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Picture of the Pennsylvania Dutch version of the Belsnickel, taken in the 1950s at an event near Philadelphia.
Belsnickel (also Belschnickel, Belznickle, Belznickel, Pelznikel, Pelznickelfrom pelzen (or belzen, German for to wallop or to drub) and Nickel being a hypocorism of the given name Nikolaus) is a crotchety, fur-clad Christmas gift-bringer figure in the folklore of the Palatinate region of southwestern Germany along the Rhine, the Saarland, and the Odenwald area of Baden-Württemberg. The figure is also preserved in Pennsylvania Dutch communities.
Modern day Belsnickel in his travel attire on his way to scare children in the schools in Norwich, New York. December 2012.
Belsnickle 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. In Lower Austria he is sometimes followed by a creature, called Krampus, covered with bells and dragging chains. Krampus is a wild, horned figure akin to the devil. His name translates to "claw".
A first-hand 19th-century account of the "Beltznickle" tradition in Allegany County, Maryland, can be found in Brown's Miscellaneous Writings, a collection of essays by Jacob Brown (born 1824). Writing of a period around 1830, Brown says, "we did not hear of" Santa Claus. Instead, the tradition called for a visit by a different character altogether:
He was known as Kriskinkle, Beltznickle and sometimes as the Christmas woman. Children then not only saw the mysterious person, but felt him or rather his stripes upon their backs with his switch. The annual visitor would make his appearance some hours after dark, thoroughly disguised, especially the face, which would sometimes be covered with a hideously ugly phiz - generally wore a female garb - hence the name Christmas woman - sometimes it would be a veritable woman but with masculine force and action. He or she would be equipped with an ample sack about the shoulders filled with cakes, nuts, and fruits, and a long hazel switch which was supposed to have some kind of a charm in it as well as a sting. One would scatter the goodies upon the floor, and then the scramble would begin by the delighted children, and the other hand would ply the switch upon the backs of the excited youngsters - who would not show a wince, but had it been parental discipline there would have been screams to reach a long distance.
This all started when I had some sort of earworm from Christmases past: an old song we used to sing, maybe back when I was in McKeough School in Chatham where the teachers were older than the 150-year-old inkwell-equipped wrought-iron desks.
"We're trimming the tree
We're trimming the tree
With silver bells that jingle
We're trimming the tree
We're trimming the tree
We're helping old Kris Kringle
We're hanging strings of popcorn
And lights that bubble and glow
We hope that we help Rudolph
As he guides his way through the snoww-w-w - "
Inane song, and it couldn't have been really old because it mentioned Rudolph. But it would come into my head, irritatingly, every year, and I always meant to look it up. Was this a real song or what? Did anyone else remember it? Was it on YouTube, perhaps - did Roy Rogers sing it? Then when I finally did look it up, I found one reference only, on a very old message board, someone wanting to know if anyone else remembered the song. No one did. Then I got thinking about Kris Kringle. WTF?? Who IS Kris Kringle, anyway?
This led to a depressing array of information which could only be classed as Kringalia: a thick and almost incomprehensible tangle with an infinite number of variations of names based on Christ and Nicholas and Saint this-or-that, all with a confusing variety of costumes, customs, giving and taking away of gifts and punishments, etc. etc. Perhaps the Coca-Cola Company did us all a favour by making Santa so blandly uniform.
But by then it was too late, I was stuck in Information Hell. I fell into this, this Belsnickel - sounding more like an SCTV parody than anything real - and thought: surely, this is the dark side of Santa Claus! A ragged, probably smelly old man, or is it a woman (?), with cakes in his moldy pockets and a birch switch for whipping you if you were "naughty", or even if he just felt like it. And Krampus! Krampus sounds terrifying to me, like one of those nightmarish ram-horned beasts from those sci-fi fantasy shows I never watch.
It was mildly interesting to learn that Belsnickel and his grotty traditions still exist in parts of the U. S., mostly Pennsylvania. Some Dutch thing, probably, but what about that Black Peter? Wasn't he Dutch too? My garbled information about him as Santa's evil helper obviously needed refreshing.
What I found out is slightly hilarious. It seems that a lot of people have a problem with Black Peter being. . . well . . . black. (Wikipedia uses the term "blackamoor" which means nothing at all to me, nor to anyone else.) The crux of the matter is, on Christmas Eve some guy puts on a medieval costume and blackens his face and prances around. He's the comic relief as Saint Nicholas performs his grim duties. It's the blackface that seems to be causing the problem. But is the solution wiping the makeup off and making Black Peter WHITE? I don't see how that is supposed to counter the racism of the character, who is designed to be a little over the top anyway.
But read on. You can't make this stuff up!
Though a large majority of the overall populace in both the Netherlands and Belgium is in favor of retaining the traditional Zwarte Piet character, studies have shown that the perception of Zwarte Piet can differ greatly among different ethnic backgrounds, age groups and regions.
Upwards of 90% of the Dutch public don't perceive Zwarte Piet to be a racist character or associate him with slavery and are opposed to altering the character's appearance, with many of the ethnic Dutch considering Zwarte Piet to be an integral part of their culture, childhood and holiday traditions. This correlates to a 2015 study among Dutch children aged 3-7 which showed that they perceive Zwarte Piet to be a fantastical clownish figure rather than a black person. However, the number of Dutch people who are willing to change certain details of the character (for example its lips and hair) is reported to be growing.
Opposition to the figure is mostly found in the most urbanized provinces of North- and South Holland, where between 9% and 7% of the populace wants to change the appearance of Zwarte Piet. In Amsterdam, the nations capital, most opposition towards the character is found among the Ghanaian, Antillean and Dutch-Surinamese communities, with 50% of the Surinamese considering the figure to be discriminatory to others, whereas 27% consider the figure to be discriminatory towards themselves.The predominance of the Dutch black community among those who oppose the Zwarte Piet character is also visible among the main anti-Zwarte Piet movements, Zwarte Piet Niet and Zwarte Piet is Racisme which have established themselves since the 2010s. Generally, adherents of these groups consider Zwarte Piet to be part of the Dutch colonial heritage, in which black people were subservient to whites and/or are opposed to what they consider stereotypical black ("Black Sambo") features of the figure, such as bright red lips, curly hair and large golden earrings.
The public debate surrounding the figure can be described as polarized, with some protesters considering the figure to be an insult to their ancestry and supporters considering the character to be an inseparable part of their cultural heritage. Recent years have seen a number of incidents in which anti-Zwarte Piet demonstrators have been arrested by the police for disturbing the peace, as well as threats being made towards prominent figures in the anti-Zwarte Piet movement by supporters of the character.
WAY TO RUIN CHRISTMAS, GUYS!
P. S. You knew there'd be a P. S., right? In this case, it's my abdicating responsibility for the variable spelling of Belsnickel in the Wikipedia entry. These things are written by some 35-year-old guy who lives in his mother's basement and watches old Star Trek reruns all day. Belsnickel is, I believe, the correct spelling, unless it's Belsnickle.