Reading the Signs of Nature in Traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Culture

This past Saturday, people across the country focused their attention on a groundhog named Phil who crawled out of his hole near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, at dawn. Unable to see his shadow, Phil “predicted” that spring will be coming early this year. For those of us just emerging from our burrows in the Upper Midwest, this is welcome news.

Groundhog Day, an event now celebrated in many communities across the US and Canada, takes place annually on February 2nd, which is the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. February 2nd is also Candlemas, an ancient Christian holy day whose roots go far back in pre-Christian Europe (cf. the Celtic festival of Imbolc). There are parallel spring-heralding traditions in Native American cultures, with which early German settlers in Pennsylvania very likely became familiar.1

By the turn of the twentieth century, the groundhog came to be adopted as a cultural symbol by nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch (church people, Fancy Dutch). As an antipode to greater America’s soaring bald eagle, the groundhog evokes humility, common wisdom, and proximity to nature, classic Pennsylvania Dutch virtues, including among the Plain people. Amish and traditional Mennonites, however, have kept their distance from celebrations involving the groundhog, including Pennsylvania’s Grundsow Lodge movement, which has become an important vehicle for nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch culture. The “seriously nonsensical” worship of King Groundhog at lodge meetings, which are also overtly patriotic, is out of sync with Plain sensibilities.2

Even though one was unlikely to have spotted any beards or bonnets at Gobbler’s Knob last Saturday morning, contemporary Amish and Plain Mennonite culture does have elements of traditional Pennsylvania folk astronomy.3 A common sight on the book table in many a Plain home, alongside the Bible and prayer and song books, is the farmer’s almanac.4 The almanac goes back to the beginning of Pennsylvania Dutch history and is deeply interwoven with the Christian faith and folk spirituality of sectarians and nonsectarians alike.

Julius F. Sachse (1842–1919), a keen observer of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, wrote this about the farmer’s almanac in a 1907 essay titled “Prognostics and Superstitions.”5

The Aberglaube (superstitions) of the early Germans may be said to have been divided into at least a hundred different forms, the scale running all the way from a simple belief in the efficiency of Bible verses promiscuously selected down to demonology itself. Perhaps the most common of these superstitions was what was known as Kalender-Aberglaube, or a belief in prognostics based upon the almanac. This was again subdivided into various departments, based upon the phases of the moon and other celestial bodies. This, however, is not to be confounded with the custom of astrology or the casting of the horoscope. To any person schooled in the art, the almanac became the guide and mentor for almost every function of daily life. First, it told us of the state of the weather for every day of the coming year; then it informed us what were to be the prevalent diseases, gave us the proper days for felling timber, taking purgative medicine, for bleeding and blood-letting, for cutting the hair, for weaning calves, children, etc. It gave the lucky days for sowing grain, the proper days for a merchant to speculate, and for other daily avocations.

Plain people today take special care not to allow superstitions into any aspect of their life. Young folks don’t ask each other what their signs are when they meet. However, deciding when it is auspicious to plant certain crops and cut one’s hair and nails, depending on the situation of the moon and constellations, for example, is understood as aligning one’s behavior to the cycles of a natural world that is created by God and therefore fundamentally good.

The nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch poet, Harvey M. Miller (1871–1939), lyrically recounts the wisdom contained in the pages of “Mother’s Almanac” (Der Mammi Ihre Kalenner), which is given here, first in English translation, and then in the Pennsylvania Dutch original, along with a recitation of it.6

Mark L. Louden reciting “Mother’s Almanac”

“Mother’s Almanac”

Faith has much to do
With our human life;
The lawyer believes in big pay,
The minister believes in praying;
The young girls get a lot of joy
From their faith in men;
Mother takes the good old way,
And believes in the almanac.


Sie always observes the signs,
Before we dig the garden;
And goes by the moon, you can bet on it,
For that is her faith.
In order to grow well, everything must go in
During the waxing of the moon;
Thus she plants in that sign,
As others do, as well.


Potatoes you plant in Libra,
Then they get nice and big;
You might think that’s a joke,
But I’m not so narrow-minded.
That’s why I wish they would not slip
Down so deep into the ground,
And if there were no such sign,
They would not be so round.


So if you don’t watch the sign,
Just as it is in the almanac,
Then your potatoes will be ruined,
And we’ll have nothing to sell;
I tell you now, don’t plant in Cancer—
They crawl down too deep,
And get as warty as a toad
And also taste bad.


Cucumbers, really, you may not
Plant in the sign of Gemini,
Otherwise they just go ahead and bloom
And creep around like roaches;
That sign is not for a good crop,
They just don’t form on the vine—
Whoever wants cucumbers, doesn’t plant
In the sign of Gemini.


But now, whoever likes flowers,
This sign is the best;
The blossoming virgin is also good
For planting flowers.
In spring here, in Virgo, that is,
You let the hens out,
Whoever goes by this sign then gets
Better chicks from them.


When bees swarm in Libra,
Honey becomes plentiful in the hive;
If a cat drowns in a water trough,
At least it won’t die of thirst.
When fruit trees are in full bloom
While the moon waxes, there’ll be fruit;
But if the trees blossom during the waning,
There’s not much you can do.


In the setting moon you roof a house,
That keeps the shingles down;
And whoever doesn’t build according to the almanac,
His shingles will be down right away.
To roof during the waxing of the moon,
That’s the wrong thing;
The shingles curl right up,
And you get a ragged roof.


You make the post fence according to the moon,
But just when it is setting;
The posts will not stay in the ground
In any other sign.
So, don’t laugh, and take heed,
I’ll tell you that in advance,—
Whoever makes fence in the waxing of the moon,
His posts will creep out.


Some poke fun, there are such people,
Especially among the menfolk,
Yet they are in no way as smart
As Mother’s almanac.
“An old wives’ tale, ha!”
That’s what they always say,
But faith will still save,
And it rules digging in the garden.


Libra is supposed to be good for planting,
But some also put in potatoes
In the Aries waxing moon,
That’s just testing.
And for good luck with radishes
Seeds have to be planted in Pisces,
That means that radishes will be tender and thick
And plenty on the table.


In the fall apples have to be put away,
And so that they don’t rot
You have to do this in the dark moon, you bet,
Even if the men-folk complain.
To get vinegar you need to tap the cider
In the sign of Leo, definitely:
That makes you as strong as ginger pop,
And as crusty as an old grouch.


But winter meat should not be
Hung up in the sign of Leo,
Otherwise it will get as “lively” as a lion—
One definitely wouldn’t think that!
White worms will move right in,
If no one goes fishing,
That way you get fresh meat, too,
If you don’t understand the sign.


A board left out in the weather
Often gets quite warped,
But one doesn’t consider the reason
As being the influence of the moon;
In the waxing of the moon the board turns up,
In the waning down,—
It all depends how the moon shines on it.
Isn’t that amazing?


You don’t clean your house in a full moon,
That’s the wives’ tale,
For if you do, the house will fill up 
Terribly with moths;
That just goes to show, moths go
By the moon sign in the almanac,
Apparently they are sharper
Than our clever menfolk.


The signs have the world in order,—
Capricorn, Pisces, and Aries,
Leo, Libra, Aquarius,
Taurus, he’ll knock you down;
Sagittarius, he shoots, Aquarius pours,
We have Cancer and Gemini,
Scorpio stings, Virgo speaks,
That’s how you find it in the almanac.

“Der Mammi Ihre Kalenner”

Der Glaawe hot doch viel zu duh
Mit unserm menschlich Lewe;
Der Lawyer glaabt an grooser Luh,
Der Parre glaabt an Bede;
Die yunge Meed hen groosi Freed
Fer Glaawe an die Menner;
Die Mammi nemmt der gut alt Weg,
Un glaabt an der Kalenner.


Sie watscht die Zeeche immer uff,
Eb mer als Gaarde graawe;
Un geht beim Muun, verloss dich druff,
Fer sell is ihre Glaawe.
Fer waxich sei, muss alles nei
Im Zunemmede vum Muun;
So blanst sie als in selre Sign,
Wie aa noch annri duhn.


Grummbeere blanst mer in der Woog,
Noh duhn sie schee grooss warre;
Du denkscht verleicht sell is en Joke,
Awwer ich bin net so narrow.
Also ich wett, sie schluppe net
So dief nei in der Grund,
Un wann’s ken so en Zeeche hett,
Waere sie net so rund.


So wann mer net des Zeeche watscht,
Graad wie’s is im Kalenner,
Dann sin Grummbeere glei verbatscht,
Un Marrick hen mer kenner;
Ich saag dir yetz, blans net im Krebs—
Sie graddle zu dief nei,
Un warre waarzich, wie en Grott,
Un schmacke schlecht debei.


Die Gummere, waerklich, darf mer net
Im Zeeche Zwilling blanse,
Sunscht bliehe sie yuscht graad ahead,
Un graddle rum wie Wanse;
Die Sign is net fer en guder Crop,
Sie henke gaar net aa—
Wer Gummere hawwe will, geht net
Im Zeeche Zwilling draa.


Awwer nau, wer scheeni Blumme suit,
Des Zeeche is am Beschte;
Die bliehend Yungfraa is aa gut
Fer Blumme naus zu setze.
Es Friehyaahr do, Yungfraa also,
Setzt mer die Glucke naus—
Wer geht beim Zeeche, grigt dernoh
Die Yunge besser raus.


Wann Ieme schwaerme in der Woog,
Watt Hunnich schwer im Kaschte;
Wann die Katz versauft im Wasserdroog,
Dutt sie ennihau net verdaschte.
Wann Obschtbeem recht am bliehe sin
Im Zunemmede, gebt’s Frucht;
Wann awwer die Bliet ins Abnemme kummt,
Gebt’s net viel zum Versuch.


Im Unnergehnde deckt mer’n Haus,
Sell halt die Schindle drunne;
Un wer net beim Kalenner baut,
Sei Schindle sin glei hunne.
Im Iwwergehnde Deckes duh,
Sell is en letzi Sach;
Die Schindle ringle sich graad uff,
Un’s gebt en schtruwwlich Dach.


Mer macht die Poschtefens beim Muun,
Awwer yuscht im Unnergehnde;
Die Poschte bleiwe net im Grund
In ennich annrer Zeeche.
So, net gelacht, un geb doch acht,
Ich saag der’s vannenaus,—
Wer Fens im Iwwergehnde macht,
Sei Poschte graddle raus.


Deel mache Gschpass, es hot so Leit,
Abbadich bei die Menner,
Doch sin sie uf ken Weg so gscheit
Wie die Mammi ihre Kalenner.
“En alder Weiwerglaawe, huh!”
Sell’s was sie immer saage,
Doch macht der Glaawe selig noch,
Un regiert Gaardegraawe.


Die Woog soll gut fer blanse sei,
Awwer deel duhn aa Grumbeere
Im Iwwergehnde Schteebock nei,
Sell is yuscht im Browiere.
Un fer gut Glick im Reddich-Schtick
Muss Suume naus im Fisch,
Sell bringt die Reddich zaart un dick
Un blendi uff der Disch.


Im Schpootyaahr misse Eppel weg,
Un dass sie net verfaule
Geht’s draa im Dungelmuun, you bet,
Wann aa die Menner maule.
Fer Essig zappt mer Cider ab
Im Sign vum Leeb, net letz:
Sell macht en schtark wie “ginger pop,”
Un groozich wie der Gretz.


Awwer Winderfleesch, des soll mer net
Im Zeeche Leeb uffhenke,
Sunscht watt’s lewendich wie en Leeb—
Mer deet’s gewiss net denke!
Es ziehe glei weissi Warrem nei,
Wann niemand fische geht,
So hot mer aa frisch Fleesch debei,
Wer net die Sign verschteht.


En Board das draus im Wedder is
Watt oftmols arrick grumm,
Doch denkt mer net die Ursach is
Der Eifluss vun em Muun;
Im Iwwergehnde dreht sich uff,
Im Unnergehnde nunner,—
S’is nochdem wie der Muun scheint druff.
Is sell nau net en Wunner?


Mer butzt ken Haus am Vollmuun rum,
Sell is der Weiwerglaawe,
Fer wann mer dutt watt’s Haus gans rum
Gaar hesslich voll mit Schaawe;
Des weist doch pleen, die Schaawe gehn
Beim Muun-Sign im Kalenner,
Sie sin yo scharfer, sell’m nooch,
Dass unser gscheite Menner.


Die Zeeche hen die Welt in Hand,—
Der Schteebock, Fisch un Widder,
Der Leeb, die Woog, der Wassermann,
Der Ox, daer schtoost em nidder;
Der Schitz, daer schiesst, der Wassermann giesst,
Der Grebs un Zwilling hen mer,
Der Schkorpion schticht, die Yungfrau schpricht,
So findt mer’s im Kalenner.



  1. Don Yoder, Groundhog Day, Stackpole Books, 2003.
  2. William W. Donner, Serious Nonsense: Groundhog Lodges, Versammlinge, and Pennsylvania German Heritage, Penn State University Press, 2016.
  3. Louis D. Winkler, “Pennsylvania German Astronomy and Astrology I: Almanacs,” Pennsylvania Folklife 21.3, Spring 1972, pp. 24–31.
  4. See this 2004 Mennonite Weekly Review article on the popularity of almanacs among the Amish: http://www.mennoworld.org/archived/2004/1/12/amish-almanacs-help-keep-year-order/?print=1.
  5. Julius F. Sachse, “Prognostics and Superstitions [Current in Pennsylvania],” Historical Papers and Addresses of the Lancaster County Historical Society VII, pp. 75–101, 1907, accessible at http://www.lancasterhistory.org/images/stories/…/vol7no5pp75_101_682506.pdf
  6. Solly Hulsbuck (Harvey M. Miller), Pennsylvania-German Stories, Prose and Poetry, Hawthorne Press, 1911, pp. 3–6.

 

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