In the Story of Belsnickle, Part I, I explained how Belsnickle could be the American version of the German gift-giver Pelsnickel, a seasonal activity patterned after guising, mumming and caroling, or a person (a “Belsnickler”) engaged in the seasonal fun of Belsnickling.  In this part I will explain how the German Pelsnickel became known as Belsnickle in America during the early nineteenth century, Herr Winter in Germany in 1847, “Jack Frost” in the United States in 1859, Weihnachtsmann (“Christmas man”) in Germany in the 1860s and, ultimately, back to Belsnickle in the 1890s.  Throughout this evolution, Belsnickle maintained the same intimidating look but turned into a candy container much desired by American Christmas collectors.

The story makes the most sense if we begin with the end in mind.  Although some artisans in Germany and the United States have started making new, high-end versions in the last couple of decades, the originals were imported from Germany almost solely between about 1890 and 1910, and have become highly collectible and quite expensive if in good condition.  The containers were hand-made of cardboard, paper mâché, and composition, and were hand-painted in multiple colors.  The process required compressing wet papier-mâché or composition in a metal mold around what looks like a toilet paper role until the figure had hardened, painting it and, in most cases, sprinkling it with mica to resemble snow.  They could range in height from six inches to twenty-four inches, or more, but figures of ten to fourteen inches high seem the most common.  German advertisements of the period show that the containers were marketed as Weihnachtsmann in Germany and Santa Claus in the U.S.  What distinguishes Belsnickles from other Santa figurines for American collectors is that Belsnickles always have the same look: an old man with a stern visage and a long white beard wearing a long, hooded cloak with his arms folded into his sleeves so his hands are not visible. 

They virtually always have either a switch or a small Christmas tree held in the crook of his elbow but even experienced collectors can disagree vigorously on which it is.  The famous 1849 illustration of Herr Winter by German artist Moritz van Schwind is clearly carrying a Christmas tree, with lights, but far more of the rough-hewn German gift-givers are just as clearly carrying a bundle of switches for children who need a little discipline.  The figure typically wears black boots but some of the larger versions are shown standing on a circular white stand.  Smaller versions have a cardboard tube similar to an empty roll of toilet paper that is covered by a round piece of cardboard after it is filled with candy but larger versions can  be pulled off to fill with candy.   

The figures were almost always handmade, and therefore did not identify a manufacturer, but were marked on the bottom with “Germany” as the country of origin.  The reason for the name Belsnickle for the name is not certain but it is most likely the name arose because the stern demeanor resembled the stern Belsnickles of the mid-1800s much more than the jollier Santa Claus who caught on later.  Moreover, the Belsnickles arguably represent the duality of German gift-givers, a stern expression with switch ready to enforce discipline and a sweet treat for the well-behaved child, a dichotomy the Germans called Zuckbrot und Peitsche (“Sugarbread and Whip”). The first version of what eventually became Belsnickle was drawn by German artist Moritz von Schwind in 1847.  It looked like most of the “terror men” who developed after the Reformation, and by itself would not be recognizable as part of the progression of Belsnickle’s appearance.  Two years later, however, von Schwind drew the character he named Herr Winter, and shows him carrying a lighted tree through a German street.  The following year, a different artist elaborated on the concept of connecting Herr Winter to Christmas, showing him entering a well-decorated house with a bag full of toys.  In 1859, a German publisher took what is clearly the same figure and renamed him Jack Frost for an English language children’s book.  A comparison of these figures to the Belsnickle figurines that began to be produced two decades later leaves no doubt that these are all essentially the same figure.