In Touch with Prairie Living
By Michael M. Miller
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo
The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC) at the NDSU
Libraries in Fargo reaches out to prairie families and former Dakotans.
In various ways, it affirms the heritage of the Germans from Russia
as an important part of the northern plains culture. Special holiday
regards to readers of this column!
I would like to share with you some Christmas traditions of our
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 book, "Memories
of the Black Sea Germans", there is no historical evidence
that early German settlers of South Russia had Christmas trees in
their homes due to the lack of trees on the steppe. 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 Christkindl, 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
desert 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 head 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."
The 11th Journey to the Homeland Tour, sponsored by the NDSU Libraries
is scheduled for May 26 - June 6, 2005. The tour includes Budapest,
Hungary; Odessa, Ukraine and the former German villages; Stuttgart,
Germany; and Alsace, France.
For further information about Germans from Russia heritage, donations
to GRHC including books, documentaries, cookbooks and tours, contact
Michael M. Miller, NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599
(Tel: 701-231-8416; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org;
GRHC website: library.ndsu.edu/grhc).
December, 2004 column for North Dakota and South Dakota