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.