When the Scribbler was a wobbly little fellow, barely aware of the world outside Bird-in-Hand, he looked forward to the day after Christmas as a time to play with new toys alone without listening to incomprehensible adult chatter. Now all the toys are gone and he wishes the adults were still here to chatter.
Nevertheless, Second Christmas remains. Let’s celebrate!
The add-on holiday on Dec. 26 began in Europe in the Middle Ages as a commemoration of St. Stephen’s Day. St. Stephen was a kind, generous man who preached too cleverly and was stoned to death for blasphemy.
In the last two centuries, religious and recreational celebration of the holiday have vied for primary attention from generation to generation, especially among the Pennsylvania Dutch who brought the tradition here from Germany.
Observance of Second Christmas on this side of the pond began in the early 19th century with the fancy Dutch, as opposed to the Plain sects. They observed the holiday by hunting foxes, staging shooting matches or, if they were determined to break with the religious customs of the day previous, dancing and drinking. No turtle doves involved.
Second Christmas was as much celebrated as Dec. 25, a Lancaster Express editorialist noted in 1850, though some celebrants were subdued “and repentant as if they mourned the absence of what lined their pockets on the morning of the 25th, and had since been sacrificed for (a) few hours of ‘merriment.’”
The Express commented at length on a particularly wild Second Christmas in 1866. A “winter ball” held at the Normal School in Millersville (which evolved into Millersville University) ended with “some bloody noses and black eyes, considerable drunkenness, with a sprinkle of rowdyism.'”
It is strange, an editorialist noted, that “poor whisky predominates so largely over sense in the conduct of some young men. ... We understand an effort will be made this winter to prohibit the sale of liquor within a certain radius of the State Normal Schools.”
Perhaps that is why, even today, there are so few places where anyone can buy a drink (or anything else, for that matter) in Millersville, a remarkably atypical college town.
In 1872, the Express — which seems to have cornered the coverage of Second Christmas in the mid-19th century — discussed a freak incident in which a youth named Stahl ate an entire goose before the sun set on Dec. 26.
This was the same fellow who sometime previously had eaten 17 dry pretzels without taking a drink of any liquid, the Express said. Someone suggested that “though Stahl by name he never yet had been stalled — at eating.”
By the end of the 19th century, celebration of Second Christmas, or at least newspaper coverage of it, seems to have been limited to church services and fox chases.
While several European countries — Germany and the Netherlands among them — still mark Second Christmas today, in the United States celebration continues primarily among the Amish.
They break free of the religious services of Dec. 25 to spend time exchanging good cheer with family and neighbors. Amish youngsters go off to play volleyball or more daring games. Lancaster County roads will be filled with horse-and-buggy teams traveling to and fro.
But most Lancaster residents have found other things to do. Many return to work on Second Christmas, leaving the kids alone to play with new toys that Santa hauled down their chimneys on the first day of Christmas.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP | LancasterOnline staff, writes “The Scribbler'' column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.