Thanks, sharing, reverence for Earth's resources: a 300-year Plainfolk tradition
Harleysville, Pa. — Yes, this is Harleysville, all right. There's the Harleysville Mall and the Harleysville Delicatessen. Now the Harleysville fire station and national bank. Harleysville Insurance, Harleysville Florists.
It suddenly becomes clear why the Harleys chose this remote locale in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country for their family reunion.
Except for the unusually large size (about 100 people), this family get-together, held at a local retirement home, is much like any other. That is, until the local Pennsylvania Dutch historian arrives. He is Isaac Clarence Kulp, a living anachronism in the dazzling plainness of traditional black Amish attire , with a curly black beard flowing down his chest like a Pennsylvania country stream.
Not of the Harley name, to be sure. But of the same descent. Invited to the gathering to tell family members about their ''roots,'' he proceeds to mingle with the moderns in the auditorium at the home.
This is no Hal Holbrook doing his Abe Lincoln. This is an embodiment of that fabled Plainfolk tradition that made the egg noodle famous, brought us phrases like ''harvest home,'' and - along with the Puritans - breathed meaning into Thanksgiving long before it was christened a national holiday.
Distinct from the Lutheran and Reform wings of the Pennsylvania Germans, the Plain people are descendants of Brethren, Mennonites, and Amish who began to arrive from the lower Rhine Valley in Germany, Holland, and Switzerland in the late 1600s. (''Dutch'' in ''Pennsylvania Dutch'' comes from ''Deutsch,'' meaning German.) The first boatload of 13 Mennonite families arrived Oct. 6, 1683. For the next century, the Plainfolk continued to pour into the land of William Penn and thrive.
As they now celebrate their 300th year in the New World, this Thanksgiving Day becomes historic. But historian Kulp says the day really only caps off a three-century-old experiment to resolve what is today one of the world's knottiest dilemmas: Can a people blessed with bounty expect to live bountifully without depleting nature or consuming at the expense of others?
For the Plain, the answer is definitively Yes - provided you are prepared to tap the Thanksgiving dimension. Enjoy the fruits of the land and labor, they say , but temper that with a gratitude expressed in wise stewardship of nature, conservation at home and work, and considered care for the less fortunate.
This is the secret of ''being Plain.''
To be sure, the official federal holiday still has a role.
''We were evolving Thanksgiving long before there was a national holiday,'' Kulp explains to the gathering. ''Our holiday operated in parallel, but was not related to, the tradition of our New England brothers and sisters.
''In most Pennsylvania German churches, the celebration was held at the end of October and was known as the Harvest Home Festival. That's where the popular old hymn took the words 'raise our harvest home.' ''
During the festival season here, one sees German Lutheran and Reform Church chancels piled to the ceiling with decorative stalks of corn, sheaves of grain, pumpkins, watermelons, fruit, and locally canned goods. The Plain churches, of course, have a simpler equivalent, decorating their meetinghouses more modestly and holding a Thursday-morning service.
''When the national Thanksgiving holiday was proclaimed, we just took it up as an additional celebration to the Harvest Home Festival,'' says Kulp. ''Now we have two celebrations - one emphasizing harvest and distribution of its benefits , the other emphasizing family gathering.''
If the Pennsylvania Dutch were not to be outdone by the Puritans in staging a seasonal celebration, neither would they be left behind in the culinary arts.
Thanksgiving turkey here is dressed with an exquisitely Plain (not to be confused with ''dull'') oyster stuffing, accompanied by the traditional creamed dried corn. Then come the ''sours'': pickled watermelon rind, red beets, and Jerusalem artichokes; and ''sweets'': homemade jams, jellies, and puddings, pumpkin custard, and green-tomato minced pies. Green tomato pie?
''I was raised on 'em,'' Kulp says. ''I can assure you, they're very delicious indeed.''
For some far-flung Harleys, hearing for the first time of their culinary roots, this sounded a mite inconsistent with the stark simplicity for which the Pennsylvania Dutch are known. Kulp had faced such doubts before.
''This gets us to the whole insight of Plainness about use of Earth's bounty, '' he said. Heading out of the auditorium into the sun-warmed autumn air, he led the family faithful up a winding path to the old Brethren meetinghouse.
''The concept of Plainness actually goes back to the root meaning of simplicity, which is singleness. We find this simplicity in the singleness of living life to the glory of God and to the good of one's fellowman. That means it's quite all right to enjoy the bounties of creation; but it also means sharing them with everybody, and above all, not wasting the bounty.''
As Kulp sees it, the Brethren, Mennonites, and Amish were the first New World ecologists (first, that is, among the European settlers). In Plainspeak, the management of Earth's bounty is virtually synonymous with conservation.
Here the Pennsylvania Dutch have stood totally apart from the nature-domineering posture that became so prominent in the Protestant ethic.
''I am always struck by the tone of some Protestant sermons preached in the 1840s in (nearby) Kutztown,'' Kulp says. ''One preacher compared the Christian people there to the children of Israel entering Canaan, saying, 'God gave us all these things, take advantage!' The Indians got compared to the Canaanites, and this preacher said it was the Europeans' obligation to chase them out, because all these bounties of the earth were now theirs.''
Brethren and Mennonites, on the other hand, saw themselves not as dominators, but as ''God's gardeners.''
''This had implications for the use of bounties,'' Kulp says. ''Since simplicity is a product of stewarding God's blessings, one must not become an overconsumer to the detriment of others.
''In fact, the stockpiling of harvest at Thanksgiving was not only to thank God, but also to ensure bounty was shared with the poor, with the old-folks homes, and less fortunate members of the community. A purpose of taking stock was thus to be ready to distribute.''
Reaching the old Brethren meetinghouse, Brother Kulp paused with his delegation of Harleys.
''In the old days, the people would have started coming here to Thanksgiving meeting a good two hours in advance,'' he says. ''As you looked across the broad valleys you could see the people coming along the farm lanes on foot. Though they had horses, they would still go on foot because, they insisted, the horse must also have Sunday.
''Single file, the old patriarch-grandfather and matriarch-grandmother walked in front, then the father, mother, children. At the next farm, another family would join. And coming together in companies, they would start singing the old German hymns so that strains of music began to emanate from the fence rows and dusty lanes.''
After the meeting, people would visit for several hours, then begin to file back home, Kulp explains. Only now they filed in different companies, since about half the congregation had been invited to join the other half for dinner.
''The point is, no one was ever allowed to go home alone. Week by week, mother literally never knew whether two were coming home or 12 or more. Of course, thanks to some wise conservation, the cellar would be filled with canned goods, the smokehouse with hams and sausages, the ground cellar with potatoes and apples, the attic with dried corn and beans.''
One young Harley turned to the historian, ''You mean you were never caught empty-handed?''
''No, there was no worry that you weren't able to feed the multitudes.''
''Say, that's pretty good - Plain good.''