Belsnickle is not Santa Claus.
The Pennsylvania Dutch, who were not Dutch at all, but ”Deutsche”, or German, are
credited with bringing many of their country’s Christmas customs with them to America. This helped to shape the New World Christmas traditions. As early as the 1820’s,
Father Christmas shows up in Pennsylvania as Belsnickle, of the German ”Pelz-nickle”,
which means ”Nicholas in Furs”. Belsnickle would travel the Pennsylvania countryside
looking for good children to give out his small gifts of cakes, nuts and handmade toys.
He often has a carved staff, a traditional craft of the German Pennsylvanians. Darker versions have him holding a cluster of thin branches or switches.
It is important to know that He was not Santa Claus. To good children the Belsnickle would hand out cakes or candies. Other times he was portrayed as ugly and dirty. He was intended to frightened the children. The legend goes that the Belsnickle would travel from house to house brandishing his switches in the air. He would use these switches to whip naughty children. It was the custom for the Belsnickle to receive a treat at each house. This was usually in the form of a libation. Needless to say, as the Belsnickle proceeded on
this visits, he became more and more oblivious to his behavior and the severity of his whippings.
Another tradition that is observed is that on Christmas night groups of people either walking, riding in sleighs or on horseback, would visit the homes in the neighborhood. They all wore costumes and their faces were concealed. Bells ringing and horns blowing would announce their arrival to each household. “Open your door and welcome the Belsnicklers.” The Belsnicklers would be invited into the house where they would play pranks, dance around, joke and carry on until they were offered some refreshments. Before leaving, the Belsnicklers would give the children of the house small treats such as sticks of candy and oranges. If the members of the family had been unable to identify all the Belsnicklers, the unknown ones would remove their masks before they left. Belsnickling was done just for the sheer fun of it.
Belsnickle is a fading holiday tradition.
Like Black Pete and Krampus, Belsnickle is another part of the holiday that has largely
been lost to modern times.