Friday, December 11, 2015

The Belsnickle Will Get You If You Aren't Good!

When I was a child, we had to watch out for the Christmas Elf. Because if Santa didn't see us doing something naughty, the Elf surely would. Mom moved him around the house so we never knew where he was, and it kept us looking over our shoulders to see if he might be watching.

In some parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania,Virginia and West Virginia--and probably in other places where there were many German-American settlers--it wasn't the elf of Santa that children feared. It was the Belsnickle, also known as Pels Nicholas and other names with a close pronunciation (pelz means fur, or pelt).

This creature, a sort of strange Saint Nicholas and is believed by some historians to pre-date that Christian saint, arrived at the holidays dressed in dirty, torn rags and/or furs and a mask. He often had a very long tongue, and he carried switches with which to switch naughty children. His pockets, however, were also full of fruits, nuts and small gifts for good children.

There were belsnickles in the parade we attended last weekend in Shepherdstown, WV, and a treat it was to see these folkloric creatures in action. According to the announcer, belsnickles were common in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia until recent years and some of the older people watching the parade remembered them and perhaps still felt the sting of their sticks or switches on their hands!

My friend Matthew Burns wrote a fine article about belsnickles on his blog some years ago. In his area of West Virginia, belsnickling resembled wassailing, with people dressing in costumes and going house to house, singing and shouting and being given treats instead of handing them out.

I have a Belsnickle who comes out every Christmas to watch over my house. He is dressed in fur, carries switches and a bag of gifts, and there are bells on him too.

There are also (of course) Belsnickle ornaments to be had (just check out all of these on Amazon) to add to your holiday decorations. Why not get one to give that Elf on the Shelf some assistance? After all, who doesn't need a little extra help to keep children in line!

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Celia said...

How serendipitous; my sister and I were just talking about Mom and Grandma claiming there was an elf in the house watching us. He (always a he) was lurking on the window sills, hiding in the drapes, under whatever we had left on the floor. No German heritage I can find but my Great-grandmother Nancy Pawley Brown's family, the source of the elf tales, at some in time migrated from South Carolina to New York and then to Oregon. How tales travel! Merry Christmas.

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

I soon realised that when I went to see Santa in the local Woolworths he always asked if I'd been a good boy and seemed to believe what I told him, whether I'd been good or not. But then there are no Belsnickles in England....

Gretel said...

That's a great Christmas legend - and all the better (in my opinion) for being just a little bit scary! (Although yours looks like a very friendly chap)

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