Our Family’s First Christmas Gift in America
The further we go back in time, the more difficult it is to tell the story of our Hagenbuch family. Precious little information remains from early 1700s when our ancestor, Andreas Hagenbuch (b. 1715), boarded the Charming Nancy and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new life.
With the holiday season upon us, I found myself thinking about our family’s first Christmas in the American colonies. This story has taken on a new significance since the birthdate of Andreas’ eldest son, Henry (b. 1737), was revised several years ago. I kept wondering: What was that first yuletide like for our family after they arrived in North America?
Andreas Hagenbuch and his wife, Maria Magdalena (Schmutz) landed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 18, 1737. She was six months pregnant. The couple had married on April 26th of that year at the Lutheran church in Schluchtern (present day Leingarten), Germany. There was likely some haste with their nuptials as Maria Magdalena was already with child. Two months later, the couple secured passage aboard the Charming Nancy and set sail from Rotterdam, Netherlands on June 29, 1737. They would never return to their birthplace in Europe.
When they stepped off the ship in Philadelphia, the weather was still warm, although the cool air of autumn was just around the corner. Andreas and his wife would have needed to find shelter for the coming winter months. The couple had some money saved, which enabled them to pay their way and avoid becoming indentured servants. They might have used any remaining money to rent a room, or they could have boarded with friends who had already settled in Pennsylvania.
For example, the Hagenbuchs may have known the Romich family (later spelled Romig). Johann Adam Romich (b. 1689), along with his wife Agnes Margaretha (Bernhardt) and children, arrived in Philadelphia in 1732 aboard the Dragon. They heralded from Ittlingen, Germany—only 10 miles from where Andreas and Maria Magdalena were married. It is worth noting that Hagenbuch and Romig children would eventually intermarry and that one of Johann Adam’s sons, Hans Martin (b. 1719), would serve as a baptism sponsor for Andreas’ daughter, Anna Elizabeth (b. 1754).
Regardless of who they resided with, the Hagenbuchs would have joined a community of German immigrants living in Philadelphia or a nearby village, such as Germantown. Neither locale was a city by today’s standards. In fact, Philadelphia only had 12,000 inhabitants! But the region was growing rapidly, and there were ample opportunities for foreigners. It is likely that the couple found odd jobs in order to support themselves.
On October 8, 1737, Andreas and Maria Magdalena (Schmutz) Hagenbuch visited the courthouse in Philadelphia to participate in the Oath of Fidelity and Abjuration. The first part required them to disavow other monarchs and pledge allegiance to King George II of Great Britain, while the second asked them to renounce any connection to the Pope. Andreas signed the oath in his own hand. Then, an observer wrote “wife” beside his signature, suggesting that Maria Magdalena was present and agreed to the oath verbally. It was unusual, though not unheard of, for a woman to swear the oath alongside her husband. The act may have given her more standing within the colony.
As the days grew colder, the couple would have assimilated into Philadelphia’s small but growing population of German speakers. For many, the church played an important role in their lives. We know that the Hagenbuchs were active in the Lutheran faith. However, German Lutherans had yet to formally set up their church within Pennsylvania. This wouldn’t happen until 1742 when Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (b. 1711) immigrated to the colony and officially organized the Lutheran Church there.
Still, German Lutherans were practicing their faith in Pennsylvania in 1737. Services were held in private homes with or without an ordained minister. According to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, early Lutherans in Philadelphia worshiped at “a small frame house on Arch Street.” Lutherans residing in Germantown attended at St. Michael’s Evangelical Lutheran Church—one of the first built in North America.
Considering their Pietist leanings, Andreas and Maria Magdalena likely practiced their Lutheran faith at home or with a group of German neighbors. By November, the weather was noticeably colder and the first snow wasn’t far way. The couple was full of anticipation. The Christmas season was approaching and Maria Magdalena was eight months pregnant
Advent began on Sunday, December 4th. The couple might have had a few decorations in their room—perhaps a little greenery and some handmade items. While indoor Christmas trees had become popular in Germany during the 1600s, they were not the must-have items they are today. A lighted tree would have been even more rare. One legend suggests that Martin Luther (b. 1483) was the first person to illuminate a tree with candles, although none were documented until the mid-1600s well after his death in 1546.
All told, it seems unlikely that the Hagenbuchs had, much less saw, a Christmas tree that December. Philadelphia was predominantly an English city with different holiday traditions. Garlands and adornments made from fruit would have been displayed throughout the town. Other Christmas decorations, such as a nativity or putz as it was called by the Germans, weren’t customary either.
But there would have been plenty of delicious food to enjoy. Sweet treats were made for gifts and ornaments: ginger cakes, sugared cookies, and candied fruit or nuts to name a few. Andreas and Maria Magdalena would have read the story of Christmas together from their Heilige Schrift (Holy Bible). This may have had illustrations of the events that proceeded the Savior’s birth.
As night fell on Wednesday, December 7th, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. However, at around 11PM that evening, all of Philadelphia was jolted awake by an earthquake. Samuel Coates, a Quaker merchant living in the city, wrote to his friend Joseph Scott of New York the following day:
Last night about 11 o’clock we had a Violent Shock of an Earth quake which lasted About 2 Minutes. The People Afrighted thought their Houses would fall upon them; it was Atended with a Noise like a Coach Driver over a Rough Pavement but Lowder; through Mercy there is no More Damage Done that we hear of but frightning the People and Breaking some Chimney Ware.
Dear Friend though those things are by most Men ascribed to Chance or to Natural Causes, they can’t be without the will or permission of the Allmighty Creator and Ruler of the Universe and may Warn us to be prepared for Death let it come when it will.
Benjamin Franklin, writing in the Pennsylvania Gazette, also documented the quake and the unusual phenomena that followed:
Three or four Evenings successively after the Earthquake an unusual Redness appeared in the Western Sky and southwards, continuing about an hour after Sunset, gradually declining. It reach’d near 45 Degrees above the Horizon.
One can only imagine what the Hagenbuchs, newly settled in Pennsylvania, thought of the sudden shaking. Was it a warning from the Creator, as Coates suggested in his letter, or might it be a sign of things to come? Maria Magdalena, now nine months pregnant, must have worried not only for herself, but also for her unborn child.
The Christmas season continued with the second Sunday in Advent on December 11th and the third Sunday on December 18th. Then, on Tuesday, December 20, 1737—five days before Christmas—Andreas and Maria Magdalena received a most precious gift. With the help of a few neighbor women and, perhaps, a midwife, Maria Magdalena delivered a son, Henry, our Hagenbuch family’s first born in America.
For the new parents, baby Henry was a true reminder of the blessings of Christmas. It’s easy to imagine the family together at home on Christmas Day, tired, but filled with joy at the birth of their son and of the Christ Child too. Their room was sparsely decorated by our modern standards. However, their hearts were brimming with love and full of hope for the future.
Soon they would leave Philadelphia for a tract of land in Albany Township, Berks County, PA and begin to write the next chapter of their lives. Yet, that first Christmas in America and the gift that they received must have remained in their memories for years to come.
From our Hagenbuch family to yours, may you have a joyous Christmas!