From boilo to Belsnickel, read about the different ways Pennsylvanians celebrate the holidays—and if you like, pick up a new tradition to help you celebrate this year.
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 of the Pa. Dutch. However, he became a little more familiar to many when one of the most famous Pennsylvania Dutchmen, Dwight Schrute, dressed as Belsnickel in an episode of “The Office.”
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 these markets 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.
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.
Pennsylvanians are truly brilliant. 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 less-religious holiday activities.
Nowadays, mostly only Amish groups still celebrate Second Christmas. But don’t let that stop you from adding a second holiday to your year!
Torch Run in Luzerne County
The torch run to light the menorah during Hanukkah is an annual tradition in Luzerne County that’s been going strong for more than 50 years. A troupe of runners carries a flame to light up the menorah at the Jewish Community Center in Kingston. Hanukkah is also known as the festival of lights, and this year, it begins Dec. 18.
While Hanukkah happens around Christmas and New Year’s, it’s actually one of the more minor holidays of the Jewish faith. The High Holy Days—that is, the most important holidays—are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Mummers Parade in Philadelphia
The Mummers Parade, a Philadelphia tradition, is one of the oldest folk parades in the US; it’s rolled each New Year’s Day since 1901.
On January 1, thousands of people will flock to downtown 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 free parade, those who paraded in the Fancy Brigades host ticketed finale performances at the city’s 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 all over the state.