Sunday, December 21, 2014

Happy Solstice, My Friends, Tomorrow the Sunlight Gets Longer

It doesn't seem like much but every 2 minutes helps. And, despite the cold, winter can be beautiful. Blessed and happy Solstice, everyone.









Saturday, December 20, 2014

#Christmas with My Characters: II. Boone's Christmas

All his life Boone Wilde was a tough guy--a tattoo-covered biker who worked as a roadie for rock bands and as a cowboy in Montana. Now he has returned home to run to his family's business and to discover that he is the father of a sweet little girl who needs him very much.

from The Christmas Daughter
The house was completely quiet when Boone opened his eyes and looked at the clock. It was only seven o'clock—still dark outside—but large, fat snowflakes drifted past the window. “Lazy snow,” Kit had called it when they were kids. He was the one who couldn't wait for the snow to be deep enough for them to haul a toboggan to the top of Sugar Hill and fly down it over and over.
“Come on,” he'd say impatiently as he looked out the window. “This lazy snow will take all day to get deep enough.”
Throughout their childhood Boone and Kit shared the room he slept in now. Emily was across the hall and Cody had his own room, a smaller one, next to their parents' bedroom. Both Minnie and Big Zach commented on how proud they were of Boone and Kit for sharing, getting along, rarely fighting. Boone folded his hands behind his head, still watching the snow, and wondered again if they had shut Cody out—Minnie and Big Zach always had each other, he and Kit were each others' best friend, and Emily had God. Boone knew he'd never know that answer.
He lay back remembering the Christmas mornings of his boyhood, the fragrance of turkey roasting in the kitchen, and the scent of cinnamon and apple cider and the piney perfume of the Christmas tree lingering in the air. Minnie and Big Zach always told them that they weren't allowed to leave their room until it was bright enough outside to see without turning lights on, a restriction that seemed almost too great to bear. He remembered Emily sneaking across the hall and curling up at the foot of his bed as the three of them shared quiet speculation about what wonderful things awaited downstairs. Now he wondered what his daughter's Christmas mornings had been like. Was it any wonder that she didn't know how to respond to people whose lives had been filled with love and shared affection? Last night at his aunt and uncle's house he'd watched her and, while she was happy and enthusiastic about everything, he noticed she seemed painfully shy in the presence of the natural, unabashed affection of family members. It will take time, he reminded himself. It will take time.

He was just drifting back to sleep when he heard a sound so familiar it immediately brought a smile to his face—the slow squeak of the metal drawer under the stove where Minnie kept her roasting pan. She pulled it open carefully, trying not to wake anyone, so she could start her turkey. Minutes later he smelled the distinctive holiday scent of onions simmering in butter with marjoram and sage. He heard the door across the hall open and soft footsteps scurried toward the stairs. He stretched, got up, pulled on jeans and a flannel shirt, and began his Christmas Day. 
~~~
Charity watched them walk down the path to the tavern, talking and laughing as they went.
“That was quite a dinner, wasn't it?” Boone said as he pulled aside the fireplace screen to add another log. “Grandma said she couldn't have done it without you.”
Charity gave a tentative little half smile. “I like cooking with her. I made the green bean casserole and the cranberry sauce all by myself.” She stood silently for a moment, then said. “So what do we do now?”
Boone raised his eyebrows. “I don't know. What would you like to do?”
“We never did much for Christmas—mostly just watched television. Maybe I could do something with my sewing machine?”
“Are you happy with your sewing machine?” He looked at her and noticed for the first time how much like an elf she looked in bright red leggings and a green sweater with a pattern of holly on it.
“I love it.” She sighed. “I love everything.”
“You know what.” He hunched his shoulders and thought for a minute. “I have an idea.” He crossed to the bookcases covering the walls around the fireplace. He examined the books until he found the one he wanted and, with a smile and no small amount of nostalgia, took it down. He turned to his daughter, who stood in the middle of the room watching him.
“When I was a boy,” he said, “my pop always drank beer and watched football until he fell asleep but my mom...” He held up the book. “Mom always read to us.”
“Read to you?” She wrinkled her forehead as though she'd never heard of such a thing.
“Yeah. Didn't anybody ever read to you?”
“No.”
Boone stared at her. “Nobody ever read to you? Even when you were little?”
She shook her head. “Maybe sometimes in school. The Sisters read Bible stories.”
“Well, we're going to fix that.” He pushed a leather hassock close to the end of the sofa nearest the fireplace, sat down and put his feet up, then held his hand out to her. “Come here.” She gave a slight uncertain smile. He patted the space beside him. “Come on. I won't bite.”
She grinned, sat down close, and he put his arm around her. Boone took his reading glasses from his pocket, adjusted them on his nose, and opened the book.
“Don't turn the pages too fast,” she said. “I can't read as fast as you.”
“You don't have to read.” He placed his hand lightly on her head and guided it to his shoulder. “Just close your eyes and listen.”
“Okay.”
“Now,” he said, “are you comfortable?”
“Yes.” She was smiling the soft, bashful little smile that always tugged at his heart.
“Okay.” He opened the book and turned to the first page. “Marley was dead,” he read, “to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.1

She giggled and repeated, “'Dead as a door-nail.'” Then she snuggled into him. He caught his breath, kissed her forehead, and continued to read.  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

#Christmas with My Characters: I. Maggie's Christmas

Since Christmas tends to play a large role in many of my stories, I thought I'd share a few Christmas scenes between now and December 25th. Starting off with this from Each Angel Burns:

At two as promised, the reception room bells jangled and she opened the door to a grinning man with a luxuriant mane of shiny white hair pulled back in a ponytail and a huge, handlebar mustache. He wore a tuxedo jacket over a white pleated dress shirt and, to both her surprise and her delight, a red and green plaid kilt complete with sporran.
Glenn Magnuson, at your service.” He bowed deeply and extended a beefy fist holding a clear plastic box tied with red and green straw and gold bells. “Glenn the Magnificent to my friends,” he added. “And I am honored, dear lassie, honored to be escorting such a fine...” He drew the word out in a rolling Highland brogue—fi-i-i-i-i-ne. “...lady to the day’s festivities.”
The box contained a corsage of white gardenias and tiny red rosebuds. She couldn’t help giggling as she opened it.
You’re not going to believe this,” she said, “but this is the first corsage I’ve ever received.”
He wrapped an arm around her waist, lifted her off her feet, and planted a very loud, and not at all unpleasant, kiss on her lips.
And I am proud to be the one what gave it to you.”
She watched him as he helped her secure the extravagant corsage on the shoulder of the evergreen velvet shawl she had draped herself in and decided she liked him. His big eyes reminded her of Zeke’s.
Glenn the Magnificent drove a twenty year old gold Mercedes with a finish that had mellowed to the color of an old coin. He drove the coastal route where waves crashed with an exuberance that seemed almost celebratory of the day. A Highland Christmas boomed from the CD player as he rambled on giving his opinion of Christmas and how it got to be that way. She was stunned into silence.
At the top of a pine-covered hill stood a long railroad station with an orange tile roof. “The boys”, as Glenn called them, had rescued the derelict building from scheduled destruction and spent six years turning it into a home and studio. Guests were received in the old passenger waiting room where stiff wooden benches had been replaced with deeply cushioned red leather sofas and the old, gold-lettered ticket windows now served as a bar. The entire back of the building had been removed and a long wall of glass windows offered panoramic views of the Gulf of Maine including a direct view—complete with telescopes—of a clothing-optional beach, though Derreck assured her it wasn’t very interesting at this time of year.
The food was extravagant, the company delightful. A fifteen-foot Christmas tree was decorated with bubbling lava lamp lights, holographic tinsel, and ornaments made from vintage paper dolls of Forties and Fifties goddesses of the silver screen in various exotic costumes. The entertainment ran the gamut from inspired to insane. Glenn unpacked a set of bagpipes and played a jazz version of Good King Wenceslas followed by a sweet and poignant What Child Is This.
Maggie shocked herself, and delighted Derreck and James, when motivated by far more hot mulled wine than she could recall drinking, she stood up wearing a fantastical gold and silver bow on her head and trilled La vie en rose in a creditable Piaf impersonation. Everyone hooted and applauded and she sat down blushing furiously and downed another cup of the perfectly wonderful wine.
Glenn the Magnificent proved an amiable date, pleasant but not hovering. He provided her with an exhausting workout as they jitterbugged to a Brian Setzer Christmas tune and rescued her more than once when she got trapped under one of the many mistletoes with an amorous but inebriated celebrant. It was nearing ten o’clock when he came up behind her and, snatching her around the waist, bent her over into a deep, theatrical kiss then whispered in her ear, “If I have to listen to one more goddamned Ella Fitzgerald Christmas carol I’m going to barf.”
They said their good-byes.
As sparkles of snow drifted lazily down through the lace of black tree branches, Glenn changed the raucous zydeco CD for one of the dreamy Windham Hill Solstice ones and drove her back to the abbey. It was all she could do to stay awake.
He pulled into the parking lot next to the chapel and shifted the car into park. Then he shifted himself closer to her.
Come here,” he murmured as he drew her against him and lifted her face. His kisses were very nice and she was sufficiently intoxicated not to protest.
When was the last time you necked in a Mercedes?” he whispered.
She shook her head. “Shhh,” she said. “Keep kissing.”
He obliged her. He lifted her across the console into his lap and if one of them was more eager for their caresses than the other, she couldn’t have told which it was. His hand was under her sweater kneading her breasts and she was very aware of the bulky hardness pushing against her buttocks through their clothes. This is what I need, she thought. Something totally stupid and uncomplicated. He was very good at what he was doing—his hands traveled over her back and breasts then up under her skirt to caress the warm flesh above the lace of her stockings.

Are you ready to find out what I have under my kilt,” he whispered in her ear nipping at her lips with tiny, tantalizing bites.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My Stollen Christmas

This is a reprint of a blog post from Christmas 2009. Enjoy!

Growing up in Pennsylvania I always looked forward to Christmas. We usually had a good deal of snow and, because I come from such a large family, there was always a lot of activity. The neighborhood I lived in was rural and there were lots of kids and we took Christmas seriously, especially caroling. Every year a gang of us would devise our caroling plan of attack fully cognizant of which houses were most inclined to pass out cookies or candy for our efforts. 

The church we belonged to, Queen of the World, was about half a mile away and there was a lovely woods with an old logging trail that we could walk through. I have a lot of memories of walking to Midnight Mass with my friends Kathy and Sue through those woods all dusted with snow. Of course once boys entered the equation there were snowball fights both coming and going. I remember one Christmas when I had this fabulous hat. Of course it got pummeled with snowballs on the way to Mass and I sat through the Mass with melting snow running down the back of my neck. All of that was a very long time ago.

One of the things my family took pride in was making a lot of our own Christmas gifts. Every year we had a party on Christmas Eve to exchange our family gifts and it was always exciting to see who made what. Knitted and crocheted scarves and mittens, quits, home-made edible treats, hand-stitched samplers and ornaments. I have a vivid memory of my sister Chris hiding in the bedroom frantically crocheting trying to finish an afghan before it was her turn to present it to the lucky recipient.

Even after I moved away I came home at Christmas time loaded down with stuffed animals, homemade dolls, hand-knit sweaters. It got to the point where it was ridiculous. One year I baked dozens of delicious coffeecakes that I wrapped in colored cellophane and tied with ribbons. Problem was they didn't keep well and by the time they were transported 1500 miles and unwrapped they were coated with green fuzz --- festive but inedible. And then there was my stollen...

Christmas stollen originated in Germany in the fifteenth century. Stollen is generally made from a butter-rich yeast bread which is loaded with candied, marinated fruit. I was living in Marblehead when I decided to make a Christmas project of homemade stollen. I decided I would make all the fruits to include and started in October by filling a huge jar with golden raisins and warm apricot brandy. I let it sit in the sunshine overlooking the ocean with the thought that perhaps some of the scent of the sea would soak into them. I found directions for making candied orange and lemon peel which was absolutely delicious.

My friend Trudi and I took a trip in to the North End to look for glacé cherries and the marzipan I wanted to put inside. Trudi had lived in Italy for many years and knew about such things. It was quite an adventure and we came home with cherries, marzipan, three different kinds of nuts, and some beautiful silk ribbon to wrap the loaves.

The making of the stollen was quite an operation. The dough was beautiful, silky and rich. I kneaded into it all the goodies I had collected and, after the first rising, made loves wrapped around a core of marzipan. I do not have words to describe how delicious the house smelled as they baked. All the while I was working on them I was thinking about our family Christmas Eve party and what a delicious treat they would be. We always had the same food Christmas Eve. Mom made a big batch of her “whopper” soup and homemade rolls. Jack brought his home-made smoked venison sausage. Anne made Wedding Soup, Lisa made her cheese and broccoli soup. Chris & Beth made different soups that were always delicious. One year Beth made a cold apple-cinnamon soup that I still remember. I was very much looking forward to adding my home-made stollen to the festivities. I just knew everyone would think it amazing.

So the stollens were dusted with powdered sugar into which I had sprinkled some silver sugar to add sparkle. They were garnished with the cherries and wrapped in tissue. I delivered smaller stollens to friends in Marblehead and packed the biggest one, the one that would earn me all kinds of Christmas praise, to make the journey to Pennsylvania.

When I arrived at my parents' house it was mid-afternoon of Christmas Eve. The only person home was my sister Beth. Her husband had taken their two boys somewhere and everyone else was either out doing last minute errands or had not arrived yet. While we gabbed I arranged my magnificent stollen in the middle of the huge kitchen table in my mother's bright kitchen. Beth had just made a pot of coffee and we sat down to chat.

Beth is seventeen years younger than I am. We have never really lived in the same house together because I went off to college before she was even walking. But, of course, we are still sisters and it was wonderful to have some time, just the two of us, to catch up. So we drank coffee and gabbed and then --- well --- we decided to sample the stollen. And sample it... and sample it... and sample it. It was every bit as delicious as I knew it would be. We were both very impressed. I told her the whole story of the making of it and we decided to see how it tasted with a glass of wine. Let me tell you, it was even better than with coffee!

It was a delightful afternoon and as the sun went down over the snowy hills outside the kitchen window people started arriving loaded with presents and soup and treats and goodies. And what they found in Mom's kitchen was two inebriated sisters and about 3 inches left of stollen. Three measly inches...

Well, I'm sure it was a lovely Christmas Eve. I'm sure everyone had good time and that all the food was delicious. And I'm sure everyone believes me when I tell them how wonderful the stollen was. Maybe some year I'll try to make it again. This time I'll mail it to them.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

It's Belsnickel Week: Two Belsnickel Stories from My Home Town

Now available: A Very Marienstadt Christmas, a limited edition paperback that is the perfect stocking stuffer. In honor of Belsnickel next Saturday I am reposting this blog post from December 2013. I'm on a mission to spread the Belsnickel Love so today I'm asking people to do something nice for someone in secret, don't let them know who their Belsnickel is! Since I wrote the original article I have also published a story about Belsnickel, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, a novella about which Book Lover's Alert says: Brew yourself a pot of hot chocolate and curl up with this story. Based in Pennsylvania Dutch folklore, it will renew your faith in Christmas, in love, and in basic human decency.

My friend Terry McMackin sent me the following two stories that were sent to him by his cousin. He does not know the origin of the stories but his grandfather is the "George Wagner" mentioned in them. Terry and I lived in the same neighborhood -- our backyards adjoined -- across the street from Mary Opelt's Woods. This appears to be two separate recollections. Thanks, Terry!


          I have been writing stories to my Grandchildren about my childhood in the City of St. Marys, Pa. One of the subjects concerned the coming of Der Peltznichol (Nicholas in Furs) on December 6th, the Feast Day of St. Nicholas. We, children, were always looking forward to this day, but always with a great deal of trepidation. Der Peltznichol always had an evil henchman who carried switches and lumps of coal. I remember quite vividly having to kneel down and say prayers so that the evil one would be forced to leave, rattling his bells and chains off into the night. Then we got candy and homemade cookies. If we were especially lucky, there would be a small toy included in the package of goodies.
          We were particularly afraid of one Peltznichol who was able to call voices out of the fireplace or from behind chairs or the couch. Long after I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I got in the habit of hanging around the local brick factory. One summer day I was snooping in a kiln that was being loaded with green brick. Suddenly a voice came out of one of the firing holes right beside me. My mind was transported back to a December 6th many years before. I forced myself not to turn and look at the men in the setting crew, but waited for the voice to come again. When it started, I instantly whirled around, searching their faces for any indication or movement of lips. I perceived the slightest movement of the jaw belonging to Mr. George Wagner. I blurted out in exasperation and triumph, "You're the damn Peltznichol". A general uproar broke out among the setting crew, because they had all been treated to stories about the activities of Der Peltznichol.
          I should explain that St. Marys was a sanctuary from persecution of German Catholics in the middle 19th century, and in fact maintained bilingual teaching of German and English in the Catholic schools until World War I. The F.B.I. and government seemed to think that the associations with the Old Country posed a threat to the security of the United States and so the practice of teaching German was quickly abandoned. Even today, a certain group of the Great-Great Grandchildren of the original settlers continue to preserve the tradition of St. Nicholas, but have pretty much eliminated the evil personage and made it more like an early visit by Santa Claus.
- Bill Hoehn


Margie McKelvy:
          Sr. Maureen has sent an e-mail asking if I could send you some things about Bellsnickle and St. Marys when we were growing up in the still much German St. Marys. I have done some research about this, mostly because of several programs on N.P.R. and the fact that my father played Bellsnickle and Santa for many years.
          My research indicated that the Bavarians and the French along the border between Lorraine and Germany in the Rhine Valley and on into the Black Forest have practiced the tradition for over a thousand years. The belief is that Peltznichol (Nicholas in furs) and his evil henchman, Swart Pater (the devil) were characters in Christmas Plays to illustrate and help convert the masses to Christianity. St. Nicholas was first a Good Samaritan, who provided dowries for destitute maidens so that their poor families might get them married to promising young men. Thus the tradition of gift giving and St. Nicholas. (Good - vs. - Evil)
When my father was growing up, and even in the early years of this playing Bellsnickle, he and his friend "Coxy" Sporner always went as the good Bellsnickle and the evil Swartz Pater. By the 1930's things had changed and sometimes there were just two Bellsnickles. Except at those homes where the old traditions still held like the Crawford house where one of the visitors still wore chains and dragged them through the streets from house to house. This brings me to the collective experience of the Crawford kids. I was always invited to Aunt Irene’s on December the 6th, and so got to have the shit scared out of me along with Freddy, Dotty and Puss. (I still can't believe that she became a nun.) Freddy was so frightened of the Bellsnickle that he would hide when we heard the sleigh bells and chains coming down West Mill Street.
           After the pair entered the front room, we kids were assembled in front of them. We all had to be questioned about our behavior for the past year, and sometimes they knew a little bit more about our activities than we wanted to admit to. Several years we got some real shocks, because the voices accusing you of misbehavior would come out of the fake fireplace or out from behind the couch. We were so scared it is a wonder that we didn't all pee our pants. Then it was time to kneel down and say our prayers. If you prayed really well the Swartz Pater would shake his chains and leave, then we would each get a bag of goodies or maybe a toy.  If we were particularly bad or didn't say our prayers just right, Swartz Pater would stay and hand us a switch or worse, the dreaded lump of coal.
           Many years later, I might have been 14 or 15; I was hanging around the Elk Fire Brick Company, just watching what the setting crew was doing inside the kiln, when a voice spoke out of a firing hole right next to me. Instantly I recognized the voice, but didn't see any of the workers looking at me. I tried to see who it was that was throwing his voice, but I couldn't catch any one moving his lips. I half turned to go out the arched opening in the end of the kiln like I hadn't heard anything. Just before I reached the opening I whirled around right in time to see just the slightest movement of one fellow’s lips. I yelled, "You’re the damn Bellsnickle". There was a burst of laughter from the whole crew. One fellow said, "Finally somebody caught you, George". That's how I learned who the Bellsnickle was at Crawford's house so many years before. Old George Wagner was a super ventriloquist and a really nice old guy.
           Ku Shise (Cow Shit) was my father’s nickname, and Ku played Santa Claus many times. Once he was the Bellsnickle at Crawfords (Before I was born). My father had cut off the end of this thumb splitting wood for a fire. Anyway as he and Uncle George Crawford told the story, John was about 3 or 4 this particular time. After the Bellsnickle left, John turned to his father and said, "Ya know, Pop, dat dare one Sanny Claus had a tum off chust like Uncle Ku." After that my dad always had to wear white gloves with the thumb stuffed full of cotton.
          I started out writing about Coxy Sporner being one of the Santa Clauses. He and my dad went to Coxy's brother's house because Coxy's nephew, Hiddy, was about the right age. The Feast of St. Nicholas comes on December the 6th and is always in the middle of hunting season. This particular year Coxy had shot a buck on the first day of the season. The two Santas stood outside the living room window while Mrs. Sporner questioned Hiddy about what he would do if the Santa Clause should come to visit. Hiddy replied, "I have a great club. I would hit him over the head and drive him away." The two Santas let themselves into the through the kitchen door as quietly as they could. Mrs. Sporner, however heard them and told Hiddy to go into the kitchen and bring her a spool of thread. Be sure to turn on the light, she said.
          Hiddy came around the corner, snapped on the light and froze in his tracks. About half a second later he let out a scream, yelling, "Yiiiii! "Ich mus pee." as he tore out the back door and ran for the outhouse. My dad said it took about 20 minutes to get Hiddy to unlock the outhouse and come out. All the while Mrs. Sporner was trying to get Hiddy to come out, the Santas were laughing under their beards. Finally they were able to get him to talk and say his prayers. Suddenly Coxy growled, "I understand you shot one of Sanny Clauses Reindeer." Hiddy replied, "Oh No! Sanny Clause, Honest to God, that was Uncle Soxy!" The two couldn't keep from laughing and so had to beat a hasty retreat back out into the night.
          Such was the goings-on around St. Marys concerning Bellsnickle, and in some quarters it still continues today, but with a lot less scare and a lot more good things. Maybe it is for the best!
         


I also discovered a very interesting blog post about Belsnickel at: Conjure Cinema. The pictures here are from this blog:


    Today we turn to one of the strangest Christmas traditions I have come across in my research in a long time (and that's saying something), called belsnickeling. It's a holiday practice that stems from the Appalachian Valley area of Virginia and West Virginia - essentially, think "naughty mummers" for lack of a better term. A group of men would dress in outlandish costumes and go door to door, putting on some form of entertainment and demanding payment for their performance (usually food or drink, most often drink) - if the payment wasn't to their liking, then some mischief was performed at the offending house. The belsnickelers would go from house to house continuing their revelry, getting paid off with more drink at each house, until they were fully in their cups and God knows what their act looked like as the evening progressed. As you can see from the photo at left, the belsnickelers were always masked, so if the mischief got out of hand you didn't know WHO to blame for it the next day (the thought of looking for who was the most hungover in the town must not have occurred to the locals back then). Read the rest here

Thanks for the great stories and thanks for reading. Merry Christmas.
_____________
Posted in another forum by German author Cora Buhlert"Belsnickling" sounds very like our custom of "Nikolauslaufen", only that here it's children up to approx. 12 who go from door to door, sing a song or recite a poem and receive a treat in return. Nowadays, it's mostly chocolate and sweets (I always give Kinder Surprise Eggs) and tangerines among the more traditionally minded, but my Mom told me that she often got small household items such as shoelaces or matchboxes when she went "Nikolauslaufen" in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

A woman named Cora who lives in the northern part of Germany near the coast read about my new novelette, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, and sent me the following:

We don't call him Belsnickel, but I certainly know the character and got presents from him as a child. December 6th is St. Nicholas Day, dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, a bishop who lived in what is now Turkey in the 4th century.

In the Netherlands and Germany, St. Nicholas has long been associated with gift-giving. I live in North Germany, where the children put out an empty plate or their shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas Day and find that St. Nicholas had brought them treats (tangerines and nuts are traditional, though other candy and bigger presents are given as well) overnight. On the evening of December 6th, there is also the so-called Nikolauslaufen, which is a sort of trick-or-treating with the kids dressing up as St. Nicholas.

The Dutch variation of the tradition is called Sinterklaas. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is bigger than Christmas. The American Santa Claus is obviously a variation on St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas also knows if you've been good or bad. If you've been bad, you don't get any presents or treats. Instead you get a bundle of twigs. Originally, St Nicholas probably used the bundle of twigs to spank naughty children - in more politically correct times he just left the twigs behind for naughty children. Sometimes St. Nicholas has a helper who deals with the naughty children instead. In Germany, this helper is called Knecht Ruprecht, in the Netherlands it's the rather politically incorrect figure called Zwaarte Piet (black Peter).

I strongly suspect that your Belsnickel is a regional variation on the St. Nicholas tradition, particularly since Pennsylvania had a lot of German and Dutch settlers.

We have since exchanged a few emails and she said it pleased her to know that people in Pennsylvania were continuing to carry on the tradition. I sent her a copy of the story and she said the explanation of the origin of the name that I put in the story – that “Belsnickel” derived from “Pelz-Nicholas” which is German for “Nicholas in pelts” from the Rhine River Valley – sounded entirely plausible to her because wearing fur in the Rhine Valley would be a very good idea in Winter. I also took note of  “Knecht Ruprecht” because “Ruprecht” is a common name where I come from. 

I'm very happy to have had this correspondence and confirmation. I've also done a little more research and found out some interesting things. “Belsnickel” far pre-dates Santa Claus. Santa Claus only  evolved after the American Civil War but Belsnickel has been around since the eighth century. There is a good article about him on AntiquesJournal.com.

I also found this curious article on a blog called Appalachian Lifestyles. In this area Belsnickeling is a sort of Christmas time trick-or-treat with grown men dressed up as clowns and going from house-to-house with increasing merriment.

It is rather exciting to hear from people who read the story and have stories of their own to add. There are already 2 5-star reviews on Amazon and a few sales. I hope more people will discover this little story and read more about Belsnickel. It makes me happy to know that the tradition may survive.

Thanks for reading.

I got 13 Nikolaus kids this year, which is about average. Though I've also had more than 20 kids in other years. One year, I opened the door to find an entire girls' basketball team standing outside and singing and had to dig into my own stash of chocolate, because the sweets I'd bought weren't enough for them all.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

It's Belsnickel Week: Belsnickel Unmasked!

Now available: A Very Marienstadt Christmas, a limited edition paperback that is the perfect stocking stuffer. In honor of Belsnickel next Saturday I am reposting this blog post from December 2012. I'm on a mission to spread the Belsnickel Love so today I'm asking people to do something nice for someone in secret, don't let them know who their Belsnickel is! Since I wrote the original article I have also published a story about Belsnickel, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, a novella about which Book Lover's Alert says: Brew yourself a pot of hot chocolate and curl up with this story. Based in Pennsylvania Dutch folklore, it will renew your faith in Christmas, in love, and in basic human decency.


UPDATED: Great blog post by Cora Buhlert from Bremen in North Germany: Jolly Old st. Nicholas.


Who this mysterious fellow, anyway? Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas and I have been surprised by the stories I am hearing. The Scarlet Letter Press in Salem is having a Sinterklass celebration on Saturday night at their shop. My friend Cora Buhlert, who lives in Bremen, Germany (remember Grimm's The Bremen Town Musicians?) wrote to say that she got twenty Kinder Surprise Eggs to pass out tonight. These are chocolate eggs with a toy inside. Apparently in Bremen the children go Trick or Treating on Belsnickel.

Belsnickel the old man of the woods dressed in fur
My Grandmother Werner said when she was little Belsnickel was very frightening because he came with switches and a gunny sack and the legend was that he would carry off naughty children and give them a good switching. She said her brothers would run outside in the snow when they heard Belsnickel's bells jingling and hide in the outhouse. Of course, when I was a child Belsnickel didn't do those things but as I went searching on the internet I found pictures of Belsnickels carrying switches and giving a child a thrashing. These are disturbing but at the time they were popular parents much more stern with children than most are now.
Belsnickel carries a bundle of twigs to punish naughty children.
This was the Belsnickel my grandmother was told about
St. Nicholas, as my friend Cora pointed out, was a bishop in what is now Turkey. That is why he is often depicted wearing a bishop's mitre. There are a number of variations on the Belsnickel theme: Sinterklaas is the Dutch St. Nicholas, and there is also a nasty character called Krampus who is often depicted as a devil-like character and who was also in the habit of punishing naughty children.
Seen wearing a Bishop's Mitre and thrashing a bad child, this was NOT the Belsnickel of my childhood
A friend who grew up Erie, Pa told me that her parents told her about “Bushnickel,” whom they referred to as “the bad kid's Santa.” They said he came on St. Nicholas Night and left straw and switches and broken toys as a warning that kids had better shape up before Christmas came. I have been pleasantly surprised by how many people have written to tell me that they have carried on the Belsnickel tradition for their children even though they live far away from St. Marys where they grew up.
Krampus and Saint Nicholas (in Mitre) driving off with a basket full of naughty children
One of the oddest stories I heard was a custom practiced in some very rural Southern Appalachian areas. There they “go Belsnickeling” on the Feast of St. Nicholas. Men dress in clown-like costumes, wear masks, and go from house to house, singing and holding out mugs to be filled with beer or liquor. It is sort of a cross between Christmas caroling, trick or treating, and mumming, the ancient Medieval custom of going from house to house performing plays in costume.

Last year at this time I received an email from Father Kurt Belsole who is from St. Marys and is now a priest teaching at the Pontifical College in the Vatican. He told me that for years he has made up little Belsnickel bundles that he leaves outside of the doors of his seminarians' rooms. I think it is lovely to know that the St. Marys Belsnickel is alive and well at the Vatican. 

I find these customs fascinating and wonderful. As everyone who knows me knows, I love folk customs and the story-telling that goes with them. For years now I have been writing about family stories and encouraging people to tell stories handed down from their parents and pass them on to their children. I hope people will do whatever they can to keep these folk tales and accompanying customs alive. I am going to append a blog post from last December here that includes more about Belsnickel. Also, today and tomorrow my story The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood is still free for Kindle. It is currently ranked #11 in Amazon's Folklore category and #11 in Mythology. Grab a copy, brew some tea or hot chocolate and enjoy!  


I also discovered a very interesting blog post about Belsnickel at: Conjure Cinema. The pictures here are from this blog:

    Today we turn to one of the strangest Christmas traditions I have come across in my research in a long time (and that's saying something), called belsnickeling. It's a holiday practice that stems from the Appalachian Valley area of Virginia and West Virginia - essentially, think "naughty mummers" for lack of a better term. A group of men would dress in outlandish costumes and go door to door, putting on some form of entertainment and demanding payment for their performance (usually food or drink, most often drink) - if the payment wasn't to their liking, then some mischief was performed at the offending house. The belsnickelers would go from house to house continuing their revelry, getting paid off with more drink at each house, until they were fully in their cups and God knows what their act looked like as the evening progressed. As you can see from the photo at left, the belsnickelers were always masked, so if the mischief got out of hand you didn't know WHO to blame for it the next day (the thought of looking for who was the most hungover in the town must not have occurred to the locals back then). Read the rest here

Thanks for the great stories and thanks for reading. Merry Christmas.
_____________
Posted in another forum by German author Cora Buhlert"Belsnickling" sounds very like our custom of "Nikolauslaufen", only that here it's children up to approx. 12 who go from door to door, sing a song or recite a poem and receive a treat in return. Nowadays, it's mostly chocolate and sweets (I always give Kinder Surprise Eggs) and tangerines among the more traditionally minded, but my Mom told me that she often got small household items such as shoelaces or matchboxes when she went "Nikolauslaufen" in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

I got 13 Nikolaus kids this year, which is about average. Though I've also had more than 20 kids in other years. One year, I opened the door to find an entire girls' basketball team standing outside and singing and had to dig into my own stash of chocolate, because the sweets I'd bought weren't enough for them all.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Attention GoodReads Readers: Win A Book for Christmas

Three copies of A Very Marienstadt Christmas will be awarded on Christmas Day. Just enter to win!!!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Very Marienstadt Christmas (Secrets of Marienstadt) by Kathleen Valentine

A Very Marienstadt Christmas (Secrets of Marienstadt)

by Kathleen Valentine

Giveaway ends December 25, 2014.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win
If you haven't read about it before, here is the Description:

It's Christmas time in the Pennsylvania Dutch town of Marienstadt and everything is sparkling. You are invited to come spend the holidays in a community of people where tradition is strong and love is all around. 
  •  When The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood was released in 2011 it quickly climbed Amazon's charts to #1 in Folklore. This novella tells the story of a sad, lonely man who finds joy and love when he is persuaded to play the folkloric role of Belsnickel for the children of Marienstadt. 
  • Published in 2013 The Christmas Daughter: A Marienstadt Story, is a novel about Boone Wilde, a former biker and heartthrob, who discovers he has a 12 year old daughter who needs him--a daughter that he comes to need even more. 
  • New for 2014 is the story, Treeing, in which a solitary antiques dealer is on a quest to find a holiday punch bowl for a traditional Marienstadt Treeing party and who finds much more in the process. 
  • In addition, Lola Eckert, the founder of Lola's Strudel Shop, a Marienstadt institution, shares with readers a collection of her most requested holiday recipes. Included are instructions for making strudel, including five strudels mentioned in the stories, plus keuchels, apple and peach dumplings, rhubarb tarts and more. 
This is a Limited Edition Gift Book for Christmas 2014.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Christmas in Marienstadt at a Special Stocking Stuffer Price!

A Very Marienstadt Christmas is now available at the lowest price Amazon would let me make it! This is a Limited Edition paperback for Christmas 2014.


Welcome to Marienstadt, my fictional hometown in The Pennsylvania Wilds, where herds of elk roam freely, down-home Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is delicious, and people are neighborly even if a little bit crazy! The stories in this collection are based on legends and customs I grew up with. December 6th is the Feast of St. Nicholas and we had visits from the ferocious, folkloric Belsnickel every year. Treeing is a custom that was practiced all over town but that I have never encountered anywhere else. The Christmas Daughter is just a sweet, tender story about a big, bad, tough guy whose heart is softened by a sweet, little girl who needs him. I hope you will enjoy these stories and come back to visit in my other Marienstadt tales.

It's Christmas time in the Pennsylvania Dutch town of Marienstadt and everything is sparkling. You are invited to come spend the holidays in a community of people where tradition is strong and love is all around. 
  •  When The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood was released in 2011 it quickly climbed Amazon's charts to #1 in Folklore. This novella tells the story of a sad, lonely man who finds joy and love when he is persuaded to play the folkloric role of Belsnickel for the children of Marienstadt. 
  • Published in 2013 The Christmas Daughter: A Marienstadt Story, is a novel about Boone Wilde, a former biker and heartthrob, who discovers he has a 12 year old daughter who needs him--a daughter that he comes to need even more. 
  • New for 2014 is the story, Treeing, in which a solitary antiques dealer is on a quest to find a holiday punch bowl for a traditional Marienstadt Treeing party and who finds much more in the process. 
  • In addition, Lola Eckert, the founder of Lola's Strudel Shop, a Marienstadt institution, shares with readers a collection of her most requested holiday recipes. Included are instructions for making strudel, including five strudels mentioned in the stories, plus keuchels, apple and peach dumplings, rhubarb tarts and more. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

It's Belsnickel Week: Everyone! Spread the Belsnickel Love.

Now available: A Very Marienstadt Christmas, a limited edition paperback that is the perfect stocking stuffer. In honor of Belsnickel next Saturday I am reposting this blog post from December 2010. I'm on a mission to spread the Belsnickel Love so today I'm asking people to do something nice for someone in secret, don't let them know who their Belsnickel is! Since I wrote the original article I have also published a story about Belsnickel, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, a novella about which Book Lover's Alert says: Brew yourself a pot of hot chocolate and curl up with this story. Based in Pennsylvania Dutch folklore, it will renew your faith in Christmas, in love, and in basic human decency.

Dec. 6, 2010: Since today is the Feast of St.Nicholas, or Belsnickel as it was known during my childhood, I am reprinting one of the stories in my cookbook/memoir, Fry Bacon, Add Onions. Enjoy. And if you hear a jingling sound outside your door tonight, you better be good and say your prayers!

No book about a Pennsylvania Dutch childhood would be complete without a few words about Belsnickel. Every year on the Eve of St. Nicholas’s Feast Day, December 6th, we looked forward to a visit from Belsnickel. It is a tradition that began among Pennsylvania Dutch people in the early 19th century and was quite popular when I was a kid. My sisters Lisa and Anne have carried on the tradition for their children which I am happy to know.

The name “Belsnickle” is believed to be a derivation of “Pelz Nicholas” or “St. Nicholas in furs”. Pictures of St. Nicholas always show him wearing a long, fur-trimmed cloak and carrying a huge sack as he walks through the forest accompanied by deer, rabbits and other woodland creatures.

Gram Werner told me that when she was a child Belsnickel was quite fearsome. She said when they heard the sleigh bells ringing, that signaled his approach, through the cold and snowy night, her brothers would run outside in the snow and hide in the outhouse. Legend was that Belsnickel knew who had misbehaved and was likely to carry off very naughty children and give them a good thrashing.

By the time I was a kid Belsnickel had mellowed somewhat. He would arrive and we had to be ready, freshly bathed and in our pajamas (though I suspect that was my mother’s contribution to the tradition). He would ask if we had been good and then we would kneel at his feet and say our prayers. After that he would open his huge sack and give us tangerines, nuts, popcorn balls and other treats.

When I was quite young we had real actual Belsnickels in fur-trimmed red outfits that came to the house. I know now that it was usually Sonny Seelye who undertook that job. Sonny and his sweet wife Mary were two of the nicest people in our neighborhood. They had no children of their own but sure were good to the neighborhood kids. Mary was my first 4-H leader and is the person who taught me how to sew, something I’ve never been able to thank her enough for. Sonny had this marvelous train set that all the kids in the neighborhood remember with fondness.

One year it was my Aunt Rosie who played Belsnickel for us. That was the year Belsnickel had laryngitis and couldn’t talk, no doubt because we would have recognized her voice immediately. Actually, I only found this out when she told me a couple weeks ago.

Later, when there were no available Belsnickels, we would leave our shoes outside the door. When we heard the sleigh bells ringing we had to wait and then go outside to find our shoes full of treats. This is the tradition that Lisa and Anne have continued for their children.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 28, 2014

NEW! A Gift Book for Christmas 2014 Only

Because my Marienstadt stories have been so well-received, especially for the holidays, I decided to put together a collection that is only be available in paperback, and only for a limited time. It is called A Very Marienstadt Christmas and this is what is inside:

It’s Christmas time in the Pennsylvania Dutch town of Marienstadt and everything is sparkling. You are invited to come spend the holidays in a community of people where tradition is strong and love is all around. 

When The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt’s Wood was released in 2011 it quickly climbed Amazon’s charts to #1 in Folklore. This novella tells the story of a sad, lonely man who finds joy and love when he is persuaded to play the folkloric role of 
Belsnickel for the children of Marienstadt.

Published in 2013 The Christmas Daughter: A Marienstadt Story, is a novel about Boone Wilde, a former biker and heartthrob, who discovers he has a 12 year old daughter who needs him--a daughter that he comes to need even more.

New for 2014 is the story, Treeing, in which a solitary antiques dealer is on a quest to find a holiday punch bowl for a traditional Marienstadt Treeing party and who finds much more in the process.

In addition, Lola Eckert, the founder of Lola’s Strudel Shop, a Marienstadt institution, shares with readers a collection of her most requested holiday recipes. Included are instructions for making strudel, including five strudels mentioned in the stories, plus keuchels, apple and peach dumplings, rhubarb tarts and more.


This is a Limited Edition Gift Book for Christmas 2014.

I am going to try to make this as affordable as possible and am working with CreateSpace to keep the price below $10 so it makes a great stocking stuffer. If you have enjoyed holidays in Marienstadt and want to share them with others, this is a great way to do it. It is now available.

Merry Christmas from Marienstadt and Thanks for reading!!!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Captin Gruchy's Angels, The Old North Church, Boston

Where does this go?” Joe asked as he followed Trent into the tunnel.
I’m not sure. The problem is when you’re underground you have no idea which direction you’re going in. When I was a kid my brother and I used to sneak into these tunnels when we were supposed to be helping Pop work.” Trent laughed. “I don’t want to go too far because it’s way too easy to get good and lost down here. Look.” He illuminated an archway with a door set into it. “I don’t know where that goes but I’ll bet it’s to a different house. There’s a lot of places where the tunnels caved in or somebody blocked them off.”
Are there any entrances that aren’t through someone’s basement?”
Yeah. A few. There’s a stone wall that runs along an alley off Myrtle Street that has an entrance. You’d never see it if you didn’t know to look for it because it’s covered in vines. Look at that.” Trent ducked his head and went down three steps into a somewhat larger area. Joe followed and found he could stand up straight. Three brick arches opened in different directions. One had been sealed shut with cement, but the others led off into darkness.
I had no idea.” Joe pointed. “Shine your light in there for a minute.”
Trent did so, but the light only penetrated a few yards into blackness. “Pop told me there’s a tunnel in the North End that runs under the Old North Church all the way down to the wharf. He said there was a guy called Captain Gruchy who was a privateer, licensed by the King of England to capture French ships during the war with France. He said that one time this pirate took a ship headed for a convent in Quebec and he commandeered a bunch of religious statues. He brought four angels through the tunnel from his ship to the Old North Church. They’re still there.”
Joe turned to look at him. “Is that true?”
I dunno but I know a whole hell of a lot of hooch was carried through these tunnels by the old rum-runners and then again during Prohibition.”

In The Crazy Old Lady's Secret: Beacon Hill Chronicles, Volume 4 I wove a lot of legends, history, and other curiosities in the story. In the scene above, gardener Trent Doyle takes his long-time friend and writer, Joe Quinn, into the tunnels that connect the lavish townhouses on Beacon Hill. As they explore the tunnels, Trent tells Joe about the legend of Captain Gruchy and the angels that decorate the organ in the Old North Church--before they find the dead body, of course.

From Stolen Treasures In The Old North Church: The four angels standing on columns just in front of the church’s organ on the second floor gallery were never intended to be inside the Old North Church. They were hand carved in what is now known as Belgium in the early 1600s. In 1746, the angels were on board a French ship bound for Quebec where they were supposed to be given as a present to a new Catholic convent. But the angels never made it!

Just off the coast of Nova Scotia, a British privateer, Captain Thomas Gruchy captured the French ship. At the time, France and England were at war. The King of England, King George II, had given ship captains permission to capture foreign vessels during wartime, thus turning the captains into privateers. Privateers were allowed to commandeer ships, impress sailors, and plunder cargo goods- much like pirates. Unlike a pirate however, privateers had permission from their government to do so.

Once the French ship was in his possession, Captain Gruchy took all of the goods back to his homeport of Boston where he then sold them for a pretty nice profit. However, when he found the four angels, he decided his best option would be to donate them to his church. Lucky for Old North, Captain Gruchy was a member of the congregation! The angels have graced the second floor gallery ever since, which means the Old North Church has been displaying stolen treasure for over 260 years.

Is this story true? Who knows. But it is a great story that needs to be preserved.
THE CRAZY OLD LADY'S SECRET
Thanks for reading.


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