Tuesday, December 04, 2012

It's Belsnickel Week: Belsnickel Unmasked!

This a repost from December 2012:

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.
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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.

2 comments:

Cora Buhlert said...

The bunch of twigs in the vintage picture of the little boy getting thrashed looks very much like the bunches of twigs - albeit studded with candy - they were still selling back when I was a kid. We call them "Rute". I haven't seen one of those in years, so I guess they died out. Probably for the better.

The Krampus is more of an Austrian thing here in Europe, but St. Nicholas is often described as having a bad-tempered companion. In Germany, the companion is called Knecht Ruprecht, a fearsome figure with a long black beard and a black coat. Sometimes, Knecht Ruprecht is the one who does the thrashing of the bad kids.

In the Netherlands, they have the Zwaarte Piet (Black Peter) who is nowadays depicted as a good-hearted but somewhat dimwitted black man in colourful pseudo-oriental clothing, speaking in a Surinamese accent. Since black people used to be pretty rare in the Netherlands, the Zwaarte Piet is often portrayed by a white person in black make-up, which often horrifies visiting Americans given that black face is considered deeply offensive in the US.

As a kid, I always liked the Dutch Black Pete, because he seemed a much more pleasant character than the grim and gloomy Knecht Ruprecht. As an adult, I agree that the way he is depicted is problematic, particularly since he looks like a cross between a golliwog and the Sarotti Moor, an old chocolate logo.

Kathleen Valentine said...

Thank you so much, Cora!!! You are a great resource for this kind of folklore.

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