Belsnickel, the crotchety fur-clad Christmas gift-bringer of German folklore

Belsnickel
Belsnickel 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.

Old St. Nick’s not the only traditional Christmas character who comes round every December to evaluate children’s behavior and dole out corresponding rewards or punishments. In fact, there’s a whole cast of such figures across European folklore. Some of them serve to supplement Santa Claus, while others supplant him; Belsnickel is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

Originating in southwestern Germany along the Rhine (and preserved, among other places, in Pennsylvania Dutch communities in the United States), Belsnickel

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.

With Christmas nearly upon us, there’s still time to get out there and do some ‘Belsnickling’!

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Happy Krampus Day

Fewer Christmas traditions are stranger than that of Krampus. Krampus, as you may or may not be aware, is St. Nicholas’s sinister (and lesser-known) demonic sidekick. If old St. Nick is the good cop who rewards well-behaved children with gifts of toys, then Krampus is his bad cop counterpart: he punishes naughty children by beating them with birch switches (and by terrifying them with his demonic visage). Truly unlucky troublemakers might be kidnapped away in the basket he carries strapped to his back! The tradition recalls the old trope of saints vanquishing demons through the power of God and forcing them into their thrall, but likely has deeper roots in pre-Christian Alpine customs.

Many Americans remain unfamiliar with Krampus, although his profile has grown in recent years (owing in part, no doubt, to the 2015 holiday horror film of the same name). But he is widely celebrated across several parts of Europe, including Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, and surrounding regions. According to Wikipedia, young men in these parts will traditionally “dress up as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December, and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells.” So grab your mask, hit the streets, and get in the Krampus spirit! Just be prepared for some weird looks, if you’re not in Europe.

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Bakezōri, the wandering sandal-monster of Japanese folklore

A Bakezōri, or wandering sandal.

According to Japanese folklore, sandals that have been mistreated by their owners can turn into a Yōkai called a Bakezōri. Per Wikipedia, Yōkai are “a class of supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore.” Japanese animism holds that “spirit-like entities called (among other things) mononoke […] reside in all things.” These spirits can be malevolent or merely mischievous; in some cases, they may bring good fortune to those who encounter them. Some inanimate objects — household tools, for example — can develop or acquire such a spirit over time, becoming Tsukumogami.

By and large, these spirit-imbued tools tend to be harmless, although they may play occasional pranks or band together to take revenge on those who treat them poorly. The Bakezōri, described as a wandering sandal with two arms, two legs, and one eye, belongs to this class of Yōkai.

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Austria reassures refugees that there’s no need to fear Krampus

Moving to a foreign land and experiencing a new culture can be trying under the best of circumstances, let alone following harried passage from war-torn regions. The new sights, sounds, and tastes can be overwhelming, the unfamiliar customs can be baffling, the different climate can be uncomfortable. I’m certain the Syrian refugees have confronted all of these things in Austria and elsewhere throughout Europe. But while each element of culture shock can (by definition) be cause for distress, one aspect of life in Austria that is likely to be particularly disturbing for uninitiated newcomers is… Krampus. For those unfamiliar, Krampus is “a horned, anthropomorphic figure who punishes children during the Christmas season who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards well-behaved ones with gifts.” In Austria and other Alpine regions of Europe, early December often features “traditional parades in which young men dress as Krampus.”

Mindful of these festivities, “Officials in the village of Virgen worried about how new arrivals from the Middle East would react to the local tradition of meeting so-called ‘Christmas Devils’ who pretend to abduct kids.”

Fearing the spectacle would be misunderstood, community representatives last week visited the 22 migrants — including 12 children — who have been housed in the Alpine village since the end of October.

They were shown the frightening masks and given insight into the event’s history with the help of an Arabic translator. The verdict? The newcomers had “lots of fun,” according to social worker Nicole Kranebitter.

The migrants “will now know what to expect when St. Nicholas and the Krampus creatures knock on their door,” Kranebitter added.

She said the next event planned for the families who fled war-torn homelands will be traditional cookie baking.

What a great and thoughtful approach, and in such marked contrast to the xenophobia that has greeted migrants in so many other parts of the world.

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Why are there so many medieval paintings of people battling large snails?

I never knew that giant snails featured so prominently in medieval paintings, but now that I do, this is the first question on my mind. They do, it turns out.  According to Sarah J. Biggs of the British Library, “images of armed knights fighting snails are common” in 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts, “especially in marginalia.”  Check out a sampling below:

View post on imgur.com

One theory about the snails, Biggs goes on, is that they represent the Resurrection; others suggest they are a symbol of the Lombards, a group “vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behaviour”;  still others have described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as “a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality.”

As /r/AskHistorians puts it, in other words, there are “as many explanations as there are scholars”; fundamentally, we just really don’t know. Redditor /u/TheAlaskan relates another plausible account:

“I’m partial to the explanation of Medievalist Lisa Spangenberg, who suggests that the snail is ‘a reminder of the inevitability of death.’
To understand that reference, you have to refer to Psalm 58 (Wycliffe translation) . We’re looking here at verses 7-8:
7 They shall come to nought, as water running away; he bent his bow, till they be made sick. (They shall come to nothing, like water running forth; and when they go to bend their bows, they shall be made feeble, or weak.)
8 As wax that floateth away, they shall be taken away; fire fell above, and they saw not the sun. (Like a snail that melteth away into slime, they shall be taken away; like a dead-born child, they shall not see the sun.)
Like the snail, even the best-armored knight will melt away.”

Fascinating and bizarre stuff.

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Why do we think Humpty Dumpty is an egg?

Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall, prior to his fall.

Image via Wikipedia

My girlfriend pointed out this interesting tidbit that was posted on Yahoo! today. We always visualize Humpty Dumpty as an egg, and yet nowhere in the rhyme itself is he described as such. Yahoo! Answers provides some insight:

Indeed the rhyme


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

….does not tell us at all that
Humpty was an egg. However its etymology has a number of variations,
and it was in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book “Through the Looking Glass”
(that used this rhyme), where the book’s illustrator John Tenniel first
drew Humpty as an egg, sitting on a wall.


An 1810 version of the rhyme also does not explicitly state that the
subject is an egg because it was originally posed as the riddle as such:


Humpty Dumpty sate on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.


Furthermore, “humpty dumpty” was an eighteenth-century reduplicative
(linguistic root) slang for a short and clumsy person.

Pictured is Tenniel’s illustration from Through the Looking Glass. Fascinating stuff – it’s funny how this sort of thing happens.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on Humpty Dumpty goes on to detail speculation that Humpty Dumpty may have actually been “a cannon used in the siege of Gloucester in 1643 during the English Civil War” made of brittle metal and used by the Royalist faction. Another possible origin is King Richard III of England,

Shakespeare’s hunchbacked Egg, the ‘Wall’ being either the name of his horse
(called ‘White Surrey’ in Shakespeare’s play) or a reference to the
supporters who deserted him. During the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard
fell off his steed and was said to have been ‘hacked into pieces.’ (Though the play depicts Richard as a hunchback, other historical
sources suggest that he was not.)

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