History of the Christmas Putz

By Candace Perry.

Here at the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center we casually talk about the Christmas putz, mentioning it to visitors (“The putz is on the first floor”) and perhaps oblivious to whether they know what it is. It’s a term we take for granted here, but it definitely requires explanation to many outsiders. I grew up in a Pennsylvania Dutch family from Robesonia in western Berks County, and I had never heard of the word putz—then again, I don’t think I ever heard of the Belsnickle, either!

So, then, what is a putz? Perhaps more familiar to many individuals are the terms “Christmas garden” or “Christmas yard.” Over the past few years there’s been a resurgence of interest in the antique and vintage miniature buildings, animals, people and scenery pieces that were commonly used in putzes, and a result, the word has become more associated with these tiny worlds that people create under their trees, on tables, or on mantelpieces. How do the putzes of today, however, compare to those of a hundred years ago? Or two hundred years ago?

But first, what about the word putz? The word in referring to Christmas decoration is pronounced “puts” and is derived from a German verb putzen, which means to clean or polish, but also can mean to trim or decorate. Note the advertisement shown here for Phoebe Y. Schelly, a Schwenkfelder descendant and milliner living and working in Hereford Township, Berks County, in the 1840s. She calls herself a “Putz und Bonnet-Macherin” (Trim and Bonnet Maker). A word of warning, though: in Yiddish, the word is pronounced “putts” and in its family friendly version means “a foolish person.” When saying the word, make sure you say “puts” and not “putts”!

Der Lecha Caunty Patriot, Allentown, PA, March 17, 1841

The Moravians brought the tradition of making putzes at Christmas from Saxony to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the 18th century, a fact that is well documented. Christmas was very significant to the Moravians, more so than to any of the other Pennsylvania German groups. For the Moravians, the putz was a three-dimensional miniature retelling of the Nativity. This kind of visual representation of the Christmas story—both in the putz and in the paintings that often accompanied it—were exclusive to the Moravians in that time.

European Roots

Artistic interpretations of the Nativity can be found from the early centuries of Christianity, in all types of media, from stone carvings and altar pieces to illuminated manuscripts, frescos, and stained glass. This was true throughout the Christian world. In the medieval period, these scenes were brought to life as Nativity plays, similar to the Passion plays of Easter, evolved in the early Middle Ages, and sometimes included figures along with the live performers. At first these plays were performed in church, but with their increasingly earthy content, church leaders forced them outside in public spaces. Displaying nativity scenes in church for educational purposes also has medieval roots. The carved wooden nativity scene, or presepe in the Basilica de Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy is an early ca. 1370 example of nativity figures used in a church.

Presepe at the Basilica de Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274) relays the story of St. Francis of Assisi and the first live nativity scene in 1223 in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi:

It happened, three years prior to his death, that he decided to celebrate at the town of Greccio the memory of the birth of the Child Jesus with the greatest solemnity, to arouse devotion. So that this would not be considered a type of novelty, he petitioned for and obtained permission from the Supreme Pontiff.

He had a manger prepared, hay carried in and an ox and an ass led to the spot. The brethren are summoned, the people arrive, the forest amplifies with their cries, and that venerable night is rendered brilliant and solemn by a multitude of bright lights and by resonant and harmonious hymns of praise. [Francis of Assisi, The Founder, Early Documents, Vol. II, 2000, Editors: Armstrong, Hellmann, Short, pp. 610 – 611]

In the early 14th century, the Italian artist Giotto memorialized the events of 1223 in frescos (paintings on plaster) for the Lower Church of Francesco d’Assisi in Assisi, Italy. Included in this group of paintings is the first modern depiction of the Nativity, including most of the recognizable figures in the events.

Nativity Fresco, ca. 1320, by Giotto di Bordone, Lower Church of Francesco d’Assisi, Assisi, Italy

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century ushered in a new age—not only in religion, but in art, which had thus far been religious in focus. Many Reformation leaders thoroughly rejected all forms of religious iconography displayed in churches as idolatry. This led not only to the destruction of religious art in Protestant areas such as the northern German states and the Netherlands, but also the shift by painters in these regions to other types of painting, including history, landscape, and genre. Many of these newly minted Protestants continued to have religious art in their homes, however, a tradition that continued in different forms with the Germans who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th century.

The Roman Catholic Church was having none of it. In an effort to re-commit to the doctrines of Catholicism, the Church held a series of convocations from 1549 to 1563 known collectively as the Council of Trent. One critical issue before church officials was the use of religious iconography. The Church adopted a doctrine stating that religious art should be used in churches for educational purposes but not to worship the images in their own right. As a result, religious art was reinvigorated, at least in Catholic regions, and more images of the Nativity would be painted than ever before.

Though there are many examples of post-Reformation paintings of the Nativity, The Adoration of the Magi (1573) by Veronese is a good representation of the type of imagery that would manifest itself in three-dimensional nativity scenes that would flourish in Italy among the upper classes in the 17th and 18th century. The theatrical elements, such as the depictions of rich textiles, the classical ruin juxtaposed against the humble manger, and the heavenly “spotlight” shining down upon Mary and the infant Jesus easily translated to the presepi (plural of presepio or presepe). Though these scenes, full of detail and gorgeously attired figures, first graced wealthy households, the tradition would eventually become accessible in some form to all Italians.

Adoration of the Magi, 1573, by Paolo Veronese, The National Gallery, London

The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh has one of the finest antique presepi in the United States. Compare the image of it to the Veronese painting. One common feature of presepi is the inclusion of a classical ruin, as also depicted in the Veronese painting. Scholars say that the ruin represents the destruction of the ancient classical world, or the collapse of the Roman Temple of Peace on the night when Christ was born. (https://www.christianiconography.info/nativity.html)

Presepio at the Carnegie Museum Art, Pittsburgh, PA

A glance at the Carnegie’s presepio will tell you that these fantastic creations weren’t for everyone and were professionally made by Italian figure-makers. This was not the case, however, for other ethnic groups’ nativity scenes—whether known as a creche among French speakers, or a Krippe for Germans, or belèn in Spanish—nativity scene making would eventually become part of folk culture.

The Moravian Putz

The Moravian celebration of Christmas was the most significant of all the German speakers that came to Pennsylvania in the 18th century. Considering Christmas traditions in other Pennsylvania German communities, it is the only religious celebration of the holiday that flourished in the 18th century and continues to do so in the present day. Of the many traditions associated with Advent and Christmas among the Moravians, the putz has probably captured the general public’s imagination the most. There is more to it, though, than a simple nativity scene.

Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the leader of the Moravians, stepped out of the Protestant custom of eschewing religious art, and instead believed it to be an essential aspect of the Moravian faith. [“Young William Blake and the Moravian Tradition of Visionary Art” by Martha Keith Schuchard; http://bq.blakearchive.org/40.3.schuchard]. This use of fine art for religious meditation in the Church sets the Moravians far apart from any of their Pennsylvania German neighbors, whose churches and meeting houses were austere and devoid of decoration beyond the architecture and church pewter.

The artistic renderings of the Nativity, either as paintings such as the 18th century works by Valentine Haidt or paintings on walls that appear in 19th century photographs of Moravian church interiors. These paintings served as backdrops for the putz, or in some cases may have been stand-ins for a three-dimensional putz.

Nativity with Adoration of the Shepherds, n.d., by Johann Valentin Haidt, State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg.

The putz building tradition itself appears to have traveled with the Moravians from Saxony at some point in the 18th century. Certainly, it had to be influenced by the tandem customs of Nativity scenes in churches and the adoption of the practice in folk culture, and also by the Moravian acceptance and encouragement of religious iconography. Precious little information exists regarding early American putzes, but we are very fortunate to have a description from the Philadelphia Ledger in 1842 regarding a traveler’s visit to Bethlehem for Christmas. In this passage he describes the decorations in a home he is visiting: “In the rear ground were represented two large paintings, the Angel as he appeared to the Shepherds, on the night of the Birth of Christ.” He saw other elaborate decorations in the same house, including a swan fountain. In a second house he notes “likewise we saw the transparency in the rear, but not in painting, merely scriptural words cut out and illuminated.”

The Putz at Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, 1884.

Martha Keith Schuchard notes in her article, “Young William Blake and the Moravian Tradition of Visionary Art” that these illuminated decorations were also displayed at Count Zinzendorf’s London headquarters and Moravian chapel in the 18th century. “Adding to the mystical atmosphere were watercolored transparencies, through which lanterns and candles projected luminous visions into the congregation rooms,” she writes. These decorations sound remarkably similar to those the Bethlehem visitor viewed in 1842.

At a third house, the visitor observed “a hill full of sheep, even clothed in wool with their shepherd. Next fell to my view a stable, where I saw the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus on her lap, and all the wise men all around.” He went on to tell the readers that the scenes were in “miniature appearance, not as large as life.” He also describes more secular aspects of the putz, and how it was constructed out of rocks and moss.

At some point the fame of the Moravian putz must have spread outside of the confines of their communities. In 1867, some enterprising Moravians decided to set up a putz as a fundraising event at National Hall on Market Street in Philadelphia. We can only hope it was a hit with the cosmopolitan Philadelphians and the fledgling Bethlehem YMCA (founded in 1867) took in lots of money!

The Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, PA, December 24, 1867

Today the popularity of the traditional Moravian putz—the Nativity scene set among natural scenery—is far reaching, making it a must see for visitors to Bethlehem during the Christmas season. Putz building, however, would take off in a decidedly modern direction with technological advancements, inexpensive imports, and the natural ingenuity and creativity of Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania putz builders.

The Putz at Central Moravian Church in recent years.

The Pennsylvania Dutch Putz

Most of us would never dream of opening our homes to hundreds of people during the holidays, especially those of us who live in rowhouses or townhouses. But in the early 20th century, that’s exactly what families did in Allentown and the surrounding area—they threw open their doors and welcomed both friends and strangers into their homes to view their putzes. These putz builders put hours of planning and labor to bring their ideas to life and were proud to show off the finished products. The payoff was a mention in the local newspaper! There are so many mentions of putzes in early 20th century newspapers, it seems there must have been a reporter on the putz beat.

Putz building was a male activity, so much so that a woman building a putz garnered a mention in the newspaper. As technology advanced, the putz builders came up with more and more sophisticated solutions to lighting their putzes and including running water for fountains and streams. Also, the availability of leisure time for the men who undertook these massive weeks-long projects represented a change in the work/home balance for many individuals.

The putz themes selected by the makers showed a wide interest in the world around them beyond their predominantly Pennsylvania German community. Some of the subject matter certainly required a little research, such as John Huber’s Civil War putz in East Macungie in 1909; Lewis Uhl’s 1897 putz in Allentown featuring a “Japanese tent;” or William P. Strouse’s putz at his home in Allentown in 1909 with a backdrop of Lake George. The putz builders were only limited by their imaginations and, possibly, their pocketbooks. Some putzes included the traditional Nativity scenes, but most reports indicate that putz building had become a secular activity.

Another change in the late 19th and early 20th century that impacted putz building, especially for the less creative and handy, was the availability of mass produced inexpensive imported items. People who wanted a putz without the fuss could purchase pieces in department stores, five and dimes, and probably even local dry goods stores in smaller communities. The iconic wooly putz sheep, human figures, fences, buildings, and trees made of loofas could all be purchased, and later, the paper houses that were made in Germany and Japan. When electric trains became affordable, putzes would shift for some to elaborate train layouts, with the train being the focal point.

Advertisement from Allentown’s Fair Store, 1906

The best-known putz for many—beyond the Moravian Church putz—was one that is now reaching its bittersweet end. Laurence T. Gieringer, a Reading native, started building his miniature buildings and figures as a boy, By the 1940s he was had a location to show off his life’s work, which he called Roadside America, and in 1953, built its home for the next nearly 70 years of its existence off of route 78 in Shartlesville, Berks County. Though it’s definitely a massive train layout, it started life as a putz. It may be the only putz some visitors ever see. As a Campfire Girl in the 1970s, it was my first experience until I started working for the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center in 1998. This month, though, marks the sad end for Roadside America, as the display is being dismantled and auctioned.

Laurence T. Gieringer of Roadside America fame

The Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center is fortunate to have its very own putz collection, given to us by Ron Treichler about 15 years ago. The collection was given to Ron by its original owner, Dr. Robert L. Schaeffer of Allentown. It represents at least two, maybe three, generations of accumulating all the essentials that go into creating both the Nativity scene and the secular putz. Today, volunteers (all women!) create the putz annually for the Heritage Center, coming up with new themes that incorporate the collection and handmade pieces added by the volunteers. There’s really no one way to make a putz, as the putz builders of yore have shown us.

Though the Schwenkfelder is closed right now due to COVID restrictions, we hope you’ll come and visit in January and February to see our putz. We’re located at 105 Seminary Street, Pennsburg PA 18073. Visit our website at www.schwenkfelder.org or call 215/679-3103 for more information. Best of all, we have free admission!

Candace Kintzer Perry is curator of collections at Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center.

3 thoughts on “History of the Christmas Putz

  1. Interesting article.
    Despite growing up in a home where Pennsylvania Dutch was the first language of both parents, I too never heard the words “putz” or “belsnickle” at home. First heard them when I started tinkering around in the history business.

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    1. Thank you Candace, very informative. I really enjoyed reading this. I didn’t grow up with putz either but we did have the train set under the tree. And angles and cherubs are a theme on my “modern” Christmas tree which I love decorating every year. My mom told me all about the Belsnickel when I was young which sounded frightening to me and I didn’t understand why anyone would want to scare the children. Horrors!

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  2. Oh, dear ones, what a lovely article. My family always had a small nativity scene. We never had a tree or much in the way of decorations. On Christmas eve, we would get out the old magazines (free from library) and cut people out to represent the figures in the story from Luke and we would make a small book wherein we would write out the story from Luke. Then, we would read the story before bed and again on Christmas Morn. Another tradition we had was on Christmas eve to place 30 silver coins (dimes, nickels, or quarters) at the foot of the Christ Child… lest we forget that without Easter there would be no Christmas, and visa versa. My husband and I still keep the coin tradition… and then include it in our alms the next Sabbath day. Thank you for reminding me of that tradition… reminds me I need to stop by the bank today. Merry Christ-mass! 🙂 Bear

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