7 Pennsylvania holiday traditions that capture the spirit of the season

Photo: J. Fusco for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®

By Kalena Thomhave

December 5, 2023

From boilo to Belsnickel, we’re highlighting different ways Pennsylvanians celebrate the holidays throughout the state.

If you’re in NEPA, there’s a chance someone in your family is making sure they have all the ingredients needed to make bolio at this year’s holiday gathering. If you’re in South Philly, you might be planning on having a houseful of people over on New Year’s Day to watch the Mummers. Or, maybe your family practices the Pennsylvania Dutch culinary tradition of ushering in the new year with pork and sauerkraut on Jan. 1.

Across the state, families celebrate the holidays differently. Here’s a look at seven holiday traditions associated with Pennsylvania.

Belsnickel

You better watch out, you better not cry, or Belsnickel might come and whack your behind. That’s how the song goes, right?

The rest of the country may have Santa Claus…and OK, so do we…but Pennsylvanians also have Belsnickel, a very different sort of Christmas gift-bringer. Belsnickel, dressed in furs, raps on children’s windows, knowing exactly who has been bad; he carries a switch of hazel or birch branches to smack naughty children. But he also has a bag of treats — like nuts and fruit — to throw upon the floor for children to grab.

Belsnickel came with German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the early 1800s and is still known by many in the Pa. Dutch community. However, he became more widely known when one of the most famous Pennsylvania Dutchmen, Dwight Schrute, dressed as Belsnickel in an episode of “The Office.”

Christmas Markets

An open-air Christmas market — often known by its German name, Christkindlmarkt — is certainly more of a European tradition than an American one. Some markets in Germany, where thet first originated, attract millions of visitors each season. But Pennsylvania’s history of immigration gives it an edge with its markets. Mifflinburg, Pa. claims to host the country’s oldest open-air Christmas market, having begun its annual market tradition in 1989.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s Holiday Market has been named the best Christmas market in the country by USA Today, and both Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt and Philadelphia’s Christmas Village have been ranked as two of the top markets in the country for holiday shopping.

Many other Christmas markets also operate across the state. To participate in this Christmas tradition, find a market near you, grab some glühwein (hot spiced wine), and browse the stalls for authentic European goods.

7 Pennsylvania holiday traditions that capture the spirit of the season
Photo: ArtsQuest™, courtesy DiscoverLehighValley.com

Boilo in NEPA

This warm holiday drink is popular in Northeastern Pa. (NEPA), and like many of the state’s traditions, came to the commonwealth by way of European immigrants. Boilo is based on a Lithuanian or Polish holiday drink. Water, citrus fruit, spices, and honey are boiled on the stove, and then cheap alcohol (vodka or whiskey) is added. Make a pot of boilo for your own holiday parties by following this recipe.

Second Christmas

Pennsylvanians are enterpirising. Why have just one Christmas when you can celebrate two?! Second Christmas is exactly what it sounds like. Celebrated by the Pennsylvania Dutch the day after Christmas, it was traditionally an opportunity to relax, visit extended family, and engage in more non-religious holiday activities.

Nowadays, it’s mostly Amish groups celebrating Second Christmas. But don’t let that stop you from adding a second holiday to your calendar this year.

Torch Run in Luzerne County

The torch run to light the menorah during Hanukkah (which begins Thursday at sundown) is an annual tradition in Luzerne County that’s now in its 54th year. Next Wednesday, Dec. 13, a troupe of runners will carry a flame from the River Common Portal in Wilkes-Barre to light up the menorah at the Friedman Jewish Community Center in Kingston.

This tradition originated in Israel in 1940 when young men would run to distant cities of the country to light public menorahs.

Mummers Parade in Philadelphia

The Mummers Parade, a Philadelphia tradition, is one of the oldest folk parades in the US. With the exception of a pandemic-related cancellation in 2021, it’s rolled each New Year’s Day since 1901.

On Jan. 1, thousands of people will flock to Broad Street in South Philly to take in elaborately costumed revelers from different “clubs” dancing through the streets, all competing to be recognized as the best in their brigades. The parade stems from combining different immigrant traditions of shouting, dressing up, and general merrymaking during the holidays.

After the parade down Broad Street wraps at City Hall, the Fancy Brigades strut their stuff in ticketed finale performances at the Philadelphia Convention Center.

Pork and Sauerkraut on New Year’s Day

The first day of the year inspires special meals for many people across the country in the hopes that certain foods will bring good luck. Southerners make black-eyed peas, many Asian-Americans eat noodles, and Pennsylvanians have pork and sauerkraut.

This is another tradition with roots in Germany that eventually made its way to Pennsylvania. Pork is considered lucky because pigs root forward to look for food — just like you’ll move forward into the new year. And the numerous shreds of sauerkraut represent all the riches that will soon be coming to you. While the Pa. Dutch may have been the first to practice the pork and sauerkraut ritual, it has now spread throughout the state.

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CATEGORIES: COMMUNITY | LOCAL CULTURE

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