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My Favorite PA Dutch Superstitions

Written by Adrienne Wolter, Community Blogger | Oct 7, 2013 10:26 AM

Photo by Fauxto Digit

The Distelfink is a mythical version of the gold finch said to bring good luck.

The Pennsylvania Dutch are a unique melting pot of different European cultures that settled in America's keystone state. In 1683, this cultural group was founded by a group of people from German, English and Scots-Irish descent. From the beginning, the evolution of their language alone has been just one of the great characteristics they display. For example, the PA Dutch got its name from a mistranslation of the German word, "deutsch" ("German") to "Dutch."

What's even more interesting are the beliefs and practices that stemmed from community pow-wowing; the art of folk medicine through positive practices known as white magic. The main purposes for these rituals were ward off spirits and cure daily ailments. In the event of a headache, for instance, buckwheat was to be placed on the top of one's head to take away the pain.

While these may seem silly, the Pennsylvania Dutch take these superstitions seriously. Over the years, the most common practices have become popularized and can be seen in homes throughout the world. Below is a sampling of some of the most common superstitions.


Photo by Linda Akahodag

Hanging an iron horseshoe above the doorway of your house is good luck.

Hanging the Horseshoe

Simply put, hanging an iron horseshoe on the floor joists and above doorways of a house not only wards off evil spirits, but can also bring the home good luck. The foundation of the superstition is based on the fact that the horseshoe must be iron. Since human blood cells contain iron, this metal is said to symbolize a human life source.

As a good luck charm and form of protection, its design and construction is very important to the Pennsylvania Dutch. For the charm to hold any power, the horseshoe has to be used and not new so it carries some wear. Also, it has to be found and not purchased. While the criteria seems a little specific, this makes the horseshoe special and certainly not ordinary.

When hanging the horseshoe, there is some speculation about its placement. Some believe that the proper form is having the two ends pointing up to hold in good luck so it doesn't fall out. Others say that both ends pointing down show good luck pouring out. On the contrary, may say this brings bad luck. However, most are in agreement that putting direction aside, the horseshoe must be in reach of the home owner so it can be touched for good luck.


Photo by Don Shall

The hexerei, or hex sign, is decorative folk art that wards off black magic.

Painting Prosperity and Protection

Considered a one-of-a-kind superstition, the hex sign derived from black magic and witchcraft known as "hexerei." In the case of the Pennsylvania Dutch, this decorative folk art serves the purpose of showcasing beautiful hand-painted murals as well as protecting a home.

Fashioned in bright, geometric patterns, the hex sign can be seen on the sides of barns, birth certificates, and in all shapes, colors and sizes on furniture and pottery. Even more than a work of art, these signs offer special meanings that are never duplicated.

Traditionally, many hex signs contain the greeting, "Willkom" or "welcome" to invite good into the home. This can be accompanied by any symbol that bears meaning. For instance, rosettes bring good luck, while stars bear protection. Even colors contain value, like green for growth and red for emotion. Keep on the lookout for the Distelfink (gold finch) for good luck.


Photo by Kaiton

To ward off witches, brooms were cast across a door.

Warding Off Witches

Some of the biggest Pennsylvania Dutch superstitions are meant to ward off witches and the practice of black magic. From forming religious crosses to putting up blue thresholds, this was very important to keeping a safe home.

Unlike Sweeperland modern technologies, hand-crafted PA Dutch brooms served an even bigger purpose than "retting up a room." Instead, brooms were cast across a door for protection, and toad's feet were nailed above barn doors for the same reason.

Pork and Sauerkraut

Photo by Roger Wollstadt

The traditional PA Dutch New Years' dinner of pork and sauerkraut is now popular around the world, as in this version from Germany.

Serving Up Superstition

Now a tradition around the world, the New Years' dinner of pork and sauerkraut began with the Pennsylvania Dutch. For overall health and good luck, they went for a common dish; something that was available to all families of all walks of life.

As the PA Dutch believe that pigs and cabbage symbolize prosperity, this was a common tradition to ring in the New Year. Often, the sauerkraut was prepared a year in advance and stored in mason jars.

Now, this food has been sweeping the grocery stores and home-cooked recipes around Christmastime and commercialized as the ultimate dinner for starting a new beginning. Pair this plain dish with brown sugar and applesauce and you will have good luck with your guests.

What Does It All Mean?

No matter how extreme these superstitions may be, they ultimately define the rich characteristics of Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Whether these practices are true and can cure ailments and keep a safe and happy home, they are loved by so many around the world. Looking for a bit of luck? Find a small horseshoe. Maybe finding it will be luck in itself.

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