So today is the day we have all been waiting for — Second Christmas, a time to relax with family and friends, free from the multiple obligations of Christmas day, able to do the things we really want to do, such as race wheelbarrows or chase foxes.
What? You don’t know anything about Second Christmas? Well, let the Scribbler inform and entertain you.
Like a lot of holiday customs, Second Christmas began in Europe in the Middle Ages and was transferred from Germany to Pennsylvania Dutchland in the 18th century.
The customs associated with Second Christmas began to fade at the end of the 19th century. Now the holiday is a mystery to most people, although the Amish still observe it by knocking off work and meeting with family and friends.
“The kids like to get together and play volleyball on Second Christmas,” an Amish celebrant says. “The old people go to Christmas dinners; we go visiting people in the community.”
The earliest citation of Second Christmas in Alfred Shoemaker’s “Christmas in Pennsylvania” (1959) comes from the Dec. 27, 1808, edition of the German-language Volksfreund, which was published in Lancaster. A gentleman reportedly told the state Legislature that no business could be transacted on Second Christmas because the Pennsylvania Dutch would not participate.
The Dutch would be holding shooting matches and wheelbarrow races and carrying on in local taverns. Rural youths would be spending the day traveling to Lancaster and other cities to “see the sights” and perhaps go dancing in the evening.
Some ministers, frowning on all of this carousing, tried to keep Second Christmas as a holy day, but that was not so popular. Second Christmas was the people’s day, and the people were not about to let sacred practices upstage secular customs. Shooting matches took precedence.
Here’s an advertisement for a shooting match on Second Christmas in 1849:
“MARKS Men take Notis that on the SackK Kendtday of Crismes on Wansdday the 26th of December, 1849 there will be a Shooting Match in Reamstown Lancester Coty at the publick House of Isaac Reber for a Hog weiing .3.25 lb. with Rifle Distance 100 yards.”
Dances were often held after these shooting matches. “Raffle” or “hustle” games also were popular. These games consisted of throwing seven pennies from a hat and seeing who wound up with the most “heads” versus “tails.’’ Of course, these activities occurred in taverns, which profited from spirits imbibed while tossing hats.
Wheelbarrow matches came along a bit later. The Wrightsville Star described a race on Second Christmas in 1857. Participants paid 50 cents to race a wheelbarrow, blindfolded, toward a post. The prize was a hog valued at $16.
“There were 33 persons made trial of their skill or luck,” the Star reported, “a number of whom in their efforts to do the straight thing, veered so much from the track as almost to describe a circle.” The winner ran his wheelbarrow smack into the post.
Fox chases also were popular. The Lancaster New Era reported that on Dec. 26, 1893, a chase was held at Hambright’s Three-Mile House. “After a long chase,” the newspaper said, “reynard was captured by William Hambright at the Little Conestoga near the Marietta turnpike.”
Gerry Kershner notes in her “Pennsylvania Dutch Christmases” (2007) that Belsnickel, one of St. Nicholas’ sidekicks, continued to operate on the day before Christmas, Christmas Day and Second Christmas.
So, there are some ideas for what you can do today. Go see your friends. Go to church. Go Belsnickeling. Go hunting. Go gambling. Or go run your wheelbarrow in circles.
Happy Second Christmas!
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes “The Scribbler” column every Wednesday. He welcomes comments and contributions at firstname.lastname@example.org.