Miniature holiday villages have rich history

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

This is the time of year when families hold fast to holiday traditions. Setting up a Christmas tree, attending worship services, baking holiday cookies, sending cards filled with warm wishes to family and friends, and giving gifts are all part of the December scene. One tradition that stands out as having historic roots is upheld by many local families, especially those families with Pennsylvania German backgrounds.

Many people today, no matter their ancestry, enjoy setting up a miniature village and/or nativity scene as part of their holiday decorations. This Christian tradition can be dated back to the 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi held the first living nativity in Italy. Displaying a form of the nativity, whether live or in the form of figurines, spread, and by 1562, such displays appeared in Prague, north of the Danube River. This custom was embraced throughout central Europe, particularly in present-day Germany by the Moravians, a Protestant denomination. By the early 18th Century, many Moravians had left Europe for America and settled in the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania. With them came the tradition of celebrating the nativity that was the inspiration for the Christmas “Putz.” The term “putz,” translated from German into English, means “to decorate” or “to clean,” and the Moravian putz appeared in Pennsylvanian churches before it become part of the decorations for the home.

In its most basic form, a putz was a three-dimensional creation, often a relief carving or set of figurines that portrayed the birth of Christ. As the idea of having a putz grew, so did putz scenes. The traditional theme of a crèche (or crib) was expanded to include a more secular scene with surrounding villages, farms, animals, people, trees, and more. Natural materials adorned the putz and often included driftwood, rocks, moss, sand, evergreen boughs, and anything else that families had available. While the strict idea of the putz focused on the nativity, many holiday scenes evolved into Christmas or winter villages that do not necessarily have a religious connotation. That is, as more and more people embraced the putz, the idea of creating a village became more secular.

A putz, whether historic or modern, can be placed anywhere in the home during the holidays, with the size of the scene usually dictating its location. Traditionally, they were located underneath a small table-top Christmas tree, but, as they grew in size, the scenes were moved to mantles or their own separate tables in others rooms of the house. Some have grown large enough to occupy their own rooms.

Whether a traditional Christian scene or a modern village, Christmas putzes have always been an entirely personal venture with each one’s design left to the imagination of the creator. Often, pieces in the village are not strictly “to scale,” as they are gathered or purchased throughout the year. Importantly, the putz is meant to be a family endeavor, with every member of the family finding materials or items to include in the holiday scene. In Pennsylvania German history, children might win a toy animal as a prize at a fair, and it would be incorporated into the putz. In fact, it would not be surprising to see farm animals that were larger than the barn.

Continuing in the holiday tradition, families would make social calls to neighbors’ homes to see their putzes; this has been called “going putzing.” In some cases, townspeople held unspoken, friendly competitions to see who had created a more impressive putz. Young men and women often met during the holidays while out “putzing.”

The modern putz has taken many forms. Manufactured, hand-made putzes from the Erzgebirge region of Germany became popular in the 1830s. The miniature wooden villages began as a cottage industry for out-of-work German miners who lived in this densely-forested region of south-eastern Germany. Craftsmen worked from their homes to carve small houses, animals, and people that would be used in putzes throughout Europe and America.

After World War II, Christmas villages began to be mass-produced for American markets. Asian manufactures offered inexpensive cardboard villages to the public. In 1976, the Department 56 company created ceramic villages that became extremely popular. Whether a Christmas village is religious or secular, hand-crafted antique or newly-manufactured, large or small, the idea and the tradition continue to brighten the holiday homes of many people.