Etymology: Due to the homophone or same sounding words, it is a portmanteau of German belzen/pelzen (to wallop or beat) or possibly bels/pels (fur) and nickel for Saint Nicholas. Alternatively, “bels or pels” meaning fur
Also called: Bell Sniggle, Bellzebub, Belschnickel, Belzeniggl, Belznickel, Black Pit, Buzebergt, Christmas Woman, Drapp, Gumphinkel, Hans Muff, Hanstrapp, Knecht Ruprecht, Kriskinkle, Pelzebock, Pelsnichol, Pelznickel, Pelznikel, Rumpelklas, Schmutzli, Stoppklos, Xmas Woman
The character of Belsnickel is another character from German and Pennsylvania Dutch cultures who appears during the wintertime, Christmas, and Yule traditions. Belsnickel is even known to make appearances in some communities of Santa Catarina, Brazil.
In more recent times, Belsnickel is more friendly, much like the Zwarte Piet tradition of the Netherlands and not as scary as the seemingly darker figure of Krampus. Though Belsnickel will still come to punish misbehaving children while rewarding those who are well behaved.
It can vary slightly what Belsnickel looks like. One source says they wear a black mask and carries a large black sack who then announces his arrival by knocking on windows or doors before bedtime on Christmas night. The family is expected of course to let Belsnickel in so he can hand out toys and gifts to good children and hickory switches to the misbehaving ones accordingly.
Other descriptions of Belsnickel say he’s filthy and dressed up in rags or furs. Clothing is often tattered or in some cases, a woman’s garb. Additional features will include a blackface, intended to be soot to show he’s dirty or he’s wearing a mask, bell, whip, and his pockets full of candy or nuts to pass out to good children. Sometimes Belsnickel will be more animal-like with horns and have a long tongue much like various images of Krampus. Another version of Belsnickel says they are a slender figure dressed in white who slips through keyholes in order to leave their gifts.
Bringing The Holiday Spirit!
The character of Belsnickel hails from the Palatine region of Germany along the Rhine, Saarland, and Odenwald area where he is sometimes a companion of Saint Nicholas. Alternatively, Belsnickel may arrive on his own, independent of Saint Nicholas.
When the American colonies were first established by the Puritans in the 1700s, they had banned the celebrations of Christmas as they felt them to be too pagan, taking away from the focus of honoring and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Plus, celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness, and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.
One step on the way to helping with that is the arrival of German and Swiss immigrants, bringing with them their traditions and celebrations. Settling in the Pennsylvania area, the image of Belsnickel helped to bring many of the Christmas traditions with family and friends gathering, singing, eating, and exchanging gifts. The Puritan colonies to the north didn’t pay much attention to what was happening south of them.
Today, many of these celebrations still continue in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities with some of these traditions extending as far west as Indiana.
This one can vary. In some places, Belsnickel will arrive a couple weeks before Christmas or he arrives on Christmas Eve to pass out his goodies or punishments. Often, an older, male member of the family, either father or uncle will come dressed up as Belsnickel. The first hints of Belsnickel’s arrival are heard by his tapping on the windows and then knocking at the door. Any frightened children who run away are gathered up by the parents and lined up so they can be questioned by Belsnickel if they’ve been good, to recite poems, a bible passage, or do a simple math equation.
After that, Belsnickel would spread or toss out various treats on the floor for the children to get. Any child too eager and excited or greedy would be hit by Belsnickel’s switch to remind them to be good.
Belsnickel doesn’t accompany Saint Nicholas, he will appear either the night before Saint Nicholas’ Day or Christmas Eve or sometime in the one to two weeks before Christmas to hand out his gifts and treats or dish out punishments.
Other companions of Saint Nicholas such as Zwart Piete and Knecht Ruprecht are known to accompany Saint Nicholas.
Knecht Ruprecht – Belsnickel has also been identified as just another name for this gift giving companion of Saint Nicholas in Germany. Knecht Ruprecht is known for wearing brown robes with a pointed hood and walking with a limp from a child injury.
Crime & Punishment
Receiving punishment from Belsnickel is comparably far tamer than one from Krampus. Belsnickel is known for handing out switches to naughty children as a reminder to be good.
Ominous Threat – There are versions of Belsnickel’s myth that say he will drag unruly children off into the forest for their behavior. Exactly what he does, is never specified.
Also called Klausentreiben , this activity is similar to mummery, in the 19th century, people would go out, getting drunk as they vandalized the city and played pranks. This will occur on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day, much like Krampusnacht where there is a parade or procession ringing bells.
On the South Shore of Nova Scotia, Canada, people will dress in multiple layers of clothing with scarves covering their faces when they go out Belsnickling. They would be given food and drink until people could guess who it was before the revelers moved onto the next house.