These are a few of the Santas from my collection. While I love them all, the most treasured one is the little guy who is second from left. He was given to me by my Pap, Michael Watson Mundis when I was very little. I was blessed to have known my great grandfather who gave me a glimpse of another era. While I remember many stories and things he told me, sadly there is much that has been lost to time. I wish our minds had a rewind button so we could play over those conversations we had with the older family members who are no longer with us.
Most people are familiar with Santa Claus, but have you ever heard of Belsnickel? This is a character I remember from Pap’s stories. The Belsnickel is a part of the wonderful culture of the Pennsylvania Germans. The post card image above reminds me of the character my Pap described to me as a child.
This image, der Belsnickel, was drawn by Peter V. Fritsch from Longswamp Township in Berks County, Pennsylvania. It is published in the book “Christmas in Pennsylvania: 50th Anniversary Edition” by Alfred L. Shoemaker. I have this book and highly recommend it to those who love reading about the history and folklore of the holiday season.
Belsnickels were popular from the early 1800s until the early 1900s. My great grandpa, “Pap”, was born in 1870 in a small cabin located in Winterstown, York County, PA. His mind was sharp almost to the day he died at the age of 97 and so he was a treasure trove of stories from the past. One of my favorite stories he shared was one he would tell each Christmas about a strange character called Belsnickel.
As a child, Pap lived with his family in the remote Pennsylvania farmlands of Southern York County. Belsnickel would travel the countryside visiting the farms on Christmas Eve. He would be dressed in rags or a brown suit and if it was a particularly cold night he would be covered in animal furs. His face would be covered with a cloth sack or a mask. On his back he carried a bag filled with treats such as fruits, nuts, cakes and candies. He also carried a bundle of switches because the purpose of his visit was to check if the children had been good or bad.
Belsnickel would be seen peeking in the window. He would be invited in to enjoy the warmth and some Christmas cheer. Then he would ask each child if they had been good and check their answer with the parents. He would ask them to share something they had learned either in school or Sunday School. If the judgement was that someone had been bad they received a switch on their bottom. If they were good they would receive their treat which could be a piece of fruit, nuts and/or a few pieces of candy. Pap recalled Belsnickel throwing more treats on the floor as he left and Pap and his brothers and sisters would scramble to gather them up. He also said that even if one of his siblings received a switch they still were allowed to enjoy the treats.
I gave a presentation some years ago on Pennsylvania German Customs. When I talked about Pap’s recollections of Belsnickel there were several older folks attending that said they had similar memories. This custom was fairly wide spread in the Pennsylvania German Community, a tradition they brought with them from Germany. Belsnickel was widely known in many regions of Germany, especially the Palatinate where my Mundis ancestors most likely originated.
I have read different accounts of visits from Belsnickel visiting before Christmas Eve. This would remind the children there was still time to behave before the arrival of a kinder Saint Nicholas.
Belsnickling is a custom I learned about from the Maryland branch of my family. In 1993 I asked my Great Aunt Helen to share some of her memories with me about Christmas Seasons Past. This was the story she sent to me and I wanted to share it here for all to enjoy a glimpse of past holiday celebrations.
A Christmas Memory from Helen Harbaugh Fogle Spalding
“My Christmas Holidays spent at the home of Hamp and Annie Spalding on East Street in Thurmont, Maryland. But first I have to tell you a little about how I got to visiting in Thurmont.
My mother Sarah Harbaugh’s (family) home was on the road going from Thurmont to Graceham, Md. Aunt Mary married Joseph McSherry and built a home right next to her home, and my mother married Thomas Fogle. He worked for the Western Maryland Railroad Shops and they lived in Hagerstown, MD.
So we made many visits to Thurmont. We had many cousins there also to visit. While visiting there, we always went to Charlie Mackley’s Confectionery. In 1921-22 Eva Spalding worked there. I used to go there in the afternoons when she was not busy and talk to her. We became very good friends and she invited me to her home for the Christmas holidays. I accepted, so the day after Christmas I went down to visit her. We just had a wonderful time.
Each night that week young men from far and near came dressed with masks and all like Halloween. The first place they headed for was the Spalding home. Eva and her mother answered the door and invited them in. There was a lot of time spent trying to guess who each one was. After the guessing was over Maude Spalding, daughter of Charlie and Bertha Spalding, played the piano. Everyone gathered round and we sang carols and old time songs. A couple of the fellows did some fancy dances.
This happened each night until New Years. I am the last of the family to know about this. It will always be in my thoughts. Hope you will enjoy it also.
Love to all,
Helen Fogle Spalding
P.S. Needless to say, March 17, 1923, I married Horace Spalding, son of Hamp & Annie Spalding.”
When I shared Aunt Helen’s story with some of my older Spalding cousins several remembered celebrating in the same way. Cousin Beatrice shared the following: “When I was young we used to do this same thing. Only we did it in the daytime because we were too young to go at night. We lived in the country. We would dress up and walk a 1/2 mile to my Great Grandma Martin’s house. She’d take us in and after she guessed who we were she’d seat us all around her large kitchen table and give us home made cookies and root beer. On our way back home we would do the same at my Grandma Stitely’s house . We were really full of cookies and root beer when we left there. Had lots of fun back then. Didn’t need all the things they have today. And they say they are bored.”
I was told that the activities at Halloween were much the same as Aunt Helen and Beatrice described above for the Christmas Season. Going to visit all the relatives during the holiday season was a must. Sadly not everyone does this today.
While most of the information shared here is based on oral tradition from family members, I have found documented accounts of these celebrations in Historical Societies and various writings. As mentioned before, a good source of PA German Christmas customs is “Christmas in Pennsylvania-A Folk-Cultural Study” by Alfred L. Shoemaker.
My wish for everyone this holiday season is that you share stories of your past celebrations with those you love and make wonderful memories this year for your family to share in the future!
On a lighter note, an amusing clip from The Office when Dwight portrayed Belsnickel.