Christmas Traditions: The Belsnickel

It is often said that the past is a foreign country and when we look back at it, we will find many strange and unusual customs and traditions. This is particularly true with historic celebrations of Christmas.  Traditionally in Germany, a character called the Belsnickel would visit children alongside Saint Nicholas. Many cultures have an assistant accompany St. Nicholas/Santa Claus during his visits to punish the children who need to correct their behavior. Traditional in German, St. Nicholas’ Day is December 6th.  That is when St. Nicholas and the belsnickle would visit, for on Christmas Eve the Christ Child would bring presents.

The belsnickel is often glad in rags and patchwork, sometime he blackens his face or wears a mask to appear more fearsome. He carries candy or treats for the obedient children along with switches or rods for those who have been misbehaving.  Naughty children were also made to do a penance such as recite a Bible verse or poem for their transgressions. Generally the belsnickel was someone from the local community usually an older man, or a woman, who knew what the children had been up to during the year.  I suspect it was somewhat of a social honor to portray the belsnickel. The person had to be trustworthy and able to properly gauge the punishment for the misbehavior. As the tradition of the belsnickel continued in Pennsylvania, the man was often rewarded with food for his social function.  The person selected as the belsnickel may have been a community elder who may have needed some charity that time of year.

The belsnickel tradition was very popular during the 19th century. It even survived in places until the early 20th century but seems to have merged with Santa Claus as they years have gone on. Here at Quiet Valley, were keep the Belsnickel traditional alive during our Old Time Christmas celebration.  Visitors come down into the cellar kitchen-this was originally the whole house built around 1764-where they meet Jacky Depper.  This young boy welcomes the visitors and explains that they are now waiting for the Belsnickel who soon arrives amid much door banging and bell ringing.  He went about the room tapping naught children with his bundle of sticks and rewarding the good children with candy. It was a sight to see. Next year when you are looking for something fun to do, remember us and come see the Belsnickel.

The Quiet Valley blog is written by Kat Muller in here first year working at Quiet Valley. This blog posts represents her last, new event for the year!




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