Santa Claus, the pleasant bearded elf dressed in red (in case you thought I was referring to some other Santa Claus), was not predestined to be a worldwide Christmas icon and beloved Coca-Cola pitchman. How different our Christmases would be if the annual chimney descent of "Sinterklaas" had remained a Dutch folk custom and instead America had embraced -- and then exported to the world -- a somewhat more curious and more frightening Pennsylvania tradition.
Just as Sinterklaas gets his name from the fourth-century bishop and Greek holy man, Nikolas, so does the mythic German figure known as Belsnickel (also Belznickel, or Pelznikel, or one of several other spellings).
Like Sinterklaas, Santa Claus and jolly old St. Nicholas, Belsnickel brought gifts to children at Christmastime. But that's more or less where the similarities end.
While we think of Santa as a benevolent figure, Belsnickel is (or used to be) more sinister, dressed in dark furs (the bels translates roughly to "fur" in German, as in pelz, or pelt, and nickel seems to refer to the saint himself, Nikolas), threatening children who don't behave with a switch-thrashing, rattling his chains and committing acts of vandalism, harassment, or even some light home invasions.
Belsnickel, one of St. Nicholas' companions, comes to us by way of Germanic folklore, brought to eastern Pennsylvania by those German and Swiss immigrants who would later become known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. He may have been based on another, older, German myth, Rupert the Servant, who was a servant of Saint Nicholas, or, by some accounts, a servant of Christ himself.
From "The Christmas Tree," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
"Formerly, and still in all the smaller towns and villages throughout North Germany, these presents were sent by all the parents to some one fellow, who in high buskins, a white robe, a mask, and an enormous flax wig, personate Knecht Rupert, the servant Rupert. On Christmas night he goes round to every house, and says that Jesus Christ his master sent him thither, the parents and elder children receive him with great pomp of reverence, while the little ones are most terribly frightened."
Whether Knecht Rupert begat Belsnickel is hard to say with certainty (Stephen Nissenbaum makes the case in his excellent book on the holidays in America, "The Battle for Christmas"); the two may have been parallel characters from different regions of old Europe -- Rupert was from Northern Germany, while Belsnickel was a Rhine province tradition.
But whatever Belsnickel's origins, he, and not his Saturnalia cousins (Rupert as well as Austria's Krampus, Black Peter, and RuKlas), survived the trip across the Atlantic. He was well-known in Pennsylvania by the early 1800s -- around the same time that a "rival figure," Santa Claus, was emerging on the American Christmas landscape. ("A Visit From St. Nicholas" was published in 1822, fixing Santa's image in the American eye as the poem spread over the next few decades, though the visitor in question was never called Santa Claus in the poem.)
In 1827, a Philadelphia newspaper described the Belsnickel's appearance like so: "Mr. Belsnickel [makes] his personal appearance dressed in skins or old clothes, his face black, a bell, a whip, and a pocket full of cakes or nuts; and either the cakes or the whip are bestowed upon those around, as may seem meet to his sable majesty."
Meanwhile, a Morgantown, Pa., shopkeeper described the Belsnickels in his diary as "horrid frightful looking objects. ... On Christmas Eve, a few 'belsnickels' [were] prowling about this evening frightening the women and children, with their uncouth appearance -- made up of cast-off garments, [a] false face, a shaggy head of tow, or rather wig, falling profusely over the shoulders and finished out by a most patriarchal beard of whatsoever foreign [material] that could possibly be pressed into such service."
Such debaucherous parading seems out of season now, more in line with Halloween or Mardi Gras. But for centuries, Christmas -- scheduled conveniently at the tail end of the harvest season, when the animals had been freshly slaughtered and the wine and beer were ready to drink -- was an excuse for public displays of merry-making, rather than an in-home, around-the-hearth holiday. It's the reason the puritans banned Christmas celebrations as soon as they arrived in North America. It's the reason the mummers continue to dance through the streets of Philadelphia. It's the reason noisy Callithumpian parades were scheduled for December, and it's why the English came up with the "Lord of Misrule," the top sot appointed to preside over the annual pagan Feast of Fools.
In other words, Christmas has, until recently, been a time for heavy drinking and organized mischief.
Belsnickel would seem to have been the more appropriate mascot for this season, more so than the benign Santa Claus -- who, like Belsnickel, was a regional tradition in the early 1800s, popular mainly in New York. Belsnickel (not unlike Santa, who has been known to leave lumps of coal for severely naughty children) could be by turns benevolent or punitive, delivering nuts, candies and gifts to well-behaved kids, and threatening to beat, kidnap or drown the ornery ones.
But unlike Santa, who now does his work under the cover of night, Belsnickel was more overt.
From the Harrisburg Patriot, Dec. 25, 1876:
"The fun- and mischief-loving portion of our population [were] dressed in the costumes of 'Beltznickels,' clowns, harlequins, Indian chiefs, rag-a-muffins, girls of the period, negro performers, and in masquerade suits of every imaginable cut, shape, and color, making night hideous with horn music, kettle-drums, trumpets, penny whistles, etc., [carrying] out the time-honored old custom of merry making on Christmas eve. ... At many private residences the masqueraders were invited to enter and receive Christmas 'treats.'"
Other times, they did not require invitations. From the Pottstown Lafayette Aurora, Dec. 21, 1826:
The "bellsnickel [is] a mischievous hobgoblin that makes his presence known to the people once a year by his cunning tricks of fairyism ... Pottstown has had a full share of his presence this season if I am to judge from the wreck of lumber that is strewed through our streets and blockading the doors generally every morning, which indicates the work of a mighty marauder. ... It is reported that he nearly demolished a poor woman's house in one of the back streets a few nights ago."
Had our history pivoted a different way, we might still be celebrating that manner. But times change. Christmas moved indoors. Door-to-door carousing was replaced by drinking too much eggnog at the company party. The holiday became kid-centered.
New York, meanwhile, outgrew Philadelphia, both in size and in cultural influence, and while Belsnickel remained a regional, ethnic oddity, Santa expanded his sphere.
After his early 1800s creation, Santa, post-Civil War, was popularized by New York newspapers (The "Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus" editorial appeared in the New York Sun in 1897); he began appearing at Macy's; and the New York Historical Society pushed the image of a wholesome Santa as a means of taming Christmas into something more religious and respectable. Santa himself was tamed, too, undergoing a conversion from a "lusty," frisky elf to the gentleman who wants nothing more than milk and cookies for his efforts.
New York, as a result, is the city "where our modern American Christmas was invented," as author Stephen Nissenbaum puts it. By the turn of the 20th century, Pennsylvania's Belsnickel -- as well as the tradition of "belsnickeling," which is to say, dressing up as the creature, delivering treats, soliciting coins and promoting general mayhem -- was on its way to becoming a 19th-century relic.
From the York Sunday Gazette, Dec. 24, 1905:
"The presence of a few youngsters on the street last evening playing 'bellsnickle' recalled to the memories of [how] suddenly that harmless and once almost universal pastime on Christmas Eve has fallen into decay and without any apparent reason ... Less than a decade ago, if from 25 to 50 'bellsnickles' did not visit the homes of each prosperous farmer, something was wrong. ... It has all changed now. Not a real bellsnickle to be seen."
That's not totally true -- you can still see him in Ambridge, Beaver County, from time to time, when Old Economy Village hosts its Belsnickel tours for elementary school pupils throughout December. Children tour the grounds, visit the granary and eventually encounter a volunteer dressed as Belsnickel, who -- not unlike the Grinch -- is grumpy at the start, but finds his mood has lightened once he hears the caroling of his school-aged visitors. (For information, call the Old Economy Village visitors center at 724-266-4500.)
Bill Toland is a Post-Gazette staff writer (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2625) First Published November 25, 2012 5:00 AM