The holidays always make me think of my mother. My father died when I was 7 years old in a car accident, so I was always close to my mother, although I believe I am probably singularly responsible for every grey hair on her head. Most of them appeared in my teenage years!!!
In this picture, Mom and I discovered the Blue Lick well that her grandfather, Curtis Lore drilled in Aurora Indiana. She is leaning on the pump. We had some wonderful genealogy adventures, after I outgrew (and survived) being a teenager!
Without my father and his family’s cultural influence, all of my traditions and customs were formed by my mother, and therefore by her family.
Mother’s father’s parents were Hiram Ferverda who was born in the Netherlands to Mennonite parents who converted to the Brethren faith upon arrival in the US and Evaline Louise Miller who was Brethren and descended from many generations of Brethren ancestors. The Mennonite and Brethren are both Anabaptist faiths who believe that only adults can be Baptized when they are old enough to understand the scripture. In that part of Indiana, the Brethren, Mennonite and Amish communities are intermixed to some extent, living in the same area. These religions also tend to believe in pietism, non-violence, including not serving in the military.
Mother’s mother’s father was Curtis Benjamin Lore, the well-driller, the son of an Acadian father, Antoine Lore (Lord), and Rachel Hill, his wife of English heritage from Addison County, Vermont. Rachel’s parents were Joseph Hill, son of John Hill and Catherine Mitchell who came from New Hampshire and Nabby, whose parents may have been Gershom Hall and Dorcas Richardson from Connecticut.
Mother’s mother’s mother was Nora Kirsch, a daughter of German immigrants, Jacob Kirsch and Barbara Dreschel, proprietors of the Kirsch House in Aurora, Indiana.
This mix of cultures is actually quite interesting. Of the groups, three, the Brethren, Mennonite and Acadians are quite endogamous, meaning heavily intermarried. Jacob Kirsch from the Mutterstadt and Fussgoenheim area of Germany is also very probably from an endogamous group, because there was no one to marry in these little villages except your cousins, and the church records are full of cousin marriages between the same families for generations.
It’s very rewarding to be able to read about a specific population or religious group, like the Brethren or Acadians, and understand about your ancestors. Conversely, it’s absolutely maddening when working with DNA to match everyone else who descends from that same group. Oh, the ying and yang of genealogy.
The good news about the DNA is that I can generally match someone to at least my mother’s grandparent level pretty easily and there isn’t much ambiguity.
When I was growing up, I never thought about family traditions as being cultural or having a “source.” Christmas was always Christmas and it was just the way it was and had always been. Didn’t everyone celebrate Christmas the same way our family did, other than attending different churches???
In fact, it really wasn’t until after I had been a genealogist for a long time that I realized that our holiday traditions are very likely descended from our ancestors, perhaps slightly changed in each generation, and that we can learn something about our ancestors from those traditions.
In general, when you’re evaluating traditions, first look towards the mother’s family. Historically, the mother is the homemaker, the cook and she will be passing on the recipes and traditions celebrated in her family. Now, that doesn’t mean that some of Dad’s haven’t been incorporated too – especially if his family lived nearby.
In our family, Christmas Eve was the big family celebration day. I remember Mom standing by the window in the kitchen over the sink anxiously watching the roads until the entire family was accounted for. The weather wasn’t always wonderful and the worse the weather, the more pacing and looking out the window Mom did.
Everyone in the extended family arrived, generally with a side dish in hand, and the day was spent eating and visiting, with a gift exchange in the evening. Often, when there were young kids, Santa would arrive, generally after dark, and asked the kids what they wanted, handing out sweet treats and admonishing them to be good.
Where might that tradition have come from?
As it turns out, Christmas Eve is the big celebration day in Germany. Family arrives, food is eaten all day…sound familiar? In addition, the Christmas Tree was secretly decorated by the mother – as it was in our household too.
Christmas Day was much quieter, with gifts only between the parents and children – although sometimes I wouldn’t exactly have called it quiet with paper ripping and excited squeals when the contents were revealed. Indeed, it’s amazing how Santa always knew exactly what each child wanted, even things they forgot to tell him!
Of course, Santa came during the night on Christmas Eve and gifts from Santa awaited both naughty and good children on Christmas Day underneath the tree. I know that’s true, because my brother always received gifts, in spite of himself. Santa, by the name of “Kerstman” or “Christman Man” is a Dutch tradition. The Germans have the tradition of the religious figure, Saint Nicholas, as well but by the late 1900s, Santa Claus had become quintessentially American. In other words, I don’t think the Santa tradition was handed down in our family from any particular culture, but from how the American culture evolved as a whole. After all, who doesn’t love a magical jolly good elf wearing a red suit that brings presents!
The Mennonites were much more practical, not utilizing wrapping paper for gifts and shying away from anything commercial or decorative or that might detract from the birth of Christ. So, no Christmas tree, no paper, no decorations…nada. But remember, my Mennonite family became Brethren in the 1800s. I bet their kids were thrilled!
The Brethren seemed to be more traditionally German. They included candles and a five pointed star to symbolize the birth of Christ. My Brethren family was probably very liberal for the Brethren faith. I base that statement up on the fact that two of my grandfather’s brothers served in the military and his father held public office, a typical Brethren no-no because it required swearing an oath. However, they were active church members and my grandfather’s father and his wife are both buried in the Brethren church cemetery.
Candles were a part of Christmas at home and at my grandmother’s. A village scene which included a crèche or manger scene was set up on the top of the piano and candles were part of the display, as well as in windows. The window candles were lit as dusk approached. In later years, window candles were replaced with electrical candles in wreaths. As candles became commercially available in shapes such as pine trees, reindeer and even Santa Claus, those types of candles were incorporated into the piano-top village scene, replacing the traditional candles.
My mother’s Brethren grandmother lived until 1939 when my mother was age 17, so Mom would assuredly have been exposed to whatever traditions took place in her family. The Brethren typically did not celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving elaborately, if at all, outside of religious services, gathering and eating, which was both the Brethren and Mennonite answer for every occasion.
As I looked for Acadian Christmas cultural traditions, everything I found involved food, and in particular, meat pies called tourtiere. My family did not make these pies, but my mother made a similar dish with chicken instead of pork, but not specifically for the holidays. However, I recognized another Acadian traditional item from our family holidays – Nun Farts. Yep, Nun Farts, or in French, pets de soeurs.
Now, my grandmother would never have said that f word, so they were certainly not called that in my family. In fact, I’m sure she just rolled over in her grave. In our family, they were called something like Pettyswars.
However, I’d recognize them anyplace. My mother modified them a bit by drizzling different concoctions over the top…maple syrup, powdered sugar icing or chocolate, my mother’s answer to everything. I can’t find a recipe for these in Mom’s recipe box either, so I’m guessing this was handed down orally, or the recipe was lost. I think she made these with scrap pie dough, so she didn’t need a recipe. She just used whatever was handy.
The Acadian heritage was a generation further back in the family. While this seems to be the only tradition I recognize, there may be a reason, aside from cultural attrition. You see, Antoine Lore left his Acadian family in Canada in the early 1830s for a less volatile area…Vermont, where he married Rachel Hill who appears to have descended from early English colonists.
Antoine’s mother, Marie Lafaille had committed the heinous error in judgment, at least by Acadian standards, of becoming Protestant. This conversion created a huge rift in the family, driving a wedge between her and her husband, Honore Lore, and dividing the children into two camps – Protestant and Catholic. In fact, her husband would not attend her funeral and she was buried alone, not with the family in the Catholic cemetery, by the Methodist missionaries. By that time, son Antoine had already left and had been married in Vermont to Rachel for 5 years. To the best of my knowledge, he never embraced any religion.
Perhaps Rachel made these Christmas pastries for Antoine. Perhaps they were one of his good memories, before the Big Divide. Rachel died when her son Curtis was about 10 years old, so maybe this family recipe brought him comfort as well, reminding him of his mother.
One of the common themes among these cultures is the tradition of sweets and candy for children, before or at Christmas, and in Germany in particular, days were set aside for baking.
When I was young, my mother and I would begin making cookies and candy after Thanksgiving but before Christmas. It was something we planned for and looked forward to. We would make and decorate the cookies and give assortments for gifts in colorful Christmas tins. I never thought of this as cultural, more as economic, but I now realize it was indeed the extension of a tradition from her childhood. We used my grandmother’s cookie cutters and cookie press.
The assortment looked something like this, and I especially liked making the green Christmas trees and decorating them with garland made out of candy beads.
Recently, I was talking to my cousin, Cheryl, about Christmas customs when she was young. Cheryl’s father and my mother’s father were brothers, and they lived across the street from each other most of their adult lives.
Cheryl shared with me that they too had their main celebration on Christmas Eve. Cheryl and my mother shared the Dutch Mennonite and Brethren grandparents.
And then Cheryl mentioned the tradition of a pickle on the tree. A pickle? Really? Hmmm…..maybe that explains why my grandmother had a pickle ornament. But I had no idea why.
Catholic Supply of St. Louis, who sells pickle ornaments of course, tells us this, “In Old World Germany, the last decoration placed on the Christmas Tree was always a pickle…carefully hidden deep in the boughs. Legend has it that the observant child who found it on Christmas Day was blessed with a year of good fortune…and a special gift.”
Wiki, however, tells us a slightly different story.
This tradition is commonly believed by Americans to come from Germany and be referred to as a Weihnachtsgurke, but this is probably apocryphal. In fact, the tradition is largely unknown in Germany. It has been suggested that the origin of the Christmas pickle may have been developed for marketing purposes in the 1890s to coincide with the importation of glass Christmas tree decorations from Germany. Woolworths was the first company to import these types of decorations into the United States in 1890, and glass blown decorative vegetables were imported from France from 1892 onwards. Despite the evidence showing that the tradition did not originate in Germany, the concept of Christmas pickles has since been imported from the United States and they are now on sale in the country traditionally associated with it.
Whether it was originally a German tradition or not, it’s clearly a tradition in Cheryl’s line of the family now, although my grandmother’s pickle ornament has disappeared along the way.
Now, truthfully, I had never though anything much about that pickle ornament. My family was prone to hang just about anything on a Christmas tree, so a pickle didn’t really stand out.
For example, a green hippopotamus. This is my bathtub toy from when I was a child, so Mom stuck it in the tree, and it’s still in the tree every year today.
When the light bulbs burned out, my grandmother made ornaments out of them.
In fact, I accidentally started a new tradition when I hung my children’s first baby shoes on the tree. Now those children have hung their children’s shoes on their trees too.
After Mom passed away, I realized that I was the only one left who knew anything at all about the stories surrounding the various Christmas ornaments.
One ornament, Baby New Year, still had the date of 1940 on his back in grease pencil. Mom said they changed it every year – but since 1940 was the year she graduated from high school, I’m guessing it was Mom that changed the year and she got distracted and never did it again.
I knew if I didn’t write these stories down that they would be lost forever, so I decided to create a memory book for my family. I photographed all of the ornaments while putting them away one year. I wrote what I knew about each ornament, put the stories along with their photo into a Word document, and gave both of my children a book of family ornaments for the following Christmas. Hopefully, this will help preserve these memories and heritage.
This ornament isn’t extraordinarily beautiful, but it is in evidence on my grandmother’s tree in the 1950s, below – near the top at right. See it?
You can also see it on Mom’s tree from the 1970s – dead center front slightly left – forgive those horrid drapes but they were very stylish at the time.
Here is the same ornament on my tree a few years ago, plus 3 or 4 more of grandmother’s in the picture. Notice the cat??? That’s a family tradition too! You can tell she had been playing with some of the decorations.
As I was looking through the ornaments, I found one that I made for Mom the year that she won Best of Show at the Indiana State Fair. Now this was a REALLY big deal. To enter the state fair, you had to win a special “State Fair” ribbon on the county level, then you could enter that item into the State Fair. A reception was held the evening before the State Fair opened for all entrants so that you could come and see if you had won, or placed. In the middle of the exhibition hall, for the full length of the building, was a row of tables, end to end, full of the desserts that were entered in the cooking categories. They were served to the entrants. What were you going to do with hundreds of cakes and pies, otherwise?
It was difficult for me to attend with Mom, because it was always on a weeknight and I lived out of state, but often, one of my children went with her. In 1989, she won a Best of Show for her crocheting and I made her a Christmas ornament to celebrate. What fun we had and what wonderful memories for me and for my children too…although I do admit I shed a lot of tears decorating the Christmas tree every year.
Another year, I created a different heirloom gift for my children. I took mother’s recipes from her recipe box and scanned them into a document. Then, I wrote about my memories of that particular recipe.
There are wonderful memories in that box. My children used to go and visit my folks on the farm for a week at a time in the summer – generally in August when it was “fair time.” They have memories of recopying recipes for my Mom at the kitchen table while she cooked, when she had soiled a recipe card, like this original gingerbread recipe. Lots of good memories in those spots on the cards. Mom often made gingerbread at Thanksgiving – with homemade whipped cream of course!
Mom had recopied this recipe, so I have the older one with the note about her mother, and the newer one – both obviously used!
This gobbledygook recipe is served over angel food cake, but when you serve it, not ahead of time as an icing or it soaks in and makes the cake soggy. This recipe was recopied when my daughter was in elementry school, but it’s one of her staples for carry-ins now that she is an adult.
Carmel popcorn balls is in my handwriting as a teen.
Ummm, yum…. popcorn balls – those were a Christmas tradition – from my step-Dad’s side of the family. I remember Dad making popcorn for the balls in the popcorn popper on the stove, similar to this one. I have it someplace.
Then, after he made the candy, he would grease his hands and use wax paper to handle the hop popcorn and hot candy and form it into balls.
Beer bread anyone? This recipe, in Mom’s handwriting, is wonderful toasted with some butter and home made applesauce. Mom made beer bread loaves, wrapped them in aluminum foil, put a red bow on the top and gave them for gifts. She always had a couple of spare gifts like this put aside, just in case unexpected company arrived. No one left empty-handed at Christmas. You should have heard her, a Baptist church deacon, trying to justify why she was buying 2 or 3 six-packs of beer!
I can’t leave the topic of Christmas traditions without talking about Turtle Soup. No, not with real turtle. Mom always used to say, “Turtle Soup, well, it’s really mock-turtle soup.” My grandmother used veal and then as veal turned into an ethical issue, Mom used some type of beef bones with meat.
The Turtle Soup tradition came to the US with one of mother’s German great-grandparents, Jacob Kirsch and Barbara Drechsel, from Germany.
Jacob and Barbara established the Kirsch House in Aurora, Indiana, on the Ohio River near Cincinnati. The Kirsch House was located beside the train station just a couple blocks above the pier where the steam boats docked – a prime location not likely to flood but readily accessible to travelers. The Kirsch House had a bar and facilities that would be similar to a bed and breakfast today. The family lived there as well. A beer and a bowl of turtle soup for dinner cost 10 cents.
Every Tuesday Barbara Drechsel Kirsch made (mock) turtle soup. People in Aurora would order it in advance, and when the soup was finished, Barbara would ladle it into buckets. The four Kirsch daughters, including mother’s grandmother, Nora, all born within a decade, would take their wagon, pulling it along the sidewalks, and deliver the buckets of soup to the residents. When you finished your soup, you would return your bucket to the Kirsch House.
Nora’s daughter, Edith, my mother’s mother, went to live with her grandmother, Barbara, after Jacob’s death in 1917. Edith was then a part of the turtle soup making process on Tuesdays. That tradition lived as long as the Kirsch House, which closed in the 1920s when Barbara, then in her 70s, could no longer manage everything herself.
We’re fortunate to have a recipe for turtle soup on Kirsch House stationary. Well, I’m using the word recipe loosely. Clearly Barbara did not need a recipe or a reminder of any kind. This document is reportedly in her handwriting but reads more like a stream of consciousness conversation than a recipe as we think of it.
I also have a turtle soup recipe written by my grandmother which was a bit different, and a third one written by my mother that is different yet. I think each generation modified it a bit according to what they had available and perhaps to taste. Like cultural traditions, recipes evolved too.
Notice that the letterhead says the proprietor is Mrs. B. Kirsch, so we know this was written after Jacob’s death in 1917. It must have been unusual at that time to see a female listed as a proprietor. A margin note says “Mawmaw’s recipe” at the top. In my family, the grandmother was always called “Mawmaw” although that tradition has not extended to my grand-children’s generation, so I guess there will be no more Mawmaws in the family. This recipe could have been written by Barbara, her daughter Nora or her daughter Edith who was staying with her after Jacob died. I doubt that it was Edith because we have a different recipe, in different handwriting that was hers, and my brother who lived with Edith at one time verified her handwriting. If it was written by Barbara or Nora, it suggests that the recipe probably came through Barbara’s family in Goppsmannbuhl, not the Kirsch family from Mutterstadt/Fussgoenheim.
Several years ago, I met a cousin, also descended from one of the Kirsch daughters. She too had a super-secret copy of the turtle soup recipe which she absolutely would not share because it was a closely guarded family secret. I explained to her that I didn’t need the recipe, but that I just wanted to see how it might differ from the 3 that I already had. No dice.
In the 1980s, my mother and my daughter and I went to Aurora, Indiana to hopefully find the Kirsch House and connect with our heritage. At that time, it was an Italian restaurant. Miracle of miracles, the original bar installed by Jacob Kirsch was still there. Jim and I stopped a few years ago, and the building is gravely deteriorated and the bar was gone. I would have purchased that bar. It would have looked great in my living room!
On the top of that bar, the current owners had decoupaged old postcards of Aurora, including one of the building in earlier days, at right, beside the train depot, at left. Barbara Drechsel Kirsch always fed the hobos who rode the trains too, at the back door of the Kirsch House.
I’m so glad that the three of us made the trip to Aurora together. There weren’t many. Mom worked until she was 83 before she agreed to retire, and only then because of her health. By then, it was too late to do much genealogy travel.
Making turtle soup became a Christmas tradition. In my family, my uncle, Mom’s brother, loved turtle soup. He too was raised on it as a special family treat. My brother and I both loved it, as did Mom, but no one else really cared much for it. For one thing, it didn’t look terribly appealing. I made it this week, and to me, this looks wonderful, but maybe not so much if you’re just looking at it for the first time.
From the time I was little, after my grandmother died, when I was 5, I remember Mom preparing to make turtle soup. While Barbara Drechsel Kirsch made it weekly, we made it occasionally, and it was always a process. This soup took 2 days to make.
First, you boiled the meat and the vegetables together for a few hours. Then you removed the meat and boiled the vegetables to death. The vegetables were then removed and thrown away. That was day 1. On day 2, the meat was ground in a meat grinder, along with hard boiled eggs, and added to the broth with browned flower, spices and wine. Everything German has wine. When the soup was finished, lemons were peeled and then sliced and the slices were floated on the top of the soup.
I inherited Mom’s meat grinder, which she inherited from her mother as well. It looks something like this, except older, much older. I still remember cranking the grinder. We would bolt it to the table and one person would hold it steady while the other person cranked. This is much easier described than done, I might add. Four hands and not much space.
As a child, I got to help by browning the flower. That was my special job. Mom would pull a chair up to the stove and I would get to stir the flower in the cast iron skillet with a wooden spoon until it browned. You had to stir all the time to keep it from sticking or burning. I was SO HAPPY to get to do that, because it meant I was a big girl. It was a hot job but I would never complain because that would mean I’d lose the privilege.
Because turtle soup was such a treat, Mom froze it and gave it as Christmas gifts to family members, right along with those tins of cookies or beer bread. She also made summer sausage as gifts. Nothing German about this family.
Mom made turtle soup up until her last year or two, and I helped her those years. The kettle became too heavy for her to lift. I have her kettle too.
I miss the turtle soup. I’ve never made it alone. The memory always seemed too raw, but the turtle soup craving is just about to overtake the painful memories and this just might be the year. I can freeze it and have lunches for months. There is no one left to give it to as a gift.
Yes, I think I’ll make turtle soup for Christmas this year! Maybe my grandkids will like it.
Update: I made the turtle soup and it came out simply wonderful. Mom would be proud. You can’t make a little bit of this recipe, so I’ll be freezing it and having it for lunches all winter!! In a way, I’ll be having lunch with Mom.
As I look at the holiday traditions, mostly the food, they are full of cultural memories and hidden information.
However, one of the very best gifts that my mother ever gave me was to agree to test her DNA. Seldom a day goes by that I don’t silently thank her – and I’m not being facetious – I’m dead serious.
By having Mom’s and my DNA both, I can tell when someone matches me autosomally, immediately, onto which side of the family they fall. If they match me and Mom both, then obviously they are from her side. From there, they often fall into the Acadian, Brethren or Dutch Mennonite groups. So, in one fell swoop, I can often categorize my matches to three or 4 generations. That’s a wonderful gift.
Not only that, but her DNA is going to keep on giving, to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
This Christmas, we’re starting another tradition. We’re testing my grandchildren too – they’ll all be swabbing on Christmas Day – and thanks to Mom, we will have 4 generations of DNA to work with. My grandchildren are going to grow up knowing about their culture, about traditions, about their ancestors, and yes, about their DNA. Mom’s DNA and the information it provides will be available to her descendants into perpetuity. Truly, the gift that keeps on giving – forever.
I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.
Thank you so much.
DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- Family Tree DNA
- MyHeritage DNA only
- MyHeritage DNA plus Health
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload
- 23andMe Ancestry
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
- Legacy Tree Genealogists for genealogy research