A putz is a kind of NATIVITY SCENE, that is, a representation of the scene of JESUS’birth. Putzes are most often found in towns that harbor a community of Moravians. Moravians represent a very old branch of Protestant Christianity; they are also known as the Unity of Brethren or the Unitas Fratrum. This denomination traces its roots back to central Europe and, indeed, many of the Moravians who emigrated to the United States in the eighteenth century were German speakers from that region. Thus they called their Nativity scenes putz (pronounced “pootz”), from the German verb putzen, which means “to decorate.” Many Moravians settled in eastern Pennsylvania. Thus, putzes are more common there than in other parts of the country.
The Moravian American putz may have been inspired by the Christmas gardens erected by many central Europeans in the 1700s (for more on Christmas gardens, see CHRISTMAS VILLAGE). The Christmas garden, usually constructed underneath the CHRISTMAS TREE, consisted of a miniature village enclosed within a fence. Families delighted in organizing a Lilliputian community under their tree, complete with miniature barns, houses, and shops. Some of these villages contained a Nativity scene within them; others did not. The Christmas garden was particularly popular in POLAND and the German-speaking countries.
Among American Moravians putz building can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. Moravians built putzes in their churches and their homes. They often constructed their putzes under the Christmas tree, but also set them up against a backdrop of evergreens or placed them on tabletops covered with GREENERY. Though the magical, miniature landscape usually contained a Nativity scene, the holy figures were often embedded among a wealth of other details, such as hills, streams, flocks of sheep, mill-houses, barking dogs, homes, shops, craftsmen and women plying their trades, carriages, churches, farms, barns, old men smoking pipes, glassy lakes, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, caves, and all manner of fish, fowl, and animals. Noah’s ark and the pairs of attendant animals often made their appearance in the putz as well. People who built putzes invested a lot of time and energy into giving their landscapes a life-like appearance. They gathered real moss and other greenery to cover the hills and fields, sprinkled sand along their lakefronts to create beaches, and illuminated their buildings from within with tiny candles. Some devotees created miniature mechanical devices to turn mill wheels and make water flow in streams.
In nineteenth-century Moravian homes children were not allowed to view the putz until Christmas Eve. The putz stayed up from Christmas to Epiphany. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Moravian residents of BETHLEHEM, PENNSYLVANIA, celebrated this period of time, the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, with parties and visits. Putz-viewing parties became popular by 1850. In eastern Pennsylvania, non-Moravians began to take an interest in putzes. According to an 1858 newspaper article describing Christmas in Lititz, Pennsylvania (a town with a large Moravian community), complete strangers might show up on one’s doorstep and ask to see the putz.
As the tradition of putz building developed, the putzes tended to get larger and larger, and people began to compete to see who could build the biggest and best. Some putzes took up entire rooms and contained dozens, if not hundreds, of figures.
Today both large and small putzes can still be found in Moravian churches and homes. Some church putzes contain figures representing the entire Christmas story, from the prophecies of Isaiah to the ANNUNCIATION, Nativity, and FLIGHT INTO EGYPT.
The town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania — founded by Moravians — builds several community putzes each year at the town’s Moravian churches. This custom came about in the 1930s after one particularly successful putz-building family, that of Edward Neisser, had 1,000 people knock on their door during the CHRISTMAS SEASON, asking to see their putz. Neisser suggested that the town build a community putz for the public to enjoy and the chamber of commerce took him up on that suggestion in 1937.
During the 1940s and 1950s, when toy train sets were an extremely popular gift for boys, the custom of setting up a toy train under the Christmas tree attained a certain degree of popularity. Some folk-lorists view this practice as an outgrowth of putz building. They also recognize similarities between the old Moravian custom of putz building and the more recent hobby of collecting and displaying miniature, ceramic Christmas villages.