This illustration of Belsnickle, originally prepared for Alfred Shoemaker’s Christmas in Pennsylvania, was compiled based on details found in various publications.

The Pennsylvania gift-giver Belsnickle is an American version of Pelznickel, a German name that means “Nicholas in furs,” referring to the fur coats and hats the character would wear.  Pelznickel was one of many secular gift-givers created as substitutes for St. Nicholas by German Protestants following the Reformation.  The Reformation was a rejection of Catholicism, the predominate religion in the western half of Europe, after a Catholic monk named Martin Luther supposedly nailed ninety-five criticisms of Catholicism to a church door in 1517. 

While the story of Luther nailing the theses to the church door is likely apocryphal, Luther’s theses were real, sparking a wide-spread re-examination of religious beliefs in western and northern Europe during the sixteenth century.  Prior to the Reformation, St. Nicholas served as the seasonal gift-giver in the Catholic regions of Europe, delivering candy, fruit and nuts on horseback to deserving children on the night before St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6), often accompanied by an satanic “evil helper.” 

In those regions that rejected Catholicism, it was considered inappropriate to give a Catholic saint a central role in what was fundamentally a religious observance, even if largely secular.  Many of the newly converted Protestants, however, were reluctant to abandon the cherished family tradition under which a tall, white-bearded man dressed in the robes and miter of a bishop arrived on St. Nicholas’ Eve to leave fruits, nuts, cookies, or small gifts in shoes or stockings the children left out for that purpose.  To maintain the tradition without the saint, the solution was to create secular gift-givers to take St. Nicholas’ place.  As a result, several dozen “faux Nicholases” were created to perform the gift-giving functions of St. Nicholas. 

In Holland and Switzerland, the “faux Nicholases” looked and acted just like St. Nicholas but had different names (Sinterklaas or Samichlaus) and histories.   These two St. Nicholas substitutes also had evil helpers who accompanied them on their annual visits–Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) for Sinterklaas and Schmutzli (“Dirt”) for Samichlaus–because as bishops, like St. Nicholas, they could not deliver the punishments sometimes necessary.  Most of the secular substitutes, however, were secular figures who looked a little like Ted Kaczynski,  the Unabomber, except that after spending several years alone in the German forests their hair and beards were longer and their faces dirtier.  Eventually several dozen such characters, which some German sources dub the “terror men,” developed on a local or regional basis.  In southwestern Germany, one of them was Pelznickel, whose name reflects the look of such characters.

During the nineteenth century, more than eight million Germans–and their customs–migrated to the United States, settling primarily in the farmlands of Pennsylvania, New York and Marylandt.  In his landmark study, Christmas in Pennsylvania, folklorist Alfred Shoemaker explains how the names of the two most prominent German gift-givers, Pelznickel and Der Christkindl (the “Christ child”), morphed into “Belsnickle” and “Kriss Kringle” as the Germans mixed with other Europeans.   

Although Christkindl was portrayed in Europe as a young woman with golden locks, a long white dress and an evergreen wreath on their head, Kriss Kringle was assumed to be a man who looked like Belsnickle.  Thus, both characters were typically played by young men with blackened faces, false beards, ragged hats and overcoats, preferably fur.  In most cases, they also had a few beers under their belts.  Shoemaker’s book includes a composite drawing of Belsnickle that looks like a grubby version of Santa—a look reflected in an 1847 drawing of Herr Winter (“Mr. Winter”) by German artist Moritz von Schwind that became known as Weihnachtsmann (“Christmas man”). 

A Belsnickle in Pennsylvania, like the post-Reformation gift-givers in Germany, could play any of three distinct roles: (1) someone who went door to door visiting children in advance of Christmas, often carrying a whip or switch, to determine which children were being good by asking some basic catechism questions and providing some treats if they could; (2) someone who accompanied St. Nicholas or the Christkindl, generally carrying a whip or bundle of switches and a bag or basket designed to hold unruly children, silently emphasizing the disciplinary role of the gift giver; or (3) someone who went alone to deliver gifts on St. Nicholas’ Eve or Christmas Eve, essentially assuming the role of St. Nicholas or Santa.  The second of the three possible roles seems to have been much less common in Pennsylvania than Germany, while the third seems to have been more common.  It was also implicit in the switches or whip Belsnickle carried that he would use them on the rear-ends of children who misbehaved, but he seldom actually did so. 

It is critical to understand that the word Belsnickle could also be used as a verb in Pennsylvania during the nineteenth century, as in “to Belsnickle” or “Belsnickling,” giving  “Belsnickler” a much different meaning than Belsnickle.[1]   When used as a verb, Belsnickling was the Pennsylvania version of Christmas guising, mumming and wassailing as practiced in Europe for two millennia.  In Pennsylvania, Belsnickling generally involved young men in costume who went door to door as a group. 

According to Shoemaker, this could occur any night, or many nights, during the Christmas season.  Commonly, the troupe would ask the homeowner “[is] Belsnickling allowed?”  If the homeowner consented, the troupe would sing a carol or put on a short play involving death and resurrection.  At the end of the performance, the Belsnicklers would expect remuneration in the form of food, drink, or coins (and one can find articles in nineteenth century newspapers about homeowners whose gates were removed or whose outhouses were overturned when they did not receive the anticipated remuneration).  Understanding the distinction between Belsnickle, the American version of Pelznickel, and Belsnickling, the American version of guising and caroling, is important because the descriptions, drawings and photographs in Shoemaker’s book and similar sources otherwise make no sense.

The costumes worn by Belsnicklers, unlike the fur coats and hats worn by Belsnickle, could range from clown suits to woman’s outfits to antlers, a remnant of cross-dressing and animal costumes common in the European versions.   Belsnicklers also typically wore a mask because, like English mummers and guisers, the Belsnicklers came uninvited and attempted to keep their identity secret.  As with the similar practices in Europe, New York and Philadelphia during the early nineteenth century, some families appreciated Belsnickling as a long-standing Christmas tradition while others found the boisterous, often drunken Belsnicklers an unwelcome intrusion or worse. 

Tom A. Jerman

[1]              Part II of this post will discuss the third meaning of Belsnickle, a character created by German artists in drawings, ornaments, chalkware and candy containers.  Belsnickel is clearly recognizable as Santa but lacks the jolly demeanor.