Revelers celebrate German heritage, folklore at Kutztown University

·5 min read

Sep. 25—For some it was a walk down memory lane.

For others it was a glimpse at their heritage.

And for a few it felt like going home.

The Heemet Fescht brought culture to life. Held at the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University on Saturday, the annual event featured traditional artisans, lessons on folklore, cooking demonstrations, performances by folk musicians and good times.

"The great thing about this event is that you can find something to appreciate even if you have no connection to the Pennsylvania German culture," said Patrick Donmoyer, director of the heritage center. "This is not just a celebration of the past, this is a celebration of the cultural traditions that are still being carried with us today."

Donmoyer explained that Heemet Fescht in Pennsylvania Dutch translates to Home Festival in English. The festival would commemorate the fruitful end of the harvest season with members of the community gathering at churches around the region to celebrate.

Donmoyer said the good turnout at the event on Saturday is evidence that there is a growing demand among local residents to learn more about these traditions — spurred in part by the ongoing global pandemic. The time at home, he said, has created renewed interest in learning about the beliefs and customs of the past.

"The heritage center strives to be a resource for that," he said.

Glenn and Margitta Stevens believe the heritage center is a tremendous resource for the region.

The couple, who live in New Ringgold, have made the short trek from their Schuylkill County home to the Heemet Fescht nearly every fall that it's been held. They are also regular attendees at the Christmas and Easter celebrations held at the heritage center.

"It's like a piece of home for me," Margitta said.

Margitta was born and raised in Germany, so she said these events give her a chance to showcase her language skills and participate in activities that remind her of home. And it's something that she can share with her husband.

Glenn and Margitta met in Germany while he was stationed there during his military service. In fact, he spent so much of his career in that country that he said he would often replace the words he knew in Pennsylvania Dutch with German.

"When we come here we get a chance to see things the way they used to be," Glenn said. "It takes us both back to the past and gives us a chance to see friends we made along the way. We really look forward to it."

Craftsman Matthew Vardjan has become a regular at Heemet Fescht as well. He began learning the family trade of paper art and accompanying his father to German festivals when he was just a youngster.

"This is a family tradition that I want to keep alive," the Oley Township man said as his hands folded strips of paper into patterns that would eventually take shape as tiny stars. "I'm the fourth generation to do Pennsylvania German folk art, and I love to show people what we can do."

In addition to his Moravian stars, Vardjan uses a piece of equipment from 1890 to create postcards adorned with intricate block designs that have been carefully carved by his mother. Some of the designs are hundreds of years old — relics of the past.

Eric Claypoole is another artist who has followed in the footsteps of his father.

The Lenhartsville resident said he painted his first barn hex sign when he was about 12. And just completed his 100th barn hex sign a few weeks ago at the age of 60.

"It's a fun thing to do," he said when asked why he keeps going. "It's in my blood so I don't think I'll be stopping anytime soon. I plan to keep going as long as I can and keep showing people this amazing craft."

Perhaps the most interesting thing hex signs, Claypoole said, is that no one really knows for sure why the colorful designs began popping up on the sides of barns.

"You could ask 10 different people what they mean and you'll get 10 different answers," he said with a big laugh. "It's funny that way."

Laverne Passman comes to Heemet Fescht every fall to hear those kinds of stories. And she brings her daughter and two granddaughters along so they will have a better understanding of their heritage.

Passman, who lives in Schnecksville, said she makes the trip to Kutztown from Lehigh County to give her family a glimpse into her past.

"To me, it's very important to get out to events here at the center," she said. "This is what we do to keep the traditions and the stories alive."

"I like telling my girls about their roots because we are all Pennsylvania German," her daughter Ellie Al-Khal, added as she watched her daughters decorate pumpkins at a nearby table.

Donmoyer said Heemet Fescht is one of many opportunities the heritage center offers for those looking to explore the culture and discover more about the past.

Located on the historic Sharadin Farmstead on campus, the heritage center offers the public access to historic buildings, seasonal events and classes in Pennsylvania German dialect. It also offers a research library for those who want to conduct genealogical, historical, linguistic and cultural research.

"The heritage center is a way for people to experience the university and for the university to serve the people," he said. "That exchange is the primary reason why the heritage center is so important."

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