custom with them to America in the 18th century, they nominated the groundhog as the most intelligent candidate for the job.

In 1934, Groundhog Day took on new significance, since that was the date of the first Fersommlung (gathering) of the Grundsow Lodge Nummer Ains on da Lechaw (Groundhog Lodge Number One on the Lehigh [River]), in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was the first of 17 lodges founded by Pennsylvania Germans as a way of preserving their language and culture. At their annual gatherings, which continue today, members pay a penalty for every English word that is spoken. Poems, songs, and skits are performed in the Pennsylvania German language. Lots and lots of food is consumed.

Here are two program covers from Grundsow Lodge gatherings that I found in my archives. Enjoy!

Cover of program for the fifth annual meeting of Grundsow Lodge Number One in Allentown, Pennsylvania, February 3, 1938. The holiday coincides with the Christian feast day of Candlemas, during which a candlelight procession occurred—hence the candle in this drawing.

Cover of program for the fifth annual meeting of Grundsow Lodge Number One in Allentown, Pennsylvania, February 3, 1938. The holiday coincides with the Christian feast day of Candlemas, during which a candlelight procession occurred—hence the candle in this drawing.

Cover of the program for the 12th annual Grundsow Lodge gathering in 1948 (a few years were skipped during WWII). The drawing is by Bud Tamblyn, an editorial cartoonist for the Allentown Morning Call newspaper.

Cover of the program for the 12th annual Grundsow Lodge gathering in 1948 (it would have been the 15th, if WWII had not intervened). The drawing is by William Richard “Bud” Tamblyn, a nationally renowned editorial cartoonist for the Allentown Morning Call newspaper.

The insignia of Grundsow Lodge #1 as of 1948

The insignia of Grundsow Lodge #1 as of 1948

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April 18th, 2011

Eggs Don’t Grow on Trees…or Do They?

nancy-80x80Some curious fruits begin to appear on bushes and trees in Pennsylvania during the Lenten season. They’re most frequently pastel-colored and appear to be, well, plastic.

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That’s because they are plastic. They’re the modern adaptations of a custom that originated with using real blown-out chickens’ eggs to decorate shrubbery outside the home before Easter.

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Some “eggs” are larger than others…

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Historical descriptions of these outdoor decorations suggest that the eggs were undyed at first; later folks began dying them, and finally replaced them with plastic to better withstand the elements (and, one suspects, the wildlife).

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The custom seems to have been practiced among the Pennsylvania Germans since at least the mid-19th century, although not as universally as decorating a Christmas tree. This postcard, postmarked 1907, is remarkably similar to its modern counterpart below:

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A similar custom involves decorating an Easter tree to display inside the house, and this tradition in American does not seem to have come from the Pennsylvania Germans. Historians believe it may have been imported from Germany about a hundred years ago when people copied the indoor trees they saw depicted on Easter greeting cards. (Alas, I have yet to find one of these!)

Then, in 1950, a Pennsylvania author and illustrator named Katherine Milhous wrote a popular book called The Egg Tree, and the practice spread nationwide. Homes throughout the United States began incorporating egg trees into their indoor holiday decorating. Unlike Christmas trees, Easter trees are most often not evergreens but are bare-branched deciduous trees. Sometimes the base is surrounded with a display or “Putz” made of Easter-related figurines, such as rabbits and chicks. This extravaganza, from Allentown in the mid-20th century, showcased more than 1,000 Easter-related items:

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Many of these eggs are painted, gilded, or otherwise decorated. The Pennsylvania Dutch were famous for their onion-skin-dyed eggs, into which they scratched folk art designs. Our photo director is making some of these this week and will post photos on her blog, Christa Snaps. Stay tuned!

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