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Who is Belsnickel in Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas tradition?

  • Scott LaMar

Airdate: December 19, 2022

Christmas Eve is just a few days away when children all over the world – or at least in the United States — will be looking forward to Santa Claus coming down the chimney and leaving presents under the tree.

But there’s another tradition and children may or may not be looking forward to his visit.

For the Pennsylvania Dutch, Belsnickel is a character who rewards well behaved kids and is not so nice to the naughty children.

On The Spark Wednesday, Doug Madenford, host of the YouTube channel PA Dutch 101 and the author of multiple books on the PA Dutch language and culture, explained what part Belsnickel played in the Pennsylvania Dutch culture,”He was used throughout the year among the Pennsylvania Dutch to kind of keep the kids in line. Hey, you got to watch out — Belsnickel is always watching and he’ll be coming around Christmas time. So, the kids weren’t necessarily always looking forward to Belsnickel coming. I think as adults, they look back and look at it as a more positive experience than they did as when they were kids. When you talk to people who who grew up in around my grandparents generation that grew up in the thirties and forties when people still were going door to door portraying the part of Belsnickel. They were scared. But looking back on it as adults, they would often say it was such a neat experience that this guy would actually come to their house and talk to them. But there was this element of fear. And I think a lot of it, these are old, old, old traditions that our ancestors brought over from from Europe when we’re looking talking in the 1700s that they brought here to Pennsylvania. And, that tradition of this there was this aspect that you had you had atone essentially for your behavior throughout the year when when the Belgian actually came to visit.”

Madenford explained what Belsnickel in history and what he would do,”If we go back in time into like even in the 1800s, in the 1700s, when someone would portray this part, they would come to your home and it was usually somebody from your local community. So they knew you, but you didn’t know them as a little kid because here was this guy all dressed up in this costume and usually had his face darkened and had this grasp of voice because he was playing this part, but it was somebody from the community. So when he came into the home, he would know these kids by their name. So that added an element of of magic, I guess, to it. And then also, he probably would have talked to mom and dad ahead of time before coming. And I’m sure mom and dad could have shared a story about, well, you know, if little Johnny did something really bad this summer, he would have that story on hand to say back to these kids, which again, would add to this element of “how does he know these things,” this is magical, I guess, element or this mysterious element. So he would come into the house and he would usually would usually come in pretty grumpy and angry. “Oh, what have you kids been doing? Have you been good this year or not?” In some families, it was traditional for the kids to then recite a Bible verse or sing a song or a poem for Belsnickel. And then depending on how good or how bad you were, he might spank you up the backside with his sticks. Nothing really, really hard. And the parents were always there when this was happening. This wasn’t some kind of, like, child abuse or anything like that. And then. Traditionally, he would leave a small gift on his way out. When you look at historical records, sometimes it was walnuts. As we got closer into the 1800s, an orange was a common gift that was given or some a small piece of chocolate. He wasn’t dropping off major Christmas gifts that just wasn’t part of our tradition. Small gifts, of course. And then he would leave and go on to the next house. And sometimes we have accounts of families would would give Belsnickel, a drink or a small bit of food to help him on his journey throughout the rest of the night, similar to leaving milk and cookies for Santa Claus. It usually wasn’t milk and cookies for Belsnickel. We do have accounts of, since it was usually a friend of the family or somebody locally, you’d give them a shot of applejack or whiskey or something to help him on his journey.”

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