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:
  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…/vol7no5pp75_101_682506.pdf
  6. Solly Hulsbuck (Harvey M. Miller), Pennsylvania-German Stories, Prose and Poetry, Hawthorne Press, 1911, pp. 3–6.


Change Without a Bang

As a child, one of the things that fascinated me about Mennonites of the past was dress, particularly the head covering. What would it have been like to be marked, physically, by your religion? To have people look at you and know you were a Mennonite? Head coverings and plain attire were mostly past when I was growing up—the province of grandmothers and old photographs. And so I could romanticize dress regulations a bit—toy with the idea that perhaps there was something desirable in the certainty and identity that rules on dress created. But, as my mother has pointed out, that shows how little acquainted I am with the tedium of listening to long sermons on skirt length.

Dress, any historian of Mennonites will tell you, was a potent symbol of many things: patriarchy, nonconformity, agency, resistance. Given all this weight, I was eager to ask several Mennonite women about when and how expectations about dress shifted in their lives. As I worked with them on oral histories, I was surprised to find that the women I spoke with did not have firm memories about how change had happened.

The women I interviewed were born between 1924 and 1942. They all grew up with the expectation of at least a head covering. Some wore cape dresses, even if only to church or school, while others were only expected to dress modestly in a regular skirt and blouse. Expectations varied depending on family and congregation. But the women shared two things: a vague sense of when and how rules changed and an emphasis on rules as something they followed to get along, not something that they approached with deep personal conviction.

In a group interview with several women from the Denbigh, Virginia, community, several agreed that they couldn’t remember exactly when standards on dress had changed. “I just can’t remember being much bothered by [discussion on dress],” one woman stated.1 Another woman recalled that it seemed like there was a time (around the 1960s) when “it was almost like every woman did was right in her own eyes,” about dress. She took cues from other women in her congregation, particularly women who were respected, and did not necessarily look to church leadership for guidance as things changed.2

These women were not overtly rebelling against dress rules but were happy to find spaces where they could get around rules without notice. One woman recalled that as a nurse in the 1950s she could avoid a cape dress in daily life because she needed to wear a uniform. She also remembered that she quit wearing black stockings “as soon as I could get out of it,” emphasizing how unattractive they looked. Sometime in the 1970s she stopped wearing a covering. Someone at work had asked her why Mennonites wore coverings. She realized she had no good answer and took that as an indication that it was time to change. She continued to wear a small lace covering to church “out of respect” for others.3

Another woman made similar comments about a desire to get along with the church. She stopped wearing a covering (outside of church) her senior year of high school, in the early 1950s. She “didn’t want to disappoint” leaders but also didn’t feel the covering made sense.4 Another remembered relief in leaving Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for Goshen College and an atmosphere that was less focused on dress.5 Men also lacked attachment to the rules. One woman recalled that once her husband was ordained as a minister in Virginia Conference in the late 1950s he began wearing a plain coat, but “not because of personal conviction.”6 Overall, the women looked back on ideas about dress with some amusement. They emphasized critiques they had held—quietly—in the past and agreed change was a good thing.

A few of the women that I interviewed did indicate some personal conviction about dress. One called the head covering a “symbol of my relationship” [with her husband]. She explained she did not stop wearing it until she checked with her husband, who told her it should be up to her what she wore.7 Another told the story of the last cape dress she made. She had trouble getting it to fit right and prayed for the Lord to help her: “if he wanted me to wear a cape he’d help me. And I had more trouble with that cape than any.”8 She took it as a sign that cape dresses were not an essential part of Christian life. But, even these women described an overall change process that was subtle and without moral distress. I was left with the impression that dress regulations faded away—and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

So what interpretations can a historian draw? Of course, there are some caveats. Firstly, my sample was quite small (about 15 women) and I did not attempt to find women from the same communities or same age cohorts (they ranged from birth years 1924 to 1942 and came from home communities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio; all grew up in old Mennonite—MC—congregations). Secondly, none of the women came from the generation that did the most to push outright against rules on dress—although those born in the early 1940s came closer to that age cohort, and had more tales to tell about the tricky ways they got around rules. Moreover, most of the women remained Mennonite their entire lives; I might have found different stories if I had interviewed women who left the Mennonite church. Another point is that my sample skewed toward the college educated; several of the women had professional careers. Finally, oral histories often tell us as much about the present as the past. Regulating religious dress seems far away. It maybe that, feeling no attachment to head coverings now, it is difficult to remember a time when perhaps one did find meaning in them.

My working theory, however, is that there were a lot of people in the Mennonite church donning plain coats and head coverings not out of conviction but out of a desire to remain in fellowship. My evidence speaks most to the period of the 1950s-1970s— although given some of the comments women made about their mothers’ attitudes toward dress, I have cause to suspect there was never full consensus on the matter. Change sometimes comes with a bang. And sometimes it comes quietly. I doubt there is anything particularly Mennonite about a pattern where a few people openly push for change while many more change slowly, perhaps all the while seeming to be not changing at all. I leave it to the sociologists to say for sure, but I suspect this is a common social pattern.

But change without a bang does raise some questions relevant for the Mennonite church today. In our current conflicts over embracing and including LGBTQ persons in church life it is tempting to think only those who are the most vocal seek change. But is it possible that we have pews of people quietly wondering why sex is such a big deal for church membership? Who may not be asking for change but would be okay if it came? Could we apply the concept of a silent, questioning majority to other conflicts in church history: women in leadership or divorce and remarriage? The value is not in finding perfect historical parallels—often a futile task, anyway—but in being attentive to the range of ways change develops.

The silent majority trope should be used with some caution, given its history. Richard Nixon used it to galvanize support as he argued against cultural and political change in the 1960s, but naming a silent majority of supporters obscured as much as it illuminated. For one, if a group is “silent,” it is conveniently easy for politicians to speak for it, in ways that may or may not accord with reality.9 There are philosophical issues with silent majorities as well: are they necessarily noble or wise? Does elevating them ignore the importance of prophetic minorities? But, despite the complexity, the concept of a silent majority can be useful in thinking about how change happens, particularly if we remember this: silent majorities are not static. They are made up of real people who change and respond to change over time. Just because people don’t protest something does not mean that they like it. Most Mennonite women in the 1950s didn’t openly push the boundaries on dress, but it would be a mistake to read that as true belief in the rules.

Silent majorities can be real or invented. They can resist change or form a backlash. But they can also be a key part of how change unfolds. They can embrace change. As one group of women I interviewed put it, “we were the good kids.”10 Would anyone have guessed, in the 1950s, how many good girls wearing coverings were ready to take them off?

  1. Group interview with women who have roots in the Denbigh Colony (Newport News, VA), oral history interview by Holly Scott, February 12, 2014, archived in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library and Archives, Harrisonburg, VA. All interviews cited in this post can be found in this collection. 
  2.  Janet Yoder, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 5, 2013. 
  3. Mary Reitz, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. 
  4. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 2, 2013. 
  5. Vera Kauffman, oral history interview by Holly Scott, February 5, 2014. 
  6. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. 
  7. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. 
  8. Janet Yoder, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 5, 2014. 
  9.  At the time Nixon made his silent majority speech a majority of Americans thought the Vietnam War was a mistake, even if they didn’t endorse the antiwar movement. Some historians argue that Nixon didn’t so much describe a silent majority as he did create it. On broad antiwar sentiment, see Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 293-294. On Nixon directing, not describing, the silent majority and the use of silence to speak for others, see Penny Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: the Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 159-163. 
  10. Eastern Mennonite High School class of 1959, oral history interview by Holly Scott, March 14, 2014.