Belsnickel (also Belschnickel, Belznickle, Belznickel, Pelznikel, Pelznickel, from pelzen (or belzen, German for to wallop or to drub) 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.
Belsnickle is related to other companions of Saint Nicholas in the folklore of German-speaking Europe. He may have been based on another, older, German myth, Knecht Ruprecht, a servant of Saint Nicholas, and a character from northern Germany. Unlike those figures, Belsnickel does not accompany Saint Nicholas but instead visits alone and combines both the threatening and the benign aspects which in other traditions are divided between the Saint Nicholas and the companion figure.
Belsnickel is a man wearing furs and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He is typically very ragged and disheveled. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also pocketsful of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.
The Belsnickel character originated in the Rhineland. When people immigrated to Pennsylvania, they brought their German traditions with them. Belsnickel was known in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. Amongst the Pennsylvania Germans, Belsnickel is the character who visits homes prior to Christmas to check up on the behavior of the children. The traditional Belsnickel showed up at houses 1–2 weeks before Christmas and often created fright because he always knew exactly which of the children misbehaved. 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.
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. The tradition fell into decline toward the end of the nineteenth century, but has seen a revival in recent years.
The tradition of Belsnickle was brought to Indiana by immigrants from the Palatinate. His garb could vary from one locality to another. He might wear a long, black or brown coat or robe, held together at the waist with a rope, and a fur cap or bear skin hat, decorated with bells. In this branch of the tradition, the father or other older male relative was often "busy working outside" or had to see to some matter elsewhere in the house when Pelznickel (or Belsnickel) arrived. "Belsnickling" or "Klausentreiben," was the "running" of groups of young men or youth dressed in false faces and fantastic costumes on "Belsnickle Night", the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas" (St. Nikolaustag), and was the occasion of good-natured boisterousness. Young men, dressed in skins and furs, would move through the streets of town or village, rattling chains and bells.
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."
- Schunk, Gunther. "Pelzmärtel und Herrscheklaus"
- "Belsnickel", Indobase
- Toland, Bill. "Meet Belsnickel, the Counter Claus", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 25, 2012
- Reichmann, Ruth. "Belsnickel in Indiana", Indiana German Heritage Society Newsletter, Vol. 18, No. 1, winter 2002-3
- Lauer-Williams, Kathy. "The history of Belsnickel: Santa's cranky cousin", The Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania, November 29, 2013
- Kline, Dave. "Yes, Helen there is a Belsnickel", Berks County, Reading Eagle Retrieved January 31, 2013
- Sociedade do Pelznickel
- Barron, Hilda. "Father Christmas." The Times [London, England] 23 December 1942: p. 5.
- "Belsnickel Lager", Stoudt's Brewing Company, Adamstown, Pennsylvania
- "Belsnickle ale", Otto's Pub and Brewery, State College, Pennsylvania