Serious Nonsense

Groundhog Lodges, Versammlinge, and Pennsylvania German Heritage

Paper or softback
William W. Donner
Published 30 Mar 2016
List Price £21.95



“My German grandmother, living in the Rhine valley, used to say, ‘If the badger sees his shadow on Candlemas Day (February 2), winter is going to stay for another six weeks. If not, there will be an early spring.’ This old Palatine country saying, which helped local farmers predict the weather, is nearly forgotten today. In Germany, only a few people know that this belief has been transplanted to Pennsylvania, where the groundhog has replaced the badger, and that a few thousand Pennsylvania Germans still use the old lore as a background to the celebration of their heritage and language every February. That is the story Bill Donner tells. This book will be a standard reference for researchers and for Americans with a Pennsylvania German background. And even in Germany—especially in the Palatinate—people will be interested in learning how this part of their local culture has been ‘Americanized’ over the years.”

—Michael Werner, publisher, Hiwwe wie Driwwe

“Pennsylvania German versammlinge, in particular the groundhog lodges, are the most important public expression of Pennsylvania German heritage today. Combining solid research with extensive fieldwork, William Donner has produced an impressive study of this fascinating movement that deepens our understanding not only of the Pennsylvania Germans, but of American folklife and vernacular culture more generally.”

—Mark Louden, University of Wisconsin

“Donner opens the doors of the groundhog lodges and shows us the captivating look, feel, and sound of the lodges’ sometimes serious, sometimes jolly, always meaningful festivities. His riveting narrative and eye-opening photographs reveal, as no one to date has done before, the cultural dynamics of Pennsylvania German language, tradition, and identity within a changing world. This is a marvelous book, not just about a fascinating Pennsylvania German institution and its activities, but ultimately about organizing heritage in and out of the public eye.”

—Simon J. Bronner, Pennsylvania State University

“Building on Steven Nolt’s Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic, Donner’s short book successfully connects academic interest in Pennsylvania German traditions with ongoing Deitsch events.”

—B. B. Pfleger, Choice

“Donner has provided an informative exploration of Pennsylvania German culture in Serious Nonsense. His training as an anthropologist is evident in his exploration of groundhog lodges and versammlinge, as he analyzes them from a cultural perspective and compares the activities to those he observed while researching in the Solomon Islands. The book is well illustrated with copies of program covers, photographs of meetings and groundhogs, and music and lyrics to the ‘Schnitzelbank’ song. Anyone who has Pennsylvania German heritage—or even those who do not—will enjoy Serious Nonsense.”

—Karen Guenther, H-Penn

“Donner has developed a topic that few outside of the Pennsylvania German community know about. Indeed, not even all Pennsylvania Germans are aware of where and why so many men spend their evenings enjoying what Rahn called ‘sensible nonsense’ at the Versammlinge and lodge meetings. Donner has expanded our knowledge of Pennsylvania German culture. His book is a valuable contribution to the increasing volume of enlightening literature about Pennsylvania Germans.”

—John B. Frantz, Pennsylvania History

Versammlinge—community events filled with songs, performances, speeches, and skits that celebrate Pennsylvania German heritage and culture—are held entirely in the Pennsylvania German Deitsch language. Some, the “groundhog lodges,” feature a ceremony honoring the groundhog, while others do not. These unique meetings, expressions of a distinctive ethnic identity in the context of a rapidly changing society, have become a traditional mainstay among Pennsylvania Germans who have worked to preserve their language and culture into the twenty-first century.

Serious Nonsense introduces readers to Pennsylvania German cultural practices that tourists rarely see and that outsiders, including most scholars, rarely learn about. The book explores the origins of the versammlinge and details the practice’s significance since the 1930s, when the first meetings of the Pennsylvania German groundhog lodges were held. Much as they did then, versammlinge today follow a pattern of prayers, patriotism, and speeches extolling values associated with Pennsylvania German identity, as well as theatrical and oral events that humorously contrast a simpler past with a more complex and confusing present. And the groundhog lodges feature one Pennsylvania German tradition that has become familiar in popular culture: groundhog weather prognostication.

List of Illustrations



1 The People and Language That the Versammlinge Celebrate

2 Making Tradition: The Origins and Development of the Versammlinge

3 “Let Us Deitsche Be What We Are”: The Structure of Versammling Events

4 Theatricality: Performing Tradition

5 The Message of the Versammlinge: The Reverend Clarence Rahn and the Main Speech

6 Region and Nation: Contexts for the Versammling Movement

7 The Future of Pennsylvania Germans and Their Versammlinge





William W. Donner is Professor of Anthropology at Kutztown University.