Belsnickel

Belsnickel is a crotchety, fur-clad Christmas gift-bringer figure in the folklore of the Palatinate region of southwestern Germany along the Rhine, the Saarland, and the Odenwald area of Baden-Württemberg. The figure is also preserved in Pennsylvania Dutch communities.

Belsnickel is related to other companions of Saint Nicholas in the folklore of German-speaking Europe. He may have been based on another 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.

The character is also known as ‘Belschnickel’ or ‘Pelznickel’), and the name derives from ‘belzen,’German for ‘to wallop’ or ‘to drub’ and ‘nickel,’ a hypocorism (child-talk) of the given name Nikolaus. 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 brings cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.

Traditionally, the father or other older male relative was often ‘busy working outside’ or had to see to some matter elsewhere in the house when 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 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 Belsnickel character originated in the Palatinate, a region in southwestern Germany. When people immigrated to Pennsylvania, they brought their German traditions with them. Belsnickel was known in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. Among the Pennsylvania Germans, Belsnickel is the character who visits homes prior to Christmas to check up on the behavior 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.

The tradition fell into decline toward the end of the nineteenth century, but has seen a revival in recent years. It also exists in parts of Newfoundland (where its known as ‘mummering’), Nova Scotia, the prairie provinces of Canada, and some communities in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina.

Like Krampus, Père Fouettard, Schmutzli, Perchta, Knecht Ruprecht, Rubbels, Hanstrapp, Little Babushka, Pelzebock, Klaubauf, Belsnickel part of a troupe of companions to Saint Nicholas. They are a group of closely related figures who accompany Saint Nicholas throughout the territories formerly in the Holy Roman Empire. The characters act as a foil to the benevolent new year gift-bringer, threatening to thrash or abduct disobedient children.

German mythologist Jacob Grimm associated this character with the pre-Christian house spirit (‘kobold,’ ‘elf’) which could be benevolent or malicious, but whose mischievous side was emphasized after Christianization. The association of the new year gift-bringer has parallels in English and Scandinavian folklore, and is ultimately and remotely connected to the modern Christmas elf in American folklore.

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