Carolyn E. Cook
Texas: Legends, Myths, and the Real Deal
Part 6, German Pioneer Christmas
Restored Doeppenschmidt-Haas house, east of Fredericksburg, TX,
a fine example of the early settlers homes
Photo by: Tom Hester
"Somehow our first Christmas in Texas seemed a little meager in comparison to our German Christmas celebration with its fragrant fir tree, always decorated with so much loving care by our good parents for us seven children. At Cat Springs, Texas, Father had nailed a large cedar limb to a stump. There were only three cedar trees in the vicinity. Homemade yellow wax candles and small molasses cookie figures, baked by my two older sisters, that was the entire decoration. This must have pained my dear mother considerably, although despite her physical frailness she was a very courageous woman."
So wrote Ottilie Fuchs Goeth in her autobiography, Was Grossmutter erzählt published first in 1915, and in 1968 as Memoirs of a Texas Pioneer Grandmother.
Ottilie Fuchs, her parents, and siblings numbered with the 7000 that immigrated from Germany to the Republic of Texas, on the promise of free or inexpensive land.
As a child in 1845, Ottilie and her family sailed with the initial group to arrive in Galveston, which was a disappointment to the travelers. It consisted of just a few crude shacks. Within days, the immigrants moved on to the coastal community of Indianola, where they spent their first Texas Christmas, huddled in tents. I imagine it wasn’t much fun. When warmer weather finally came, those intrepid souls then endured a trek of 140 miles in ox-pulled wagons or on foot to the location designated as New Braunfels, named for their benefactor, Prince Solms Braunfels.
Some immigrants remained there, while others moved deeper into the Hill Country and established the town of Fredericksburg. Even more German immigrants came and settled throughout the area, starting their own small villages, such as Comfort, Sisterdale, and Boerne. These folks brought a strong work ethic, a taste for hearty food and beer, solid religious faith, and long-standing Christmas traditions.
While parents were ever-frugal, they did aim to make the season festive, wrapping their German customs with Texas ingenuity.
Christmas-time began with the first Advent, fourth Sunday before December 25th. Mothers and children would fashion an Adventkrantz (Advent wreath). Materials would have been whatever bendable twigs might be found. Tightly knotted twine would hold the twigs in a circle. Decorations were whatever was at hand, scrap fabric, leaves, and perhaps colored paper to cut into star shapes. Their Advent wreaths always held four candles and were placed flat on an available table in the home, which, in the very early days, was likely a tiny, one or two room cabin.
(This wreath is obviously much fancier than what the pioneers put together. Skip the greenery, glass balls, sparkly stars, make the candles pale yellow, and you'll be closer to accuracy.)
December 6th was Sankt Nikolaus Tag, when children placed boots outside the cabin door or hung stockings on bedposts to receive oranges, nuts, and candy from either St. Nicholas or Kris Kringle, depending on whether the family was Catholic or Lutheran. These were once-a-year treats and therefore highly prized.
Mothers hoarded sugar and dried fruit for months in anticipation of the coming holidays. After St. Nicholas and Kris Kringle had come and gone, the womenfolk began baking in earnest. They made Stollen, a very sweet fruitcake having a breadlike texture, and various fanciful cookies, Lebkuchen (gingerbread), Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars), and Springerle (sugary biscuits).
As for arranging a Christmas tree, very much part of German tradition, the Hill Country didn’t grow beautiful evergreens, but there were cedars and those were put into use. The German farmers considered them as invasive pests and were only too happy to chop them down. The most difficult task was to find the least lopsided tree to decorate. Then mothers supervised children in adorning their tree as if it was the loveliest specimen, stringing garlands made of popcorn, red chiles, even garlic, and adding candles on select branches. (One does wonder how families managed the possibility of Christmas tree fires.)
By the 1850s, singing groups were becoming popular in the towns. New Braunfels had the Gesangverein Germania (German Singing Society). In the old country, people had enjoyed caroling up and down the main streets of their towns. Thus, the New Braunfels Singing Society commenced the same practice. Fredericksburg and other places took up the custom, too.
Gift-giving was usually completed on Christmas Eve, due to church services held on Christmas morning. As the Germans were careful with their money, most gifts were in the handmade category --- dolls sewn of flour sacks, carved, wooden horses, knitted scarves and mittens. Perhaps Mother received a new iron skillet, Father, a new hammer or rake, things that counted as utilitarian and therefore were acceptable to be purchased.
As families grew more prosperous, a few might have spent money on a Weihnachtspyramide, a much-loved feature in Germany. These were wooden towers or pyramids, two or three feet all and displayed on a table. They had multiple tiers, figurines on each tier telling part of a Bible story, in order from bottom to top. Above the highest tier was a horizontal windmill. Lighted candles caused it to spin. A Christmas pyramid would tell of the birth of Jesus. There would be shepherds visiting the stable, magi bringing gifts, and angels blowing trumpets.
Fredericksburg old-timers, whether immigrants from long ago or their grandchildren who had heard stories, could remember the Weihnachtspyramides back in Europe. Before Christmas, they had always been erected in the town business districts and were enormous, many taller than the surrounding buildings.
In 2009, the people of Fredericksburg went together and purchased a Weihnachtspyramide from Germany, although not a simple one for a tabletop. They wanted a pyramid of the colossal sort. Since then, every Christmas, the Fredericksburg pyramid is assembled outside, in the Marketplatz. It has five tiers, possesses choir singers, angels, nutcrackers, candles, and more. And it stands an impressive 26 feet tall.
What a beautiful sight!
Photo by Trish McCabe-Rawls