In Touch with Prairie Living
By Michael M. Miller
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
North Dakota State University Library, Fargo
As the holiday season approaches, I wish to share
in the spirit of the Yuletide holiday season. May I extend special
I would also like to share with you some Christmas
traditions of our German-Russian families, and memories from personal
The tradition of St. Nicholas (Belznickel) bringing
gifts for children traces its origins back to the Middle Ages. According
to legend, St. Nicholas, the historic bishop with his flowing white
beard, was a generous kind-hearted figure. The Belznickel rewarded
faithful children. Today we know St. Nicholas as Santa Claus, who
evolved from the Dutch "Sinter Klaus". I recall the Belzenickel
in my childhood on Christmas Eve at Strasburg, ND.
According to Joseph S. Height's (1979) book, Memories
of the Black Sea Germans, “There is no historical evidence
that the German pioneer settlers in Russia set up a Christmas tree
in their homes. Perhaps the most obvious reason why the colonists
did not have a Christmas tree for several decades is the simple
fact that no evergreen trees were to be found on the open steppes
of the Volga and the Black Sea regions”(p. 205). On the Dakota
prairies, the German-Russian pioneers faced a similar situation
with no Christmas trees until they were shipped for sale into Dakota
Jolenta Fischer Masterson, Sequim, WA, native of
Strasburg, ND, writes: "On Christmas Eve, three angels would
enter our home, cold with snow in their hair. Wearing wings and
tinsel crowns, one would be in pink, one in blue and one in white.
After singing "Stille Nacht" in German and "Silent
Night" in English, the angels would disappear into the night,
after bringing a special gift for each child - from the Christkindel,
we were told. Only after that special visit would there be a gift
exchange and feasting. It was wonderful to be a child in those days!"
A Christmas tradition in many German-Russian homes
was halvah. This pressed confection of sesame seed and honey was
eaten as a dessert or snack, somewhat crumbly and crunchy and quite
sweet. With vanilla and chocolate flavors but sometimes marbled,
halvah is a Turkish confection.
Curt Renz, Ames, IA, recalls his father selling
halvah by the pound in their Herreid, SD, store. Curt remembers
selling black olives, by reaching with a cup into a huge wooden
barrel filled with brine and olives. They were daily purchases by
the "old folks". Other common purchases were head cheese
and blood sausage.
Bonnie Zeller Whillock shares these memories of
growing up near Heil, ND: "Church celebrations at Christmas
time during the 1930s were wonderful experiences. I recall, after
a severe snowstorm,we had to attend the church Christmas program
traveling with a team of horses and sled. Each child had to recite
a German piece. After the service, we received a small bag of assorted
nuts, homemade candy, and an orange or apple. The congregation consisted
of a dozen families. The lighting in church consisted of kerosene
lamps that were mounted on the walls. The program included German
Christmas songs accompanied by a beautiful pump organ. Everyone
exchanged greetings after the services and then headed home on their
sleds to see what Santa Claus had left at home. This little St.
Luke's Lutheran Church near Leith, ND, where we attended, was moved
and restored by the Elgin, ND Historical Society as part of the
Grant County Museum."
Jim Heilman, College Station, TX, a Eureka, SD,
native writes: "My favorite childhood memories from the 1950s
and early 1960s are associated with Advent and Christmas services
at Zion Lutheran Church, Eureka. Saturday afternoons were reserved
for endless rehearsals of the Sunday School Christmas Program held
on Christmas Eve, part of which consisted of recitations in German,
which were incomprehensible to most of us. The services ended with
the singing of "O Du Froehliche", which most of the adults
knew and most of the children didn't. I've never forgotten the sound
of the old folks, most born in Russia, as they sang that hymn in
their quavering voices. After the service, we received bags of treats
(candy, fruit, and Cracker Jack) from our Sunday School teachers.
Then my family and I walked to my grandparent's house to open gifts.
I never understood why Santa Claus always visited their house while
I was in church. Advent traditions are still the most meaningful
part of the holiday season for me, especially here in Southern Baptist
country of Texas."
Please share your Christmas memories and traditions
by contacting me with a letter or email message.
For further information about the Germans from
Russia Heritage Collection, Dakota Memories Oral History Project,
Journey to the Homeland Tour and donations to the GRHC such as family
histories, contact Michael M. Miller, NDSU Library, PO Box 5599,
Fargo, ND 58105-5599
(Telephone: 701-231-8416; Email: Michael.Miller@ndsu.edu; GRHC website: www.ndsu.edu/grhc).
December 2007 column for North Dakota and South