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Christmas Customs in the Black Sea Area

Weihnachtliches aus dem Schwarzmeergebiet

Bosch, Anton. "Christmas Customs in the Black Sea Area." Volk auf dem Weg, December 2000, 17.

Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


In the Black Sea area, too, Christmas was the greatest feast, for which children along with their parents and grandparents intensively prepared throughout Advent, and which they awaited with great anticipation amidst projects of repairing and applying new layers of lacquer on old toys.

The old traditions had been brought along by our ancestors, from the Pfalz [Palatinate], from Baden, Alsace, and Wuerttemberg, to the Black Sea area. They held on to them even up to the expulsions and deportations four, five generations later, and they practiced them, with slight variations, in every settlement area, be it the Beresan or the Kutchurgan regions.

And today, the figures of the Christ Child and the Pelzenickel, to name only two of our favorite Christmas-time figures, still make their appearance at the season's celebrations of our organization. Moreover, the descendants of our colonists, beyond two or three further generations, continued to nurture these traditions even in Siberia, and subsequently they brought them back to Germany -- a fact not too well known by our people.

In the new editions of the double-volume book Die deutschen Kolonien in Suedrussland ["The German Colonies in South-Russia"] by Konrad Keller -- the original editions had been published in 1905 and 1914, resp. -- we came upon a description of Black Sea area Christmas celebrations that has, in our opinion, genuine historical value.

The new editions are in the process of being printed and will be issued at year's end by the "Historischen Forschungsverein der Deutschen aus Russland" [Historical Research Society of Germans from Russia]. Prepublication orders may be placed with Michael Wanner, Frankenstr. 10, 93128 Regenstauf [,Germany]; Telephone: 09042-3916 [if calling from the USA, replace the inital zero with 011-49, Tr.]. This constitutes our Society's first-ever book production project, a Christmas present that is coming to the market following five months of intensive effort by a team of eight people.

Under the chapter title "Volkstuemliches und Volkskundliches aus dem Beresan" ["Traditional and Folkloric Customs in the Beresan"] in Keller's book we find the following concerning the feast of Christmas:

Weihnachten (Christkindl, Pelzenickel, Stefestag, Buendelstag)
[Christmas (the Christ Child, Pelzenickel, St. Stephen's Day, Buendelstag]

[Translator's note: the term Christkindl denotes the Christ Child, who in traditional German Christmas customs appeared to the children and would in later times be replaced by the Weihnachtsmann or, in Russian usage, Father Christmas, or the equivalent of Santa Claus. The term Pelzenickel is fairly impossible to translate, so I am leaving it untranslated; it denotes the figure of the "Bad Guy" who often accompanied the Christ Child figure and acted as the punishing agent for bad kids, because the Christ Child would hardly personally punish children; Stefestag is a dialect word for (St.) Stephen's Day; and the last term above, Buendelstag, also left untranslated, is described in the text that follows. "ue" = "u with an umlaut." Tr.-AH]

Christmas, that joyous feast for children, when all Christiandom adores the lovable Divine Child in the crib, brings joy and bliss as well as nice presents to all good children.

The Christmas tree was not part of early customs in the Beresan area. Instead, the Christ Child presented the children with all the pretty things that today are hung on the tree. The Christ Child figure was usually represented by a girl with a fine, clear voice and natural wit. She was dressed in white, with a veil covering her face, carrying a basket on one arm and a bundle of switches in the other hand.

Attired in this fashion, along with several other girls and sometimes also accompanied by Pelzenickel, she would come up to a window of a house where the lamps had already been lit. A girl would ring a bell in front of the window, and the Christ Child figure asked, "Darf's Christkindl nein kumme?" [Dialect for, "Is the Christ Child permitted to come in?"] The housewife answered, "Yes," and the Christ Child and company stepped into the room, where the children, with fear and trepidation, usually were awaiting the events to come.

Now the examination begins: have the children been praying willingly and for how long; have they been obedient, etc.? Depending on the answers, there are presents or floggings. Sometimes when the Christ Child asks in a really serious tone or expresses doubts about the children's praying or their knowledge of all the important prayers, all the assembled children fall on their knees, crying, and reciting the prayers in question.

If, however, there are bad, disobedient boys present, the Pelzenickel figure, who has been waiting outside, is called in. Usually a strapping young man with a low voice, he is dressed in a ragged, inside-out animal pelt [hence the first part of his name, Tr.], with a mask over his face, at times with horns on his head, a clanging chain slung over his shoulder, and a bundle of switches in his right hand. This figure, not any more handsome than the Evil One himself, with chain rattling, steps over the threshold, and inside one can hear fearsome screaming and wailing from the bad boys, all attempting to hide somewhere. But they're all found out and must "justify" themselves to the Pelzenickel, who says little and, instead, allows the switches to whistle their message -- a sound that will continue to echo a long time in the ears of the bad boys.

Finally, after the Christ Child and the Pelzenickel have left the house, the children are presented with their gifts, which usually consist of edible things such as Lebkuchen [ginger cookies, or ginger bread], oranges, apples, and nuts.

In earlier days, the second day of Christmas, or the feast of St. Stephen (Stefestag), was the day when servants would leave their old master and begin serving a new one. Male and maid servants would pack their bundles [hence the first part of the name for that day, Buendelstag, Tr.], lay them on a wagon or on a sled, and with horses decorated with colorful ribbons, parade up and down the village street, singing:

    "Today is my Buendelstag,
    The day of my goal,
    Should the farmer send me away,
    Don't give me much."
Appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.
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