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.

Annual Christmas Open House

Last week was a busy week at the Historical Society as the holiday season is in full swing.  On Wednesday afternoon the public was invited to join the Historical Society to view recent interviews of long-time residents of Indiana County conducted by students from IUP’s history department. It was a great afternoon as we got to experience what life was like during the first half of the 20th Century through individual stories.  These stories ranged from life in the coal towns, to time at the University, and military service. We would like to thank everyone who came out and shared the afternoon with us along with the students from IUP’s History Department who completed the interviews, and of course the residents of Indiana County who shared their memories.

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IUP Community Choir

Then on Friday evening the Historical Society welcomed the community to celebrate the Christmas Season.  The weather was perfect, as the rain held off for most of the evening. The community came together to tour the festively decorated Clark House while enjoying holiday refreshments and to tour the museum. There were even gifts in the gift shop for people to do some holiday shopping for family and friends.  Our guests enjoyed holiday music provided by the IUP Community Choir, afterwards guests made their way to the Clark House for a holiday sing along around the piano in the parlor. If you were lucky you got to have a conversation with some historical figures, including Harry and Anna White who were in the Clark House. Thanks to all who came out to celebrate the season with us and to the Evergreen Garden Club for decorating the Clark House for the holiday season.

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Harry and Anna White

As a reminder the Historical Society will be closed from December 22, 2018 through January 1, 2019. We will reopen on January 2, 2019. We are excited to see what the new year holds in store, stay tuned for future events such as programs and fundraisers, or just come in to visit the museum or do some family research in our library. Whatever the reason for your visit we can’t wait to see you at the Society. We wish everyone a happy holiday season and a happy new year.

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Clark House

2017 Society Summary

It is time once again for us to ring in a new year, and what a year it has been for the Indiana County Historical Society. We have done so much this past year and we take this time to reflect on what we have accomplished. We held a number of programs and workshops that we hope to continue in 2018, so be on the lookout for dates of those events. This year was a year of fundraisers and cooperation with many different organizations in the area.

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The Historical Society once again worked with the Indiana Art Association, sponsoring the Open Arts Show, that is exhibited at the Society from November to early January. We have also worked closely with IUP to bring interns to our Museum. Internships help students learn about how a museum operates and it also enables the Society to use young talent to expand our outreach. Thanks to the Evergreen Garden Club, the Silas Clark House is always beautifully decorated for the Christmas season. Along with decorating the Clark House at Christmas time the club also creates and maintains the garden at the point of South Sixth Street and Wayne Avenue during the Spring/Summer season.

This past year also bring with it new partnerships, including one with the Young Professional Organization (YPO). The YPO is a subgroup of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce comprised of individuals from 18-40 years old with the purpose of promoting networking between local businesses. This past October they sponsored the Haunted School Spirits program that brought approximately 75 people into the museum, along with funds paid by attendees. Also, this past September/October the Society worked with the Paranormal Society of IUP who investigated the Museum, Clark House and grounds for possible spirit entities that may still be roaming the buildings. The activities ended with a reveal of the investigations.

In addition to these big events, the Society also works with the Rainbow Diamond Glass Club, the Horace Mann Elementary School, and showcasing exhibits at the annual Air Show at the Jimmy Stewart Airport. Further, Board members and volunteers have given presentations at the Indiana Free Library and the Blairsville Historical Society. It is important for organizations to work together to expand our horizons; if you know of an organization that would like to work with the Historical Society please contact us at ichistoricalsociety@gmail.com or by phone at 724-463-9600.

A few closing notes about our 2018; we have many fun programs, events, and fundraisers planned so stay tuned to our various social media accounts, or consider becoming a member to learn about member exclusive events. Also, we have the following closings for 2018: March 30-31; July 3-4; November 20-24; and December 22-31.

We want to wish all our readers, followers, and members a happy holiday season and a prosperous new year. We hope to see you at the museum in 2018, either to visit the museum, attend one of our programs, fundraisers, or other events, or to volunteer. We will be closed until January 2, 2018 to give all our staff and volunteers a much-needed vacation.

The Holiday Inn at McIntyre

Indiana County got a great Christmas present in 1950.  On December 23rd, Sam and Ann Serrianni opened the Holiday Inn between McIntyre and Coal Run, two years before the hotel chain of the same name debuted.  Those two coal patch towns may have been tiny, but their new restaurant and bar soon gained a giant reputation as a hot dance spot and as home to the county’s first (and best) pizza.  Longtime Indiana DJ, Jerry Boucher, and future County Commissioner, Bernie Smith, spun their first platters at Holiday Inn record hops.  In the early 1950s, some of the last Big Bands played there, featuring everything from polka to rock.  Over the years, the Inn packed ’em in on Saturday nights.

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It was not the Serriannis’ first try – they had operated a diner named for boxing and wrestling champ Primo Carnerea after the war – but it was the Holiday Inn, inspired by a 1942 movie of that name, that was destined to become their life.  Sam built the cinderblock structure himself, and he and Ann raised their “crew of four” in rooms behind and beneath it in the decades that followed.  Son John remembers childhood years spent in Holiday Inn’s kitchen learning the trade beside siblings Valerie, Marlea, and Samuel Junior.

“Yeah, I was the only one of us who never married, so when the others left home, I stayed on as the bartender until my early thirties.  My parents were introverts – never joined the Chamber of Commerce and all that – so it just made sense for them to hire family.”

As popular as the Inn would become, not everyone was receptive at first.  Second-generation pizza lover Antoinette Fontana laughs, “When we were kids, some people called it ‘dago food’.  But by the time I was thirty, pizza was everywhere and pasta was gourmet!”  With those early attitudes in mind, the family anglicized their name to Serrian, and in a 1953 ad went as far as to stress that they were “both natives of Indiana County.”  But the old family name is well remembered locally, and daughter Valerie’s pizzeria, built on the same property as the now-closed Holiday Inn, is even called Serrianni’s in honor of her parents.

By the early 1990s, Sam was thinking about selling the business.  Tastes and the times had changed, and since he was in his 70s, retirement seemed like a good idea.  But it was fire, not a buyer, who would settle the matter.  In the early morning hours of Christmas 1996, the McIntyre landmark was gutted by an apparent act of arson.  Holiday Inn had served its last customer almost exactly forty-six years after its first one.

If you are ever driving through Young Township on County Road 3031, keep an eye out for a long white cinderblock building between McIntyre and Coal Run, right next to Serrianni’s Pizzeria.  Shuttered now and quiet, it stands like a monument to the ones who built it.

Holiday Inn, Sam and Ann:  Gone But Not Forgotten.

A Victorian Christmas

Christmas is a festive time of year, here in Indiana we have It’s a Wonderful Life Christmas celebration which kicked off last month on November 17 with a parade, and there are festivities happening all month long.  Coming up on December 8, 2017 at 6:00 is the Historical Society’s Annual Christmas Open House, which the Clark House has been beautifully decorated by the Evergreen Garden Club. Refreshments will be served in the Clark House and at 7:00pm and 7:30pm there will be music played by two local groups in the Armory. This is a great chance to get into the holiday spirit.

The Clark House was built in 1869-1870, and that started a thought: What would have Christmas been like for the Clark family as they lived in the house? Technology was not advanced like it is today, there was not electric Christmas lights nor was there instant Christmas carols over the internet. A Victorian Era Christmas would have been much different than we experience it today.  One of the staple decorations in most people’s homes this time of year is the Christmas tree, although many of us have artificial trees, in the late 1800s these trees would have been real trees filling the home with the evergreen smell. Not only were the trees real, but they were elaborated decorated , this included fruit, garland, pine cones, and candles.

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Clark House Christmas 2016

Many people pride themselves with their Christmas decorating, from elaborate outside light displays and unique indoor decorating; however in the Victorian Era, decorating was much more simple. People of all economic groups decorated for Christmas, but those decorations were limited to garland and foliage. This would include the trimmings of pine trees and mistletoe.

And finally what is Christmas without Santa…the jolly old elf from Clemment Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas.”  Santa has been a popular figure of Christmas, having different means for people all over the world; most countries and cultures have there own version of Santa. The Dutch have St. Nick, England Father Christmas, and the Germans have Kris Kringle.

The Historical Society has in its collection many vintage toys from bygone years along with beautiful displays featuring the history of Christmas in Indiana County. Be sure to stop by the museum, visit the Clark House and be transported back to a simpler time. We would like to thank the Evergreen Garden Club for their decorating of the Clark House, and for all the volunteers and staff members that make our Christmas Open House possible.  We hope to see you December 8, 2017 at 6:00 pm, and we wish everyone a joyous holiday season.