When German settlers arrived in Barton County in the 1870s and 1880s, they brought European Christmas traditions that can be found in today’s homes: Trees decorated with ornaments, holiday foods, and gifts from a mysterious visitor.
The Ellinwood Historical Society recently published a book with photos and recipes, which notes the German heritage of many of our first settlers.
“A Taste of Ellinwood, Kansas; The Early Years, 1870-1949; The Ellinwood Historical Society Cookbook, 2016,” is available at the Barton County Historical Society Museum for $35, tax included. It can also be purchased at The Emporium at 2 N. Main in Ellinwood or from Ellinwood Historical Society President Joyce Schulte.
Mary Jo Cunningham, one of the contributors to the book, said members hope to create a second volume that takes up where there first one leaves off, around 1950. But the first book has many of the traditional old-world recipes, such as German Plum Cake or Labskaus (Mincemeat).
Sankt Nikolaus, or St. Nicholas, as Santa Claus is known in Germany, makes an appearance each year at Ellinwood’s Christkindlmarket, an event celebrating German heritage.
Santas Around the World, located at 1223 Main in Great Bend, features life-size Santa figures from 23 countries. It will be open from 4-6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23, the final day of this annual exhibit. Additionally, Santa Claus himself will be present to visit with children.
There is a $2 charge per person to visit the exhibit; children 8 and younger are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Admission proceeds go to Volunteers In Action (RSVP), or to Rosewood Roots & Wings Foundation.
The Barton County Historical Society Museum and Village has German-influenced holiday items from several decades, including an artificial tree made of died goose feathers which were attached to wires to form branches.
“It is the oldest tree in our collection,” said Beverly Komarek, executive director of the museum, adding it was created well before 1900. The trees were brought to America by German immigrants and also produced and sold in dime stores during the 1920s and ’30s.
Feather trees were the first artificial Christmas trees. They were originally made in Germany as early as 1845.
The museum also has a village of little cardboard houses, which might have gone around a Christmas tree years ago. According to cardboardchristmas.com, this tradition started in the late 1800s, when cardboard candy boxes shaped like little houses found their way to many of these Christmas villages.
German-American families named the buildings in the little villages putz houses, from the German word “putz,” which literally means, “to put.” In German-American slang, it is akin to “putter,” as in “puttering around with your putz.”
“Putzen” is also the German word for holiday decorations.
Tinsel, glass ornaments and pickles
Once people started bringing Christmas trees into their homes, they wanted to decorate them. It was logical to use things on hand, such as apples and candles. Americans have continued that tradition by stringing popcorn and cranberries; electric lights have made the trees safer.
Tinsel was created Germany in the 1600s. The first strands were made of extruded silver. Later it was made of lead. Then, as the dangers of lead poisoning became known, manufacturers switched to plastic with a thin coating of metal, such as aluminum.
German glass blowers are also credited with making the first glass Christmas ornaments.
By the late 1800s Germany was the best known source for mass manufactured glass ornaments. According to surfnetkids.com, American dime-store magnate F. W. Woolworth visited a glassworks Germany and later made a fortune by importing the German glass ornaments.
Many glass ornaments were made to resemble fruits or vegetables. There is a legend that Germans hide a glass pickle ornament on their trees on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and the first child to spot the pickle receives an extra gift.
Several sources agree that the legend of the Christmas pickle is a myth, perhaps created to sell ornaments. It seems that few Germans have heard of it.
However, Cunningham does have pickle ornaments in her collection that pre-date World War II, so they’ve been around for many years.
One thing we know that is truly German is the edible treat Pfeffernuesse, tiny spiced cookies that are better known to us Peppernuts. Pat Jones of Great Bend shared the original Pfeffernuesse recipe handed down by her mother, Esther Jarvis, and her own modified version.
Her mother’s recipe is the old style, which Jones describes as “hard as rock, or nut.” They were intended to be eaten with a cup of coffee to help soften them.
Original Pfeffernuesse recipe
1 C. shortening
1 C. white sugar
1 C. brown sugar
2 T. dark corn syrup
4-5 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. salt
If you like anise, add 1/2 tsp. oil of anise.
Cream shortening and sugars. Add beaten eggs and syrup. Sift flour with dry ingredients. Add to first mixture.
Mix well using hands. Roll into long snake-like strands. Refrigerate. Slice into 1/4-inch pieces and bake at 350 degrees.
The recipe Jones uses today is “lighter and crisper, not as heavy,” she said. “It helps a lot if you have a mixer with a dough hook and I definitely recommend the anise flavoring.”
Modern Peppernuts Recipe
1/2 C. butter or margarine
1 1/2 C. sugar
2 T. dark corn syrup
1/2 tsp. anise oil
3-4 C. flour
2 tsp. soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground ginger
Cream butter, add sugar and beat well. Stir in eggs, corn syrup, and anise oil and mix together. Chill.
Roll in pencil slim rolls. Freeze on large cookie sheets. Cut into small pieces with sharp knife and bake at 350 degrees until slightly brown.
I found I was too impatient for the freezing portion of this recipe and will chill the batter in the refrigerator, roll small amounts of the batter into rolls and then just pinch off the pieces to bake.
Another German treat making a comeback is Springerle, a German biscuit with an embossed design. The name Springerle comes from an old German dialect and means “little knight” or “jumping horse.”
Komarek said she rolls out the dough and cuts it with cookie cutters, but there are special rolling pins or molds that the dough can be pressed in.
“They’re very shiny, defined cookies,” she said. Making them is time-consuming, and people either love them or hate them, so she doesn’t share these goodies with everyone. However, she did share her recipe:
1 lb. powered sugar
4 C. flour
4 drops of anise oil
Baker’s ammonia (Hartshorn) “on the tip of a knife” (about 1/4 tsp.)
Beat the eggs for 10 minutes. Add anise oil and sugar and beat for another 5-10 minutes. Blend the flour and baker’s ammonia. Gradually beat in 3-4 cups of flour, until the dough becomes stiff. Transfer dough to a floured surface and knead until it is a good consistency for rolling.
Roll the dough to 1/2-inch thickness, then smooth it with the heel of your hand. Press the Springerle mold onto the dough, pressing down hard enough to make a good impression (or use a cookie cutter). Cut the cookies apart with a sharp knife or a pizza cutter.
Dry the cookies on a lightly floured surface and cover with kitchen towel overnight, for at least 8 hours.
Preheat over to 325 degrees F. Brush the flour off the bottoms of the cookies and place onto a baking sheet greased with paraffin. Bake 8-10 minutes. They will not brown. Store in a tightly covered container for 3-4 days before serving. Continue to store in tightly covered container.