A couple weeks ago I got the idea to write a story about my family's tradition of Belsnickel, a custom practiced among the Pennsylvania Dutch folks I grew up among. Every year on December 6th we would enthusiastically await the arrival of Belsnickel, an old man who lived in the woods and arrived on our doorstep that evening carrying a sack. He would ask us to say our prayers and then he would give us treats – nuts and tangerines and popcorn balls and little presents. Once I started work on the story I posted a comment on a Facebook forum for people from my home town of St. Marys, Pennsylvania, asking who remembered Belsnickel. I was overwhelmed by the response! So many people added comments telling their Belsnickel stories. I loved it.
For two weeks now I have been getting up 2 hours early to write. Once the story formed it just poured out! The characters sprung up seemingly full-formed, like Minerva from the head of Zeus, and the more I wrote the more memories came tumbling through. A lot of sense memories of the food and the landscape and the manner of conversation and the people. I wrote and rote and wrote.
All weekend I was hammering away on this and by Sunday evening I was exhausted and done. I called it The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood. Yesterday I went through the manuscript and proofed, corrected, adjusted, added and subtracted and, when I couldn't find anything left to adjust, I sent off copies to my four most trusted beta-readers. Now I am sitting here with my “post-partum” blues – this happens every single time I write something and then send it out to be read by my trusted first-read friends. I await their judgment.
I love the story, it is a mixture of humor, quaint characters, pathos, redemption and, of course, love – my favorite subjects. Even a teensy hint of a mystery and – well – Belsnickel. In brief the tale is this: In a rural Pennsylvania town on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest, there is a Catholic Church, whose pastor, Father Nicholas Bauer, wants to revive many of the old Pennsylvania Dutch customs he grew up with as a boy. He is assisted in his efforts by the younger sister of a boyhood friend, Gretchen Fritz, who owns a little quilting and fabric store in town called the Calico Cuckoo. In an effort to revive the Belsnickel custom, Father Nick persuades his old friend Oliver Eberstark to play Belsnickel for the children. But Oliver is a strange person. He was raised by his grandfather in an old mill house deep in Opelt's Wood and as a boy he was handsome, popular, fun and a local heartthrob. He went off to college like most of their friends and was gone for fifteen years but a few years ago, he moved back to Opelt's Wood and has turned into a misanthropic recluse who wants nothing to do with anyone. Nobody knows why.
Naturally, Father Nick, being something of a busybody, wants to enlist Oliver's participation in reviving old customs but also wants to know what happened to his friend. He is ably assisted in this endeavor by Gretchen who remembers all too well what a dreamboat Oliver used to be.
So the story is out being read and I'll know in a few days what people think.... So I sit here on pins and needles. There is this strange emptiness that occurs once a story is written. I'll have to go back and do more editing and cleaning up and tightening up but my characters are on their own now and I don't get to be alone with them any more. It's a strange feeling.
I want to have this story ready by Thanksgiving weekend and I just might make it – if all goes well and I get good feedback. In the meantime I'm reminding myself to be patient and also not to be sad. My baby is born, now I just have to hope he will be a good baby and thrive.
Thanks for reading.