Fevered claims of a "war on Christmas" have issued regularly in recent years from tribunes on the right - Fox News and Sarah Palin prominent among them. They summon a shared (Christian) tradition, a land before greetings of "Happy Holidays" and disinvitations of Nativity scenes from the public square.
Christmas, however, was hardly settled turf in early Pennsylvania. Don Yoder, 93, has written extensively on the subject, including the introduction to Alfred Shoemaker's seminal Christmas in Pennsylvania, first published in 1959 (and still in print.) He was for 40 years a professor of folklife studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and now lives in a restored stagecoach inn in Devon that he shares with William Woys Weaver, the prolific food historian.
We caught up with him there.
Q. So I take it that how to celebrate Christmas was once hotly debated in Philadelphia and environs. What were the camps?
It's true that in much of the 1800s there was what I call the anti-Christmas party. That included the remnants of the Puritan faiths, the Quakers, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Baptists. The Amish and the Brethren weren't big Christmas celebrators, either.
How did they express their displeasure with holiday festivities?
Well, they were against feasting and overindulging, for one thing. The Amish and Mennonites may have marked the day. But not with Christmas trees or anything. The Quakers would not even use the word Christmas, because it carried the suggestion of the Catholic Mass. They'd say "the day called Christmas."
Any local customs that flowed from that disapproving stance?
The Quakers tended to work on Dec. 25. They kept their shops open. But they did bow their shutters - keeping them partly shut - so as not to offend the Presbyterians and Episcopalians passing on their way to church.
Was there a pro-Christmas party?
You had the Moravians [whose candy clear toys can still be found today]. They were great celebrators of Christmas and the cult of the baby Jesus. The Catholics and the Lutherans, too. They carried on what you might call the "Merry Old England" tradition . . . and going around the country mumming, putting on little skits.
Were certain foods typical of the season?
Turkey and sauerkraut in some areas. Mince pie, called Christmas pie. Pennsylvania Dutch would butcher livestock before the holidays and make mincemeats and add candied fruits. There was a taffy called "bellyguts." And a type of gingerbread called "lebkucha." But the big thing was baking cookies.
You wrote that the farm wives made cookies "by the washbasket-full." Why so many?
Read what I wrote: "By early December, cookie cutters emerged from the attic, and the women of the house baked cookies. You needed many . . . to appease the appetite of 40 or 50 Belsnickels [a sort of naughty scamp of a Santa before Santa came along] who came a-begging Christmas Eve, and for the widow down the road, and dozens to trim the tree, and to display in the window facing the lane . . . .
What do you do for Christmas?
I honor the day, do some research - I'm writing a book on the German Bible in America - read something precious, and have a nice meal. Turkey is too big now, and lasts too long. Mostly our festival dish is sauerkraut and pork with mashed potatoes and hot applesauce.