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’!