Der Belsnickel

It was 1911, and little Mary Easterday was really looking forward to what she’d find downstairs that Christmas morning.  Last year’s stocking had fairly bulged with gifts and treats, and dear old Kristkindl might be just as generous this year.  After all, she’d been an angel!  Okay, so she’d stolen a bite from each of her brother’s chicken wings last Sabbath, but the saint would surely overlook a harmless prank like that, right?  But what Mary found when she got downstairs wasn’t candy, and it wasn’t left by Kristkindl: a stocking full of. . .coal?  Oh, no – Der Belsnickel had come!

Mary was my grandmother.  Her Pennsylvania Deutsch parents, keen storytellers, had passed down the legend of Kristkindl’s servant.  Long ago, they said, the saint had saved Belsnickel from a life of crime; in gratitude, the fellow had asked to come along as his helper on the annual pre-Christmas visit to the homes of the poor.  But the servant’s heart was harder than his master’s, and Belsnickel soon began replacing gifts left for the böesen kinder – naughty children – with hazel switches or lumps of coal after the saint stepped out.  For most children, a visit by Der Belsnickel was enough to reform their behavior in the coming year.

A quick lesson in Deutsch terminology is in order here.  Kristkindl was the name for Saint Nicholas, shortened from a very long German word meaning “He Who Announces the Christ Child.”  Depending on which authority you believe, Belsnickel (pronounced Bell-schnickle) meant either “Fur-Covered Nicholas” or “Nicholas the Walloper.”  And of course, Deutsch is what folks from southwestern Germany and their Pennsylvania descendants were called.  Got it?  Okay….

Belsnickel changed considerably over time.  He came to Pennsylvania with refugee German Anabaptists about 300 years ago, and the stern childrearing practices of those Amish, Mennonite and Brethren immigrants found expression in their Christmas folklore.  At first, Belsnickel functioned as a tough-love counterbalance to kindly Kristkindl, scolding and meting out discipline to wayward offspring when he and his master showed up on December 24th.  Saint and servant were secretly portrayed by family or community members, so the dour “anticlaus” knew everything you’d done that year!

As time went by, both Der Belsnickel’s habits and appearance mellowed as Deutsch culture set aside harsh corporal punishment and absorbed America’s increasingly English Christmas habits.  A naughty child of, say, 1840 might no longer be thoroughly “switched;” Belsnickel strewed candy and nuts before the tikes, and as they dove for the goodies, the naughty ones would get a single switch-stroke on the backside as they passed.  By 1880, he might deliver a stern lecture, place lump of coal in the böses kind’s hand and extract a promise of reform.  And in the early 20th century (by which time gift-giving had come to be accepted in many Deutsch homes), he’d make late-night visits without confrontation, switching not the child but the stocking-stuffers.

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Belsnickel and Kristkindl visiting together;  Belsnickel solo.

Der Belsnickel’s startling appearance added to children’s dread of being caught by the fellow.  His garb varied from place to place;  here in southwest PA, he wore a multicolor patchwork coat fringed with bells and/or thorns, a fur cap that matched his wild black beard and a knapsack full of coal…all the more alarming by contrast with Kriskindl’s white beard, bishop’s robe and miter cap.  Sometimes he simply followed his master through the front door, but when visiting alone, Belsnickel announced his arrival by banging on windows.  Now that could be scary!

Was there a real, historical “servant of Saint Nicholas?”  Probably not.  Mythographers suspect Belsnickel was a fusion of the old German kobold (sprite, elf) called Knecht Ruprecht and the Lord of Misrule who presided over ancient Rome’s “backwards day,” Saturnalia.  Alright, but how did he come to be in 19th century Indiana County?  After all, the Amish only arrived here in the 1960s and the Mennonites in the ‘80s.  Ah, but the Brethren have been here since 1838, a time when some Deutsch families migrating from eastern PA to Ohio halted at promising rural areas in between.  Today they can be found in at least eight of our townships.  But as to whether Der Belsnickel still comes to call on our Brethren, well….

There’s one expression of Belsnickel which seems never to have caught on here as it did in eastern PA.  Several communities there put on a rowdy Parade of Spirits not unlike Mardi Gras, a “mummer’s holiday” mentioned in Philadelphia papers as early as 1820.  There, hundreds of masked “belsnickelers” danced through the streets, accompanied by loud music as they played often-destructive pranks on householders and bystanders.  Thankfully, Der Belsnickel’s only non-Christmas manifestation in our county was benign:  some families welcomed a hybrid “Saint Belsnickel” on New Year’s Day, when he brought gifts rather than coal and correction.

After being absorbed into Santa Clause and fading away in the early 20th century, Belsnickel had brief returns to popularity after World Wars One and Two but has seldom been heard from since.  Still, he is not without an ongoing legacy.  The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol is thought to have been influenced by Charles Dickens’ research into America’s Christmas traditions – guess who?  Oweds Vor Grisctdaag (The Night Before Christmas), a 1943 play with a Deutsch twist, follows not Saint Nick but Belsnickel on his rounds.  And in an episode of the popular sitcom The Office, character Dwight Schrute visits as you-know-who; you can watch it on YouTube, where it’s just one of 38 Belsnickel videos!

So merry Christmas, HGSIC, and a “Ho, Ho, Ho!” – or more aptly, a “No, No, No!” – from Der Belsnickel, the Pennsylvania Anticlaus.

Swing Time

Well alreet!  Are you hep to what was happening here in the Thirties and Forties?  Sunsets in the east and west, and clambakes where a gate could really swing.  No ducks?  No problem: slip a blip in the piccolo and jump-jump-jump!

No, we hadn’t gone mad – just mad for the music of the Big Bands.  Between the jazz age and the coming of rock-n-roll was the Swing Era, and no place outside of America’s big cities swung like our little corner of the world.  The Sunset Grove at NuMine and Sunset Ballroom in Carrolltown, just over the county lines to west and east, were Pennsylvania’s most popular Big Band venues.  “Clambakes” were concerts where swing fans (gates) danced.  If you couldn’t afford the tickets (ducks), you could still drop a nickel in the jukebox and dance, dance, dance….

Like radio and the movies, Big Bands were part of what got us through the Great Depression and the biggest war this world has ever seen.  Their heyday was from 1937 through 1946, but some were popular here well into the next decade.  The first few big-name bands to visit Indiana County came in 1938;  the high-water mark was in 1940-41, and by the end of the era more than fifty had performed hereabouts.  Why did so many famous bands come this far off the beaten track?  ‘Cause we were rabid fans perched between the state’s two best ballrooms, that’s why.  Since bandleaders knew that only so many of us could fit into the two Sunsets, they made sure to book into smaller but still “happening” venues throughout the county as well.

And there were plenty of those.  Indiana had the Rustic Lodge and Meadowland, while Blairsville had its Rainbow Villa.  There was Danceland at Clarksburg, New Deal Café in Homer City and the Rose Inn out by Ernest . . . more than a dozen in all.  Each catered to local tastes, booking famous “sweet” or “hot” bands between local talent when they could.  Fans joked that the sweet-to-hot spectrum ran “from SK to SK and from Sunset to Sunset” – that is, from Sammy Kaye at the Sunset Grove (where sweet held sway) to Stan Kenton at the Sunset Ballroom (where some liked it hot).

Imagine!  Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo . . . they all played here.  Some even called southwest PA home.  Baritone bandleader Vaughn Monroe (whose later hit “Ghost Riders in the Sky” some of you may remember) was from Jeanette and Ray Anthony was from Bentleyville.  Vocalists Maxine Sullivan and Perry Como were Homestead and Canonsburg natives, and Larry Clinton’s drummer was a fellow Indiana Countian!  Our own Norm Park and his Collegians played throughout the state, and local boy Angie Sgro (son of the Sunset Grove’s owners) even toured nationally.

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 Glenn Miller played the Sunset Ballroom in 1942

Of course, not everyone was on the Big Band bandwagon.  Pittsburgh Symphony conductor Harvey Gaul pronounced swing “alleged music . . . just our current form of imbecility,” and many a Pennsylvania pulpit echoed that condemnation.  Indiana County’s strict Blue Law observance even meant there were no Sunday swing concerts here.  Sort of.  Most venues simply waited until one minute post-Sabbath to let ‘er rip.  In fact, the single most popular night of the year for dancing was “Easter Monday,” when owners booked the best bands available.  And in the county seat, where several thousand students pretty much guaranteed a vigorous night life, the State Teachers College sponsored “Swing Out” each May from 1938 to 1944.  Lindy Hop till you drop!

Admission to concerts varied widely in price, depending on who was playing.  Did you want to see local talent like the Commanders?  Thirty cents.  Dance to second-tier national bands like Jerry Gray’s?  Fifty-five.  And when the big boys came to town – you know, “Goodman and Kyser and Miller” – those ducks would run you a buck twenty-five if you could get ‘em.  Big money back then, but worth it.

Ballrooms weren’t the only place to get your swing, either.  Radio stations like WJAC and WCAE broadcast Big Band recordings and live remotes, including some from Indiana County venues.  We flocked to see any film starring name bands, and “soundies” – the ancestors of music videos – often played between newsreel and first feature.  And of course, there were the platters.  Indiana’s Blair F. Uber, “The Largest Radio Store in Pennsylvania,” had a permanent Gazette ad listing its current top-selling discs.

Then came World War II, and like so much else in our lives, the music scene was put on hold.  With fewer and fewer undrafted sidemen available, most bands disbanded for the duration.  Some went further than that: Major Glenn Miller and Chief Petty Officer Artie Shaw formed military Big Bands to sustain morale.  Back home, some bands composed entirely of women rose to fill the void, including Indiana County’s own Coquettes (whose cover of Martha Raye’s hit “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” underscored the man shortage here!).  Fewer couples meant smaller audiences, too, so the remaining bands concentrated on big cities.  Guess where that left us?  Even non-shellac records became scarce when vinyl was declared a strategic material.

Things started looking up when Japan surrendered in the summer of ’45.  Once bandleaders and sidemen were discharged, the old orchs re-formed and hit the road.  But wait . . .  something was different.  We weren’t the same country that had danced to “Jukebox Saturday Night” and had gone “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”  An entire generation of American men had seen death and destruction for four long years, and now what they craved above all else was NORMAL  LIFE  –  marriage and family and a day job, not night life and the Hit Parade.  By the end of 1946, most of the Big Bands had called it quits.  America was moving to the suburbs.

Hang on.  That wasn’t the end.  Bands at either extreme of the spectrum, the very ones mocked by prewar music critics, survived in greatest number after the era’s end.  The likes of Shep Fields (sweet) and Gene Krupa (hot) were still welcomed at Indiana County venues and across the country as they toured in the late Forties and early Fifties.  TV networks, recognizing the resonance sweet bands had with domestic America, gave several of them their own weekly shows.  What Baby Boomer doesn’t remember the Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk shows?  Even Ozzie and Harriet, that icon of American family life, starred former bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his singer/wife Harriet Hilliard.  And none other than Indiana’s own Jimmy Stewart starred in the 1954 movie, The Glenn Miller Story.

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Jimmy Stewart in “The Glenn Miller Story”

The final note?  Probably Big Band legend Duke Ellington’s 1983 double album All Star Road Band, recorded live at the Sunset Ballroom here in 1957.  And hey – if you gotta go, how better than to the strains of “Take the ‘A’ Train”?

Solid, Jackson!

December 2016 Events at the Society

December seems to be a busy time of year with all the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping, decorating and getting ready for Christmas.  December is also a busy time of year at the Indiana County Historical Society as well.

Join some of our volunteers on Saturday December 3 from 11-4 at the Indiana Mall at a booth that will be set up.  They will have Indiana County themed gift items for sale for those of you who are looking for Christmas gifts…or simply a gift for yourself. They will also have the ever popular Indiana County-Opoly game if you weren’t able to get your copy last year now is the time to get yours before they are gone.

Gift items

On December 9, join the Society as they celebrate the Christmas season at the Clark House and Armory. The event will run from 6-9 pm.  Bring your family and friends out to the Society and enjoy an old fashioned Victorian Christmas.  There will be two local choral groups to provide a nice selection of holiday music in the Armory.  Also join us in the beautifully decorated Clark House, thanks to the Evergreen Garden Club, for refreshments and mingle and tour the museum.  There may also be time for an old fashioned carol sing around the pump organ in the beautifully decorated parlor.

The Society is once again hosting the Indiana County Open Arts Exhibit. This yearly event is put on by the Indiana Art Association.  Please stop by the museum to see the paintings, glass work, jewelry, and photographs done by local artists, both professional and non-professional. You are even invited to vote for your favorite artwork!  Thanks to all those who were involved in the installation of the exhibit. It will be open during normal business hours, Tuesday-Friday 9am-4pm and Saturday 10-3. The show will last until January 7, 2017.

Indiana County Open Arts Exhibit 2016

Finally, the Society will be closed December 24 through January 2 so that our staff and volunteers can celebrate the holidays with their family and loved ones.

From everyone at the Historical Society we wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and we hope to see you when you visit the museum.