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Der Belsnickel of the Pennsylvania Dutch: ‘He looked scary and carried a sack of presents’

Butch Reigart of Columbia, Lancaster County, portrays der Belsnickel (sometimes Belsnickle). The character was a prototype of Santa Claus, albeit with a paradoxical well-intentioned mean streak. Background posts: York County group preserving Pennsylvania Dutch language, heritage, PS Harrisburg grad school: ‘Set my feet even more firmly on the path into the world of Fraktur’ and Hex book: How powwow doctors plied their craft.

“It was always fund on Christmas to have a visit of the ‘Belsnickels.’ They burst into the scene all dressed up and scattered popcorn and candy on the floor for us kids to get. If any of the older folks tried to pick it up, the Belsnickels would hit them over the back with a whip… .”
That quote from a York countians found in Georg Sheets’ “Facts and Folklore of York County, Pennsylvania,” pretty well sums up the carrot-and-stick approach of der Belsnickel, a forerunner to a much kinder and gentler Santa Claus… .

Sheets explains that the Belsnickels carried coal and sticks to wave in front of toddlers to admonish them that nothing in life is free or easy.
According to Sheets, the transformation from this serious Santa to the jolly old guy in Pennsylvania Dutch culture took place in the early 1900s.
A Weekly Record story (10/7/08) tells more:

The tradition of Der Belsnickel was brought to America by German immigrants and was soon adopted by other settlers.
Belsnickel – roughly translated as Niklos in furs – was often an uncle or cousin who wore a disguise, often including a mask, and went from farmhouse to farmhouse on Christmas Eve, rewarding good children and punishing those who had misbehaved, said Butch Reigart, of Columbia, Lancaster County.
“He looked scary and carried a sack of presents, mostly nuts and hard candy, and a stick or a cane. He came when it was dark, before the children went to bed, and would rap on the window or the door with his stick,” Reigart said. “He would ask to see the children, and ask them if they had been good. He tossed nuts and candy on the floor, and when the children scrambled to get them he would switch them a little with his stick, admonishing them to be good.”
Children would recite a Christmas poem or sing a song. The tradition spread to villages, where often groups of young people wearing masks went from house to house, playing instruments and singing, expecting treats and coins in return.
“There were rough young fellows who went out on New Year’s Eve, carrying shotguns. They knocked on peoples’ doors to wish them good will to the family and fire off their shotguns to wish everyone a happy new year,” Reigart said.
The December 23, 1823, edition of the York Gazette warned belsnickels to “keep within the limits of the Hall.”
Salute This Happy Morn: A History of the Glen Rock Carol Singers,” by Charles H. Glatfelter, refers to Christmas Eve, 1893, when “a group of young pretenders, perhaps belsnickels with ambition, preceded the genuine carolers through parts of town offering a concert of their own.”
In its December 29 edition, The Item, the local newspaper, called it a “considerable annoyance,” adding that it “should not again be permitted.”
Some people also remember their parents and grandparents referring to Halloween trick-or-treaters as belsnickelers.
The tradition of der Belsnickel began to fade in the 1920s, and eventually died out – in part because of what Reigart calls “the popular Coca Cola Santa.”
If you go
The Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage Group helps preserve such traditions as der Belsnickel. The group meets from 1 to 3 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month at Providence Place, 3377 Fox Run Road, Dover Township. For details, call 266-2910.

Also of interest:
Check out 100 stories and photos on yorktownsquare.com about the Pennsylvania Dutch.