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.
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.