The German Influence
on Texas' Christmas
by: Bobby McDonald
It was during the later years of the Mexican rule of Texas that German immigrants began coming to Texas, with even larger groups coming in the 1840's and 1850's, and we can thank them for many of our Texas Christmas traditions.
In 1844, Rev. Louise Ervendberg conducted the first known public Christmas service on Christmas Eve, in Port Lavaca, Texas. Using a large oak tree that he decorated with candles, he handed out presents and candy to children, as he conducted a religious service.
And, it was the same Rev. Ervendberg, that in 1846 took 19 German orphan children, who had lost their parents as they migrated from Germany to Texas, into his home, with his own five children, to raise them. Christmas dinner in the Ervendberg home is described in 1849, as including a grape compote and canned wild plums, a clear sparkling wine made from local mustang grapes , raisin bread, and a Christmas punch for the children. The home was said to be full of holiday laughter and cheer, as the large group of children played lively games, sang traditional songs in German, and listened to stories shared by the adults. Ervendberg had founded his orphanage in the New Wind Community, near Gruene and it still stands today, and is occupied by descendents of Rev. Ervendberg.
We also obtained many of our customs of decorating the Christmas tree from the Germans who came and settled in early Texas, as they came during the days of the Adelsverein, or Association of German Noblemen, who encouraged settlement in Texas. The practice of decorating the tree can be traced to Old Fredricksburg, where John O. Meusebach, founder, using a medevial symbol of Adam and Eve, the apple, and placing them on the tree, called a "Paradise Tree." The Paradise tree was placed in the home on December 24th and followed the tradition of placing wafers on the tree to symbolize the communion. And, then they added candles symbolizing that Christ was "the light of the world."
In the 1800's, it can be traced to the Germans that brought some of the first artificial Christmas trees to Texas, when they took turkey feathers and dyed them green and wound them onto wire branches, with a wooden base, to craft a tree for the home. Today, these feather Christmas trees are among the most treasured of the antique German Christmas memorabilia.
German families also were among the first to use popcorn chains, paper flowers, chains of stiff colored paper, and intricate cloth, embroidered needlework, and intricated handmade paper ornaments on the trees. They also decorated their trees with decorated cookies, candy and nuts wrapped in bright paper, ribbon, bits of glass, and metal, polished fruits, and homemade candles to decorate their Christmas trees. German Texans of the older generations still remember and speak of the smell of apples and oranges in the home, as this was the only times of the year that these fruits were available, and traditionally enjoyed.
The lighted candles on the cedar trees of Central and the Hill Country of Texas, posed a great fire hazard, that had to be guarded closely by family members, who kept a vigilant guard with buckets of water, sand, and in large displays even wet sponges, on sticks to extinguish the flames, should they ignite the tree.
Many German Texas families also burned cedar branches in their fireplaces during the Christmas celebration, for the sweet aroma that would waft through the home.
"Kris Kringle" is the German word for the Christ child and German children were taught that the Christ child was the bringer as well as the receiver of all good gifts.
St. Nicholas was a separate and distinct figure, according to early German tradition. He was tall and thin, dressed in his bishop's robes. In early times, he visited German children as a monitor of their behavior, rewarding those that were good, with small gifts of candy and nuts. If they had been bad, he left "warning switches." (Have you ever heard that before?)
St. Nicholas would come to the German home and "check" on the children's behavior sometime between December 6th and Christmas Eve and the parents would report of their children's usual good behavior.
Father Christmas "Weihnachtsmann" came on December 6th, trudging from house to house, on foot, leaving tiny gifts for the children. Today, in many of the Hill Country homes, the Christmas story is still recited in High German by the patriarch of the family, as a treasured family tradition.
And, we can thank our fellow German Texans for one of the most beloved Christmas songs, "Silent Night," as it was composed in 1818, on Christmas Eve, from German origins.
Today, you can learn about many of the Texas German Christmas traditions with a trip to the Hill Country or in Central Texas, south of Austin, in towns such as New Braunfels, Fredricksburg, Seguin, Geronimo, and throughout that part of the state. The towns offer traditional German celebrations, customs, and museums of early Texas German life.
One of the more remarkable Texas German history stories is that of the Timmermann family of Geronimo (six miles from Seguin). The family included seven sisters, and one brother. The seven sisters remained on the family farm, never marrying and operated their own floral and catering business, in the community German tradition. Today, only one of the sisters, Wanda, at age 102, is still alive, but she continues to live on the farm. The sisters were great-granddaughters, on their maternal side, of Rev. Ervendberg, who began the German Orphanage, back in 1846.
For years, the Timmermann sisters, entertained guests at their farm, appeared on national television, and kept the Texas German heritage alive. They published a cookbook of traditional German recipes, that lends an account of how life was on the traditional German farm, entitled "Seven Silver Spoons. From that cookbook, one of their famous recipes is included:
Bread Pudding With Wine Sauce
1 quart milk
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 to 5 cups dry bread or toast, cubed or torn
1/2 to 3/4 cup seedless raisins (optional)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Pour milk into a 9 x 13 baking dish. Stir in sugar, eggs,
and vanilla. Add enough bread into the milk mixture until it
feels firm when patted down, sprinkling nuts into the
bread as you add it to mixture . Add raisins. Bake at 300 degrees for
45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in center comes out clean.
Serve warm with the following wine sauce.
1 heaping teaspoon of cornstarch
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup wine
In a saucepan, stir together a heaping teaspoon of cornstarch
in a little cold water, to make a smooth paste. Add a cup of
boiling water, sugar, and butter. Cook together for about
10 minutes. Remove pan from heat and add the wine, more or less
according to you taste. Sauce should be thin and served
warm, over the bread pudding!
The German communities of Texas make for a nice weekend "get-a-way" to learn about their customs, history, and traditions, at Christmas, or during anytime of the year. Make plans to travel to this area and enjoy the great foods and traditions.