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Picture of the Pennsylvania Dutch version of the Belsnickel, taken in the 1950s at an event near Philadelphia.

Belsnickel (also Belschnickel, Belznickle, Belznickel, Pelznikel, Pelznickel, from pelzen (or belzen, German for to wallop or to drub[1]) and Nickel being a hypocorism of the given name Nikolaus) is a crotchety, fur-clad Christmas gift-bringer figure in the folklore of the Palatinate region of southwestern Germany along the Rhine, the Saarland, and the Odenwald area of Baden-Württemberg. The figure is also preserved in Pennsylvania Dutch communities.[2][3] The Belsnickel shows up at houses 1–2 weeks before Christmas and often created fright because he always knew exactly which of the children misbehaved.[4] He is typically very ragged and mean looking. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat bad children. The children escape unharmed, but they are scared into being good so that Santa will bring them presents on Christmas.

The tradition also exists in parts of Newfoundland, the prairie provinces of Canada and some communities in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina.[5]

Modern day Belsnickel in his travel attire on his way to scare children in the schools in Norwich, New York. December 2012.

Cultural perspective[edit]

Belsnickel is a man wearing fur which covers his entire body, and he sometimes wears a mask with a long tongue. He is related to other companions of Saint Nicholas in the folklore of German-speaking Europe. Unlike these figures, Belsnickel does not accompany Saint Nicholas but instead visits alone[6] and combines both the threatening and the benign aspects which in other traditions are divided between the Saint Nicholas and the companion figure.

Amongst the Pennsylvania Germans, Belsnickel is the character who visits homes prior to Christmas to check up on the behavior of the children. He would rap on the door or window with his stick and often the children would have to answer a question for him or sing some type of song. In exchange he would toss candies onto the floor. If the children jumped too quick for the treats, they may end up getting struck with Belsnickel's switch. Although he may seem like a harsh character, the tradition of Belsnickel is an amusing one and rather benign.

Krampus and Belsnickel are two separate Christmas characters. Krampus is a wild, horned figure akin to the devil. His name translates to "claw". Belsnickel, on the other hand, dressed in furs and was very human, save for his short stature. His folk tale was passed down to generations of Germans who immigrated to America, primarily to Pennsylvania (the Pennsylvania Dutch, Deitsch, or Deutsch).

There are two versions of Belsnickel, the rural and the urban characters. Both are described in the book, Christmas in Pennsylvania: a folk cultural study, by Alfred L. Shoemaker and Don Yoder.

Urglaawe perspective[edit]

The Urglaawe religion views Belsnickel and Santa Claus as two aspects of the Germanic god Wudan. Belsnickel is the manifestation of Wudan in his Seeker role. He appears as a wanderer several days prior to Yuul. As in other depictions of Belsnickel, his face is blackened and weathered, and he dons clothes covered in fur. He approaches homes, knocks on doors, and asks arcane questions of the adults and the children. The riddles he poses challenge the wisdom of those he encounters. Correct or wise answers are met with rewards, and incorrect or poor answers are met with punishment from a switch. Those who answer the riddles incorrectly are given a chance to use physical prowess to meet a challenge. In this circumstance, the challenge typically consists of vying against others who answered incorrectly for a horse chestnut while Belsnickel whips the switch at the contestants' hands. Those who win a horse chestnut are cleared of their incorrect answer. The ones who did not win a chestnut must either perform a skill, such as singing a song, or complete some sort of chore. Upon completing the chore or the performance, the performer is also cleared by Belsnickel to reap the forthcoming rewards of Yuletide.[7]

In the middle of Yule, Wudan returns in his Wish-Granter role of Santa Claus and rewards all those who successfully passed through Belsnickel's ordeal. During this same time, Urglaawer dress in costumes and take part in tricks-or-treats customs that serve as depictions of the Wild Hunt.[8]

Popular culture[edit]

A writer to the letters column of "The Times" refers to an illustration of 'Pelz-Nickel' in a book by English author Harriet Myrtle, The Little Sister (1851). German illustrator H.J. Schneider depicted him as a Santa-like figure 'in a long cloak, pointed hood, a fur round his neck, with a long white beard, and a big bag.' [9]

Dwight K. Schrute portrayed Belsnickel in The Office episode "Dwight Christmas".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ German article on (among others) origins of Pelznickel.
  2. ^ Indobase
    Holidays : Christmas : Christmas Characters : Belsnickel (in English)
  3. ^ En Blog uff Deitsch
    Der Belsnickel - en Gedicht! (in Pennsylvanis German)
  4. ^ Yes, Helen there is a Belsnickel Retrieved January 31, 2013
  5. ^ See
  6. ^ The Santa who didn't make the cut Retrieved February 1, 2013
  7. ^ Schreiwer, Robert L. and Ammerili Eckhart. A Dictionary of Urglaawe Terminology, pp. 68-69. Bristol, PA:, 2012.
  8. ^ Schreiwer, Robert L. and Ammerili Eckhart. A Dictionary of Urglaawe Terminology, pp. 70-71. Bristol, PA:, 2012
  9. ^ HILDA BARRON. "Father Christmas." The Times [London, England] 23 December 1942: p. 5.

External links[edit]