This is 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.