Christmas and New Year’s Customs in the Beresan Colonies

(An excerpt from the book Die Deutschen Kolonien in Südrussland [The German Colonies in South Russia] by Konrad Keller, published by the Historische Forschungsverein der Deutschen aus Russland (HFDR) [Historical Research Association of Germans from Russia])

Keller, Konrad. "Christmas and New Year’s Customs in the Beresan Colonies." Volk auf dem Weg, December 2011, 38.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO. Editing by Dr. Nancy A. Herzog.

Weihnachten [Christmas] (Christkindel [the Christ Child], Pelzenickel [the bad guy accompanying the Christkindel], Stefestag [St. Stephen’s Day], Bündelstag [see below])

Christmas--the happy feast for children, when all of Christianity worships the lovely, divine Child in the crèche--brings joy, delight, and nice presents to all good children. In the early days, the Christmas tree was not in use in the Beresan. Instead, the Christkindel [the Christ Child figure] brought the children the beautiful things that are now hung on Christmas trees.

Usually the Christkindel appeared in the person of a girl who had a good, clear voice and a natural, healthy wit. The figure was dressed in white, with a veil covering the face, and carried a small basket on one arm and held a small bunch of switches in the other hand.

Decked out in that fashion, the Christkindel, accompanied by a few other girls and, sometimes, by Pelzenickel [a punishing figure], appeared in front of the window of a house in which the lamps were lit. One of the girls rang a bell in front of the window, and the Christkindel asked: “Darf’s Chriskindel nein kumme?” [Dialect for: “May the Christ Child come in?”] Following the “Yes” from the woman of the home, the Christkindel and its entourage entered the good room of the house, where the children were usually waiting in fear and trembling of the things that were about to take place.

Next came the questioning about whether the children liked to pray and did so diligently, whether they had been obedient, etc. Depending on the answers, either presents were given or the switch was used. Sometimes, if the Christkindel conducted further stern questioning about praying or doubted whether the children knew all the appropriate prayers, all the children, crying, would get on their knees and start to recite the prayers in question.

However, if there were bad and disobedient boys in the house, the Pelzenickel, who usually stayed outside, was called in. Normally a strong young man with a deep voice, he was dressed in a shaggy pelt, his face was covered by a mask with a long nose, and at times he even carried a buck’s horn, slung a large clanging chain over one shoulder, and held in one hand a long sack and in the other hand a bundle of switches.

This figure, not much handsomer than Gottseibeiuns [literally, “God-be-with-us,” an archaic expression for “the Evil One” – Tr.], his chain jangling loudly, entered the room, where one could suddenly hear cries of fear and worry coming from the bad little boys, all trying to find a way to hide. But they were all called out and told they must listen to and give answers to the Pelzenickel.

The latter did not say much, but caused his switch to make a loud whistling sound – one that might remain ringing in the ears of the bad boys for some time to come.

After the Christkindel and Pelzenickel had departed, the children received their gifts, which usually consisted of edible things such as lebkuchen [Christmas gingerbread], oranges, apples and nuts.

In earlier times, the second day of Christmas, also the feast of St. Stephen (dialect: Stefestag), was also known as Bündelstag, the day on which servants would leave their current employers and start serving someone else. Male and female servants would pack their bundles [hence the name “Bündel,” a cognate of “bundle”], load them onto a wagon or sleigh pulled by attractively decorated horses, and move up and down the street [to move on to a new employer], all the while singing:

Heut ist mein Bündelstag,
Today is my Bündelstag,
Heute ist mein Ziel,
Today I have a goal,
Schickt mich der Bauer fort,
The farmer sends me off,
Gibt mir nicht viel.
And doesn’t give me much.

Neujahr [New Year’s] (Neujahrswünsche [New Year’s Wishes], Neujahrsanschieβen [Shooting in the New Year])

There was a lot of life in the colonies on New Year’s, when little boys and girls went around expressing New Year’s wishes for their “Pedder” and “Geddel” [godfather and godmother] and then returned home, highly content and with a rich haul of pretzels, lebkuchen, apples and nuts! The New Year’s wish the little ones customarily recited was:

      “Pedder und Geddel, ich wünsch’ euch e glückseliges neues Johr, Gesundheit, langes Leben und die ewige Glückseligkeit.”

      "Godfather and Godmother, I wish for you a blessed New Year, good health, long life,and eternal blessedness.”

And just as the little ones expressed their New Year’s wishes for their godparents, the grown-up boys loved to [literally] “shoot in” the New Year for their godparents, grandparents, and their girlfriends.

      With a loaded pistol or rifle, the boy would come to a window, knock, and call out:

      “Pedder und Geddel, ich wünsch’ euch e glückseliges neues Johr!”

      “Godfather and Godmother, I wish you a blessed New Year!”

And then came the “boom, boom” that shook all the window panes. Soon the door would open, and the shooter would be invited in and hosted with wine (or schnaps) and kuchen. Often also receiving a gift, the boy would soon leave very quietly, so as not to alarm the guards and be put into the hoosegow. Despite many accidents and a strict ban announced by the police, this customary shooting in of the New Year was kept up in many colonies even up to our own times.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translating and to Dr. Nancy A. Herzog for editing this article.

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