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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The strange Christmas custom of Tió de Nadal

Photograph of a typical contemporary Tió

Image via Wikipedia

There are many holiday traditions that might seem a bit unusual upon closer inspection, and Christmas has more than its fair share (see Krampus, for example). One of the most unique and bizarre Christmas customs comes from Catalonia, Spain: Tió de Nadal (the “Christmas log”), also known as the “Caga tió,” literally meaning “the pooping log.”

The Tió de Nadal, according to Wikipedia, is a popular character in Catalan mythology. Basically, it’s a small, hollow log, typically adorned with legs, a face, and a festive hat. Sounds cute!–but there’s more. Wikipedia goes on:

Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), one gives the tió a little bit to “eat” every night and usually covers him with a little blanket so that he will not be cold at night.

On Christmas day or, depending on the particular household, on Christmas Eve, one puts the tió
partly into the fireplace and orders it to “poop” (the fire part of
this tradition is no longer as widespread as it once was, since many
modern homes do not have a fireplace). To make him “poop”, one beats him
with sticks, while singing various songs of Tió de Nadal.

The tió does not drop larger objects, as those are brought by the Three Wise Men. It does leave candies, nuts and torrons.
Depending on the part of Catalonia, it may also give out dried figs.
When nothing is left to “poop”, it drops a salt herring, a head of
garlic, an onion or “urinates”. What comes out of the tió is a communal rather than individual gift, shared by everyone present.

Catalans even sing carols to the Tió de Nadal. Here’s one such song (translation included):

caga tió,

caga torró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
caga tió!”

poop log,

poop turrón,
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don’t poop well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
poop log!

giving log,

give us treats,
give us sweets!
if you don’t want to give,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
give it up!

 

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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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