The Pagan Experience: “D” is for “Deitsch”

This entry was inspired by a prompt from The Pagan Experience.

Hex Sign BarnWhat does being Deitsch mean to me?

Before I can answer that, I probably need to explain to you what “Deitsch” is. You may have heard of it before under another name. It’s the culture that many people know as “Pennsylvania Dutch” or “Pennsylvania German”.  “Deitsch” is the word for that culture, and the language spoken by its people, in that language.

The Deitsch people today are the descendants of immigrants to America from areas in what is now Germany–as well as Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France. Many of these immigrants were driven here by the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War, including economic collapse and religious conflict. They became identified as Pennsylvania Dutch because this was where the culture initially formed, but over time, Deitsch people have settled throughout the US and Canada.

The Deitsch developed a unique culture that was a mix of both German and American customs, as well as those shared by the Lenape tribe, which had a long friendship with the Deitsch people. The Deitsch language is a blend of German and English, and can be fairly well understood by residents of the Palatinate region of Germany today. There were distinctive folk art, music, food, lore, religious traditions, games, and social rules that arose, unique to this tiny part of the world. You may be familiar with some of them, such as Hex signs, Fraktur, Shoo-Fly pie, the Easter Bunny, or having pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day for good luck.

My Deitsch heritage is only one part of my genetic makeup, but it’s one I identify with the most strongly. There’s a couple reasons for that. I was raised with a lot of Deitsch customs. My great grandmother was Deitsch, and although her husband was Italian, he died young, leaving her to raise six children on her own. As a result of this, and of my parents being very close to my grandmother, Deitsch foods, holiday celebrations, and games were all a big part of my childhood.

What didn’t feature in my childhood was the Deitsch language. My great great grandparents spoke it as their first language, and their children knew it and spoke it “at the dinner table”, as family lore goes. But they, and their children, didn’t want future generations of the family to be stigmatized for speaking their native language. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned where this fear came from. The Deitsch have been discriminated against by their “English” neighbors for centuries. Things got particularly bad around each of the World Wars, when having anything to do with being German could lead to violence against you and your family. Eventually, the state actually embarked on a systematic program to eliminate Deitsch culture by forbidding the language to be spoken in schools, and distributing propaganda about the “Dumb Dutchman”. My family’s fear of their children being seen as stupid, poor, and bad was a very real one, that came from government-supported discrimination and prejudice. Thanks to their efforts to suppress our culture, many Deitsch traditions were abandoned as “superstition”, and the Deitsch language nearly died out.

This even led to a suppression of cultural knowledge within my family itself. There were a number of customs we had, such as having a family feast on Christmas Eve, or playing unusual card and dice games, that I always thought were peculiar to our family alone. But they weren’t–they were part of our heritage, surviving even when we no longer knew where they came from.

Discovering these little signposts when I was older was amazing for me. I had always longed to be part of a culture, to have those roots, and that identity. It turns out I was all along, I just couldn’t name it!

 

But beyond a heritage and a cultural identity, being Deitsch informs my spirituality. I converted to Wicca at a veryPork and Sauerkraut young age, and then later to a more general Paganism, and finally I ended up in Heathenry around the age of 19. When I was about 15 or so, I had encountered a book called “American Folk Magic” by Silver RavenWolf. It was the first time I had ever seen things that were part of my upbringing, as simple as pork and sauerkraut, tied into my religion. She took the folk practices and folk magic of the Pennsylvania Dutch and tied them to Wicca. It was incredible for me, but still not quite a match. It wasn’t until many years later that Urglaawe was founded and I eventually encountered a description of it in another book–“Exploring the Northern Tradition” by Galina Krasskova. What on earth was Urglaawe? The expression of the Deitsch culture in Heathenry–as opposed to Asatru where the primary source culture is Icelandic, or Forn Sed, which is Swedish, or the many other culturally influenced denominations.

Seeing the survival of Heathenry through Deitsch culture was an incredible experience. I had spent a lot of my time in Heathenry grieving for the loss of knowledge and traditional practices that the conversion to Christianity brought to our people. But there were pockets of knowledge, clues here, there, and everywhere, that had survived in Deitsch culture. A folktale here, a hex sign there, the entire practice of Braucherei (spiritual healing and herb lore)…there was so much that made it through the conversion! Suddenly, the past wasn’t so far away anymore, and the chasm between me and the ancestors wasn’t so deep as it had seemed before. Instead of only wondering what Heathenry would be if it had survived, I could embrace it in a much more modern context, and see for myself that “we are what became of our ancestors”.

Now while reading this, you might come under the mistaken impression that I think that only Deitsch people can practice Urglaawe. This is not the case. I firmly believe that everyone should practice whatever religion calls to their souls. It’s between you and the gods, and no one else need apply. Also, as I said before, my Deitsch blood is only a part of my makeup. I do believe though, that because of my identity as a Deitsch person, and because of the customs and practices my family raised me with, as well as my desire to reclaim my Deitsch language and culture, that it makes sense for me, personally, to pull from all of that when I go to practice my faith–which for me, is the most important aspect of my life. I’m deeply thankful for that sense of rootedness and connection, and I seek to deepen it as I walk my path.

So, what does it mean to me to be Deitsch? It means I have an identity, a tribe that I belong to, and a community I can take part in. It means that I have a history, ancestors who came here before me, and struggled so that I could be here today. It also means that I have responsibilities. To reach out to and honor my ancestors. To preserve Deitsch culture. To educate others on who my people are, where we came from, and what we contribute to the world. And to take that culture into the future–to take part in creating new writing and art and research and works in our language, to ensure that our people are not only referred to in the past tense, but are part of the world that is becoming.

*************

Notes:

For a historic and spiritual story of how the Deitsch nation came to be, check out this awesome post.

For more on why to use the word “Deitsch” instead of “Pennsylvania German” and other terms, check out this About.com post and this great post from Deitsch Girl, Displaced.

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2 responses to “The Pagan Experience: “D” is for “Deitsch”

  1. Pagan is a Latin word, Heathen is an Anglo Saxon word, Heide is a Deitsch word for what you may be talking about here Der Heide Volksschtamm would be ‘the Heathen folk tribe’ of which there are different groups in Eastern PA

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