In Touch with Prairie Living
By Michael M. Miller
The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection 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. In this month's
column, we focus on special traditions of Christmas with Cora Wolff
Tschaekofske of Dickinson and Bonnie Zeller Whillock of Vista, CA.
"Ihr Kinderlein kommet, O kommet doch All / Zur Krippe her
kommet in Bethlehems Stall"
Cora Wolff Tschaekofske shares these memories. These are comforting
words I remember learning as a child in my home where our family
roots were German-Russian. They were words that my siblings and
I learned in preparation for the Christmas season. We also memorized
the carols "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht", and "O Tannenbaum" and
"O Du Froehliche, O Selige." We learned these songs as we sat around
our dining room table. Our Americanized German-Russian mom read
these words to the seven of us kids many times, until we knew them
by memory. We couldn't read the words by ourselves, because we had
not learned to read the German fractur script. We were already in
a daily cultural frame as Americans.
The community where we lived had been settled by Germans from
Russia. These pioneer settlers, like any other ethnic group, could
not speak, read or write American English when they arrived in America
as immigrants. They clung to their spiritual heritage and built
a church hall. They celebrated only German Christmas (Weihnachten)
services for many years, until having religious worship in American
English upon learning that new language.
Yet, they wanted to instill in their offspring the advantage and
the beauty of being bi-lingual in their offspring. The Sunday School
Christmas program was a cultural symbol using the German language.
Most youngsters, who participated in this program, learned their
recitation pieces because their parents persevered at these recitations
during their own learning years, thus keeping alive their German
In our home, excitement ran high during the Advent season. Not
only were we excited about traveling to town every Saturday afternoon
for Christmas program practice at our church, but just the trip
to town was exciting. We seldom went to town at other times of the
year. Now, during this festive season, the town streets were decorated
and the stores had such lovely things on display. We were taught
to "not touch," no matter how compelling the temptation. We were
obedient and did not allow temptation to ruin our rewarding visit
We really didn't believe so much in Santa any more. One day after
a quiet napping session in our household, our big sister discovered
a box under Mom and Dad's bed. We quietly peeked into the box. Then
all pandemonium broke loose! One of us ran screaming to Mom, telling
her that Santa was "all wrinkled up" in a box under her bed. We
learned that "Weihnachten" is the birthday and incarnation of Christ.
We need to be accountable to Him. "Santa" (Saint Nickolaus) is only
The days of the Advent season were always rewarding when the house
was filled with the best baking smells of Christmas. Our Americanized
German-Russian mother always baked her traditional kuchen and tempting
goodies that were reserved and served only during this season as
special treats. These special treats are a part of our heritage.
Mother's recipes have been handed down to the present day generation.
We all enjoy pfeffernuesse, lebkuchen, anise cookies and zucker
kuchen, along with common fruit and cheese kuchen -- they make a
Christmas gathering in a German-Russian kitchen so very special
Bonnie Zeller Whillock shares these memories near Heil, ND. Church
celebrations at Christmas time in rural ND during the 1930's 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 walls. The program consisted of German Christmas
songs by the congregation accompanied by a beautiful sounding pump
organ. Everyone exchanged holiday greetings after the services and
headed home on their sleds to see what Santa Claus had left at the
The little St. Luke's Lutheran Church near Leith, ND, we attended
was moved and restored by the Elgin (ND) Historical Society and
is now part of the Grant County Museum.
Information about the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
For information about the collection, contact Michael M. Miller,
NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599 (Tel: 701-231-8416;
E-mail: Michael.Miller@ndsu.edu; GRHC website: http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc).