Belsnickel or There’s Candy in My Shoes

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011 by Jessica Prokop

Interested in celebrating yet another holiday between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Need a distraction from your kids’ constant countdown? Belsnickel Day is the perfect opportunity to practice your early-morning home-videography skills and encourage children to keep the pre-holiday tantrums to a minimum.

Christmas…Before Christmas

A few of us graced with the good fortune of growing up in rural German Pennsylvania towns know the joy of a little early Christmas visit. On the evening of December 6th, we put our shoes (one pair apiece, of course) next to the front door. In the morning, they’d most likely be full of candy treats and small gifts. This was, however, the only occasion on which we really ever saw lumps of coal. After all, it was Belsnickel’s job to let Santa know whether we’d been behaving our P’s and Q’s.

A Sometimes Troubling Tradition

The tradition of Der Belsnickel was brought to America by German immigrants and was soon adopted by other settlers. The name translates roughly to “Niklos in furs,” and the character is traditionally covered in, well, furs. In some traditions, he’ll even wear masks or be painted to look pretty terrifying. The job of Belsnickel is to reward good children and punish those who’d misbehaved.

The Belsnickel I believed in was a far cry from the mythical being who scared the Bejeezus out of kids (and probably their parents). In my own view, Belsnickel was more or less Santa’s brother or cousin popping in to make sure things were as they should be as Christmas approached. Though I never stayed up to try and catch a glimpse, had I known the real legend, I imagine I’d have refused to sleep — or maybe even to leave school. As it turned out, I stayed blissfully unaware and reveled in the fact that I got to enjoy the gifts of an “extra” jolly gentleman who passed by the homes of my classmates.

Keeping a Classic

The Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of Belsnickle started fading in the 1920′s. It’s for that reason that I’d really like to keep it alive. It’s one of those opportunities to celebrate a fading cultural practice and develop a yearly tradition at the same time. Just like I feed my friends saurkraut on New Year’s Day, I plan to add a shoe-Santa moment to my pre-Christmas ugly sweater party. What better way to add a dash of unexpected magic to the holiday season?

Mark your calendar for December 6th and check out our naughty-and-nice stocking stuffers for the perfect Belsnickle treats!

Sources:
Der Belsnickel of the Pennsylvania Dutch
Belsnickel on Wikipedia

One Response to “Belsnickel or There’s Candy in My Shoes”

  1. Thank you for this delightful article. I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch town in north centeral PA and we always had Belsnickel — sometimes we had real Belsnickels who came to our houses, other times he left treats in our shoes. The Belsnickel tradition is actually several centuries older than that of Santa Claus.

    I recently published a small book called “The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt’s Wood” which you might find amusing. Best wishes and Happy Belsnickeling!

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