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.

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