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The history of Gretna Day
Linden Hall students enjoy ‘a day in the woods’
In 2016, Linden Hall will celebrate 270 years of educating and empowering young women. Linden Hall has long been a part of the educational landscape in the Lititz community; the physical campus occupying 49 acres adjacent to Moravian Square. According to historical records, “On a late fall day in November 1746, the Moravians in what was then called Warwick, Pennsylvania broke ground for their ‘Gemeinhaus’ which according to Moravian usage, served as a chapel, a schoolhouse, and parsonage combined” (Linden Hall: Enduring Values, Changing Times).
Linden Hall’s rich history spans four centuries from the mid-1700s to the present day. Over the years, many traditions have been initiated by both the faculty and students of Linden Hall. The traditions that remain have their origins in the past and have been shaped by the Linden Hall community as the times have changed. Some of them have become irrelevant and have fallen by the wayside, while others have evolved into the traditions that the Linden Hall community still celebrates from year to year.
This is the first in a series of articles to commemorate the 270th year in Linden Hall’s history.
Gretna Day tradition, as it is celebrated today, dates back to October 1919. It is a combination of the annual fall “chestnutting trip,” dating back to the late 1800s, and a celebration of Dr. Stengel’s birthday (Headmaster from 1915 to 1947). Beginning in 1915, the annual fall “chestnutting trip” was held in celebration of Dr. Stengel’s birthday in October. Four years later, in 1919, Stengel changed the “day in the woods” picnic location to the woods at Mt. Gretna and the tradition began to more closely resemble the Gretna Day celebration of present.
The tradition of celebrating the Headmaster’s birthday has its roots in the early 1800s. Sister Mary Penry, of the Moravian church, penned letters in 1801 stating that the Linden Hall girls go “to the spring, carrying with them a bottle of currant wine and a basket of cakes by way of refreshment” and they “invite the principal to a feast which was held under the trees in the declivity between the Lititz Church and the graveyard” and as approached, “the girls greeted him by singing a hymn of congratulations.” (Linden Hall: Enduring Values, Changing Times).
By the 1870s, the annual chestnut hunt was a school-wide event and holiday at Linden Hall that took place at Elizabeth Furnace, an estate owned by Baron Stiegel in the village of Manheim. Large horse-drawn wagons were decorated with colorful streamers and flags, and the trip from Lititz to Manheim took nearly two hours. According to an article in the Linden Hall Echo in November 1891:
“The cheering was almost uninterrupted first from one wagon and then another… the class calls were given again and again and at every turn we came to, the people came to the door to see the Linden Hall girls as they rolled by in hay-wagons.”
Nearly every year since the Echo was first published in 1877, until it ceased being Linden Hall’s newspaper and became the name of the literary magazine in the 1950s, there has been a mention of “chestnutting.” The following account describes this day in 1880:
“Bright and early on the morning of October 8, everybody was up and about, making rapid preparations for a happy day in the woods. At about eight o-clock the wagons furnished with straw, blankets, and more or less comfortable seats, drove up in front of the houses, and before long the happy procession wound through the village. Gay flags floated in the breeze, and wild cheers rent the air… On driving up to the mansion it was the work of but a moment to unload the human freight from the wagons and before many moments more, girls were scattered over the hillsides searching diligently for the brown beauties that know so well how to hide away under dry leaves or with painful burrs… then, too, there were scarlet berries, beautiful leaves, the dark blue haws, ground pine, ferns, bitter-sweet, and even butternuts to be gathered and carried home. The day itself was a joy.”
In the 1930s, the girls would ride to Mt. Gretna in the back of trucks, singing the entire way. Today, Gretna Day is a surprise day off from school announced early in the morning. The day provides a much-needed break from their studies, filled with roller-skating, miniature golfing, hiking, food, and fun in the woods. The girls are transported via school busses instead of trucks, but they can still be heard singing as they make the trip from Lititz to Mt. Gretna.
This information was compiled by Kristina Martin, Director of Communications, Linden Hall School for Girls. (Excerpts from the Echo republished from Linden Hall: Enduring Values, Changing Times).
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