Myths And Legends: Belsnickel

Belsnickel is a crotchety, fur-clad Christmas gift-bringer figure in the folklore of the Palatinate region of southwestern Germany. The figure is also preserved in Pennsylvania Dutch communities and Brazilian-German communities.

Belsnickel is related to other companions of Saint Nicholas in the folklore of German-speaking Europe. He may have been based on an older German myth, Knecht Ruprecht, a servant of Saint Nicholas and a character from northern Germany. Unlike those figures, Belsnickel does not accompany Saint Nicholas but instead visits alone and combines both the threatening and the benign aspects which in other traditions are divided between the Saint Nicholas and the companion figure. Belsnickel is a man wearing furs and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He is typically very ragged and disheveled. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also pockets full of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.

A first-hand 19th-century account of the “Beltznickle” tradition in Allegany County, Maryland, can be found in “Brown’s Miscellaneous Writings”, a collection of essays by Jacob Brown (born 1824). Writing of a period around 1830, Brown says, “we did not hear of” Santa Claus. Instead, the tradition called for a visit by a different character altogether:

“He was known as Kriskinkle, Beltznickle and sometimes as the Christmas woman. Children then not only saw the mysterious person, but felt him or rather his stripes upon their backs with his switch. The annual visitor would make his appearance some hours after dark, thoroughly disguised, especially the face, which would sometimes be covered with a hideously ugly phiz – generally wore a female garb – hence the name Christmas woman – sometimes it would be a veritable woman but with masculine force and action. He or she would be equipped with an ample sack about the shoulders filled with cakes, nuts, and fruits, and a long hazel switch which was supposed to have some kind of a charm in it as well as a sting. One would scatter the goodies upon the floor, and then the scramble would begin by the delighted children, and the other hand would ply the switch upon the backs of the excited youngsters – who would not show a wince, but had it been parental discipline there would have been screams to reach a long distance.”

The Belsnickel character originated in the Palatinate. When people immigrated to Pennsylvania, they brought their German traditions with them. Belsnickel was known in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. Amongst the Pennsylvania Germans, Belsnickel is the character who visits homes prior to Christmas to check up on the behaviour of the children. The traditional Belsnickel showed up at houses 1–2 weeks before Christmas and often created fright because he always knew exactly which of the children misbehaved. He would rap on the door or window with his stick and often the children would have to answer a question for him or sing some type of song. In exchange he would toss candies onto the floor. If the children jumped too quick for the treats, they may end up getting struck with Belsnickel’s switch.

An 1853 article in a British magazine describing Pennsylvanian customs refers to “Pelsnichol, or Nicholas with the fur, alluding to the dress of skins in which he is said to be clad. Some make Pelsnichol identical with Krishkinkle, but the more general opinion is that they are two personages, one the rewarder of the good, the other the punisher of the bad.” According to this article, Pelsnichol merely leaves a birch rod in the stockings of naughty children. There are two versions of Belsnickel, the rural and the urban characters. Both are described in the book, “Christmas in Pennsylvania: a folk cultural study”, by Alfred L. Shoemaker and Don Yoder. The tradition fell into decline toward the end of the nineteenth century, but has seen a revival in recent years.

The tradition of Belsnickel was brought to Indiana by immigrants from the Palatinate. His garb could vary from one locality to another. He might wear a long, black or brown coat or robe, held together at the waist with a rope, and a fur cap or bear skin hat, decorated with bells. In this branch of the tradition, the father or other older male relative was often “busy working outside” or had to see to some matter elsewhere in the house when Pelznickel (or Belsnickel) arrived. “Belsnickling” or “Klausentreiben”, was the “running” of groups of young men or youth dressed in false faces and fantastic costumes on “Belsnickle Night, the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas” (St. Nikolaustag), and was the occasion of good-natured boisterousness. Young men, dressed in skins and furs, would move through the streets of town or village, rattling chains and bells.

The tradition also exists in parts of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the prairie provinces of Canada and some communities in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. A writer to the letters column of The Times refers to an illustration of “Pelz-Nickel” in a book by English author Harriet Myrtle, “The Little Sister” (1851). German illustrator H.J. Schneider depicts him “in a long cloak, pointed hood, a fur round his neck, with a long white beard, and a big bag”. Stoudt’s Brewing Company of Adamstown, Pennsylvania, brews a seasonal dark lager called “Belsnickle”. Otto’s Pub and Brewery of State College, Pennsylvania, brews a “Belsnickle” ale.

The antagonist of the John R. Neill book “The Scalawagons of Oz”, the thirty-fifth entry in the Oz series created by L. Frank Baum, is a mysterious monstrosity called Bell-snickle. It first appears as “a large bluish-green object, flat as a buckwheat cake, and rolling along on its edge like a cartwheel.” The creature does have arms and legs, as well as facial features; it wears bells on its ears, explaining at least one portion of its name. The creature has the egotism and petulance of a spoiled child.

There are scarier versions of the Belsnickel. Legend has it that he used to drag naughty children into the forest and make them pay for their mischievous behaviour through the year. Other stories suggest that he used to kidnap naughty children from their beds and never returned them to their parents. However, Belsnickel would often give them a chance to redeem themselves, if they deserved it.

They were either made to dance, do tricks, sing or recite poems, depending on what Belsnickel wanted to hear. The story of Belsnickel is enough to inculcate fear in children. Nowadays, the story of Belsnickel is recited or even depicted in parts of Germany to wreak some Christmas havoc for good humour and to scare naughty children.

I love these old tales and seeing as it’s the Xmas season I’ll leave you with the poem ‘Christmastime In The Land Of Belsnickel’ by Matthew Burns:

There is a land
Of wilderness glades, and craggy cliffs,
Of hidden coves and ancient forests.
Home of the Belsnickel.
Among this dark forest
Under the roots of a great oak tree
There is a limestone cavern
That is completely hidden from view.
In this dank cavern, Belsnickel makes his home,
He is hairy and covered in animal pelts,
With moss in his hair and lichens on his skin.
He lives in the cave, with his loyal servant Rupert.
Rupert is donned in the same manner as Belsnickel,
Only he is even dirtier,
Blackened from the soot of many fires
And smudged with the grease of many meals.
Every year, when it gets to be about this time of year.
When the leaves have been shed, the winter winds start to howl,
And the forest creatures prepare for winter in their own way.
Belsnickel and Rupert start plotting.
Plotting mischief and mayhem, of wreaking havoc
On the intruders who live in their valley.
They regale in events of seasons past, when they scared cattle,
Carried away children, and spread fear throughout the countryside.
Belsnickel has also been known to feed wild onions to the dairy cows,
So their milk will taste of onions and will be unfit for use by the intruders.
But most of all, Belsnickel and Rupert await Christmas Eve.
When everyone is indoors, reveling in the merriment of the season.
That is when Belsnickel becomes most embittered for being disturbed.
He loves the Winter Solstice, but can’t even bay at the moon,
Without the intruders hunting him with their ferocious hounds.
Belsnickel reckons that if he can’t celebrate, neither will they.
Late in the night, he and Rupert go from house to house,
Prying open the windows and breaking down doors.
Seeking vengeance they will yank children from their slumber,
And beat them with switches. Rupert hopes to toss a few in his sack, as well.
At these thoughts, pure joy shows on the face of Belsnickel and Rupert,
Primitive chuckles erupt from Ruperts snaggled mouth.
They are both anxious for night to fall,
And to begin their night of havoc.

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