Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Belsnickel: The Furry Palatine Giftgiver

Today we have Santa Claus. The English had St. Nicholas and the Dutch had Sinterklaas. But what did the Palatine children  of the Hudson Valley believe in during the 18th and 19th century?

The answer in a word, Belsnickel.

The answer in a photo:

There are several variations of the spelling including Pelznickel, which would seem the most likely as "Pelz" in German means fur and Nickel is probably related to Nicholas.

Nevertheless Belsnickel is a  crotchety man dressed in dirty clothes and furs, usually with his face disguised, who is both the gift bringer and the child punisher in the Palatine region of Germany. The legend originated sometime in the middle ages and sometimes his fur hat has deer antlers which allude to a pagan origin to the character. He is also different from other variations of Christmas characters in that he combines the threatening and benign aspects of a Christmas spirit.
The basic tradition is thus; sometime between St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Eve, Palatine children would hear a tapping at their window at night and suddenly Belsnickel would burst through the door. He would be carrying a sack of presents and a switch. (Belsnickel was the first of the Christmas characters to distinguish between good and bad children) The children of the house would be lined up and asked if they were good that year, in some cases they would be asked to recite something from school or a passage from the bible. If they succeeded they got a present from the sack. If they lied about being good or couldn't do their recitation they got a whack from the switch. 

In another variation, Belsnickel would scatter presents on the floor. If the children waited for permission they could dive in a grab the presents. If they dove in greedily without permission then Belsnickel walloped them all with his switch.  

It has been difficult to find traces of Belsnickel in the Hudson Valley but his legend lived on, particularly in the Pennsylvania Dutch. Perhaps in the Hudson Valley the Dutch and English influence drove him out earlier. Belsnickel all but disappeared in the first half of the 20th century thanks to two world wars where Germany was the bad guy. Suddenly many people of Deutch descent became Dutch and many German traditions were quietly swept under the rug. 

Belsnickel has seen a resurgence in recent years. He now features in several holiday festivals in Pennsylvania and  even appeared in an episode of "The Office" a few years ago. 

So perhaps this year as children in the Hudson Valley prepare for the arrival of Santa Claus they should listen carefully for a tapping on their window. It just may be Belsnickel checking to see if they have been naughty or nice. 

At a birthday party on New Year's Day I spoke to my great-aunt about this Belsnickel blog. She was raised in Elizaville, outside of Germantown. She like many of her neighbors is a Palatine descendant. She did not know of Belsnickel but remembers as a young girl in the late 1930's and '40s a neighbor coming to their house on Christmas Eve, first tapping on the windows with a stick and then coming in dressed in furs with his stick and bag of presents. He wore something on his head but she could not remember what it looked like exactly. She did remember it "scared the hell" out of her. When she was about 7 she decided to confront him to prove she wasn't scared of him but as soon as the door opened and he stood there in his dirty furs she ran and leaped into the lap of her aunt, who though the whole thing was hilarious. 

To make a long story short this is a great example of the Belsnickel legend being kept alive in the Hudson Valley well into the Twentieth Century even though the name wasn't used after World War I. 

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