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The Belsnickel

By Joan Springer Papa

The European origins of Halloween�s Trick or Treat

Edited and Published by Michael Walsh

To Pennsylvanian children of the 19th Century, the giver of Christmas gifts was not a benevolent old gentleman who dropped down a chimney to fill waiting stockings, but a menacing creature called the Belsnickel.

Usually a neighbouring farmer disguised in outlandish costume, Belsnickel brought goodies for well-behaved girls and boys, and carried a whip or sticks to punish the naughty. His visit was designed to strike terror into the hearts of the most recalcitrant, as he rattled his sticks over the window panes before bursting through the door.

Customs varied from community to community, but the enormous role of Belsnickel played in Christmas celebrations is evidenced by the many cookie cutters, chocolate molds, dolls, papier-m�ch� figurines, scrapbook cut outs, and postcards that survive from the era.

In 1843, a Lancaster printer issued a child�s book entitled, Belsnickel�s Gift or a Visit From Saint Nicholas; children in the area presumably needed some introduction to �Jolly old St. Nick.�

Born in the mists of unrecorded history, the Belsnickel appeared in one form or another over much of Europe and Asia Minor. Possibly he can trace his ancestry to the stories of Saint Nicholas (born in the 5th Century) that over the centuries merged with pagan myths.

During the Middle Ages, the Dutch believed that on his birthday � December 6 � Saint Nicholas chained the Devil (Zwarte Piet � Black Peter), and made him carry gifts, and brandish a light birch rod to threaten the wicked. The good saint, who rode through the city streets on a magnificent white horse, attended by the burgomaster and other city officials, was often accorded a whole brigade of Zwarte Piets to assist him on his busy rounds of schools, hospitals, and other institutions.

Through Dutch villages, a Moor rode, clad as a medieval page in black plumed hat, doublet, gloves and hose, carrying with him a yawning black bag in which to stuff exceptionally naughty children.

In 14th Century Holland, while choirboys at the churches of St. Nicholas went begging for money to buy candles for the church (and candy for themselves) on the good saint�s day, well-behaved pupils in nearby convent schools were being rewarded with gifts, and disobedient students were feeling the lash of a birch rod � all judgements being passed under an imposing statue of the white-robed saint in his tall Christmas miter.

The North German version of Saint Nicholas�s alter ego was called Knect Rupprecht, a servant of Christ sent to seek out the worthy. His examination caused deep sorrow in the guilty, who believed him to be a true prophet. He appeared clad in skins or straw; because of his extremely fierce appearance, Knecht Rupprecht became known as ru-Klas or rough Nicholas.

In the Rhine Provinces of Germany, Saint Nicholas was accompanied by Peltz Nickel, a boy with a blackened face, a beard, and rattling chains, who walked on all fours to represent the donkey the Christ child rode. The Christkind (Christ child) was represented by a little girl dressed in white. Peltz Nickel went from house to house with the Christkind to give each mother a beating rod with which to discipline her children during the coming year. From the diminutive, Christkindel, eventually came Kris Kringle � so cultures evolve.

Upon Peltz Nickel�s arrival, if the children knelt and said their prayers nicely, he gave them apples or nuts, or perhaps a honey cake and candy. This �visiting� began on the first Sunday in December and, at times, continued intermittently until Christmas Eve when Saint Nicholas arrived with the real Christmas gifts.

Transported to Pennsylvanian soil, this dark and ominous soul took on as many variations in name and form as did his predecessors throughout Europe. Usually American Belsnickels wore masks and carried whips to frighten the children. If a shaggy bearskin coat or skunk skin cap was available, so much the better, for they fulfilled the name, which translates �Nicholas in furs�. Grown ups remembering their own childhood, were often amused by this figure; but children, vulnerable in their boundless belief, were genuinely frightened.

One elderly lady wrote in her journal of the year when six or seven youths burst into her home, so frightening her that she ran out of the back door. The young men, meaning no harm, left at once. At the time she had supposed them to be �bell schnikels,� but later, as she was sitting with her son, �Aunt Sally came in smiling and mysterious and took her place by the stove. Immediately after there entered a man in disguise who very much alarmed my little Dan. The stranger threw down nuts and cakes, and when someone offered to pick them up struck at him with a rod. This was the real bell schnikel.�

In early Baltimore, Saint Nicholas had an assistant named Pelsnickel, who wore a great cape, a fur hat, and dragged a clanking chain which, mingled with his solemn sounding bells, struck awe into the hearts of children. This Baltimore Pelsnickel also carried a great rod with which to chastise wrongdoers.

Whenever a custom is transported from one country to another, it invariably changes, but the Baltimore Pelsnickel, brought to Maryland (as well as to North Carolina, Nova Scotia, and many other areas) by immigrant Europeans, mostly of German stock, bears a striking resemblance to Peltz Nickel of the Rhine Valleys.

Occasionally, women assumed the role of Belsnickel. The Reading, Pennsylvania, Daily Times of December 25, 1975 tells of one who: " . . . . flourished a whip she had concealed under her cloak, and hobbled round the room, and then commenced her long string of interrogations: �Do you obey your parents, attend church, repeat your catechism, say your prayers when you go to bed, and do everything which constitutes good and dutiful children?�

�Yes, ma�am!� very meekly responded all of them. . . then the ogre was changed into a lovely fairy, and she took her basket from her arm and strewed the carpet with cakes, nuts, raisins, apples, candy, toys of various kinds, and then what a scrabbling there was."

In some areas, a group of �a half dozen jovial fellows led by a so-called Belsniggle," burst into unsuspecting homes and tossing treats on the floor to entice the children, lashed out with whips at those who had been rude or self-willed during the past year. Such groups usually expected refreshments or money as payment for their performance. This was a departure from the usual Belsnickel tradition, which had been to give, and is more akin to Belsnickeling, a Pennsylvanian custom, which incorporated the activities of mummers and carolers of old, when crowds garbed themselves in bizarre costumes and roamed from house to house entertaining, and expected refreshment as a reward for their performances. Should their shenanigans not be appreciated, they resorted to mischief making.

Belsnickeling continued well into the 20th Century, eventually giving way to �trick or treat� festivities at Halloween. A reminiscence from Paxtonville, a small town between Sunbury and Lewistown, Pennsylvania, describes yet another style of group Belsnickeling.

On New Year�s Day or Bell Schnikel Day, whether from fear or superstition, or simply to enjoy a riotous day of mumming, the entire community dressed in costumes and greeted the New Year by firing guns and ringing bells.

If New Year�s Day fell on a weekday, children were not excused from school; nevertheless, at recess time, a parade of bellnickelers rode to the school to chase the partly delighted, partly frightened children over the frozen fields. Paxtonville mothers threatened as mothers had for many centuries before: "You�d better be good or the Bells Knickell will get you."

By the end of the 1870�s Belsnickel celebrations were noticeably less violent. The American Volunteer of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, reported on December 24, 1874: "There will be a large turn out of the Mystic Krew of Komus . . . the procession will parade through our streets, stopping now and then to give an opportunity to the Krew to take a peep into certain houses to see that the children has said their prayers and have gone to bed early . . . After having marched through the town, distributing alms to the deserving poor and toys and candies to the good and obedient children, the Krew will be marched to the market house, where they will all join in a festive dance."

Old legends are slow to die. Late 19th and early 20th century pictures of Santa Claus occasionally show him holding a bunch of sticks, although in these depictions the baffled man seems dismayed by so alien an element. A community no longer wanting to frighten little children has quietly phased out the Belsknickel but it still knocks on doors on Halloween night.

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