Friends and family who know me well, know that I am a true Christmas geek. I inherited the love for decorating (and some of his vintage decorations) from my paternal Grandpa. He was famous for his Christmas putz, or village under their Christmas tree, that included a handmade crèche and Nativity figures, a vintage O Gauge train set that one of my cousins now owns, and some village houses and secular holiday figures.
Remnants of my Grandpa’s Christmas putz village.
The word putz comes from the German word meaning to clean or decorate. These putz villages were brought over to the US by German settlers in Pennsylvania, and most notably by the Moravian Germanic Catholics. They started as elaborate nativity scenes and morphed into the 20th century as elaborate secular villages first in cardboard and then in porcelain. These vintage houses have created a whole genre of Christmas collecting for us Christmas geeks. Department 56 is probably the best known contemporary producer of these Christmas houses.
A typical German Christmas putz village.
As a kid, I created a version of my Grandpa’s putz with my own HO gauge train set and village under our Christmas tree. Some may say that as an adult I have taken Grandpa’s Putz tradition to another, maybe too-over-the-top level, but in my opinion the joy of Christmas cannot be overplayed. And, I think the fact that I never met my grandpa, ( I was still in the womb when he passed) only feeds my need to carry on his tradition.
My childhood Christmas putz, ca. 1984.
These elaborate holiday villages also may have been popular in my family’s northern German villages as well. There’s a story of the Northside Lutheran church where my Grandpa’s family attended for three generations, that their antique German nativity scene was dangerously rescued from the crumbling building after a storm collapsed it’s steeple.
I have some of the pre WWII lights that he used to decorate their Post WWI North College Hill bungalow, which are not really safe for use anymore. They get hot enough to start a fire. Anyone who’s seen the tree lighting scene in “A Christmas Story” when Ralphy’s dad blows a few circuits can appreciate this.
But of course there’s a food tradition woven into this grand tradition of the creation of the putz. The Christmas village becomes an elaborate setting for the plating of German Christmas cookies with a glass of milk for Santa or the Christ Child, under the tree. It’s a spiritual symbol of feeding the Christ Child, for the spiritual gifts he would give the world later in his life. And for the adults in my family, the laying of cookies also meant a good gulp of Grandpa Woellert’s secret recipe boozy, custardy Eierliquor or Eggnog, from a recipe probably passed down from his grandfather who immigrated from Northern Germany.
The plate of cookies could include elaborately spiced cookies like gingerbread, Christmas stars like the German Zimsterne, springerle, pfeffernuse, what we called anise drops, or others like cardamom crescents. I’ve always wondered why Christmas cookies have all these elaborate spices that we typically don’t use for any other cookies. Spices like cloves, anise, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, infuse most German Christmas cookies, but not usually spices we integrate for other holidays or normal cookies.
Well, I found out the origin of these Christmas cookies or Weihnachtsplatzchen goes back to Germany’s medieval monasteries, much like the tradition of brewing beer. The monasteries were wealthy enough to afford these exotic spices from the Orient, and they baked them into special holiday cookies that they shared with their congregations. It took centuries until ordinary families could afford to make these Christmas cookies themselves. Lebkuchen, or gingerbread, for example, originated in the monasteries of Belgium, and then spread eastward to monasteries near Aachen, in Germany, morphing into Aachner Printen. And then it travelled further eastward to the Franconia region of Germany, where it became popular in Nurnberg, Franconia’s largest city, which was a medieval hub for spices. Large iced Lebkucken is still a very popular grab and go food item at Nuremburg’s large Christkindlmarkt.
I’ll be thanking Germany’s medieval monks as I munch on Christmas cookies and enjoy my Christmas putz.