Belsnickle Santas are perhaps something you have only heard of before, but maybe weren’t quite exactly sure what they were. At Sturbridge Yankee Workshop, we have one Belsnickle inspired Santa and he’s seen here to the left in our Red Santa Portrait. Santa is handcrafted of appliques of cotton and wool, which adds to his vintage and authentic appeal. Dressed in a long red plaid coat with a hood and fur trim, he carries a sprig of balsam fir. You’ll notice the exposed black stitching and the folk art style snowflakes that surround him on a black background. Completing the look is a beautiful black textured frame, that is almost reminiscent of birch bark. If you prefer, we have our Santa Portrait available with a Green coat and background as well. Or, display them together on a wall for a charming, old-fashioned Christmas feel. But, where did the term Belsnickle come from? Keep reading below as we examine this Santa like figure.
Originating from the South Western region of Germany during the early 18th century, Pelze Nichol, meaning “Nicholas in Furs,” was considered the “evil” version of St. Nicholas; or as we refer to him today, Santa Claus. He was considered to be a scary creature to children, as he was used as a tool by parents to threaten punishment if they misbehaved. Although similar to the idea of Santa bringing you coal if you were “naughty” that year, Belsnickle would be celebrated on December 6th; the feast day of St. Nicholas. A man wearing fur, covering his entire body and sometimes even a mask, would be enough to evoke fear in the local kids. Yet, like our traditional Santa, he might give a sock or shoe full of candy to good girls and boys, he also walked around with a switch or a rod to warn all those who acted out or didn’t listen.
As immigrant populations rose in the United States during this time and continued to do so throughout the beginning of the 20th century, the Belsnickle tradition came a long with them. In Pennsylvania Dutch communities, historians note an English speaking Kris Kringle who would travel the countryside ringing bells for all to hear. Same idea, well behaved children received small gifts, cakes or nuts, while the “bad ” children possibly were given a quick smack, as a warning for next year. Festive traditions progressed in America and the Christmas holiday in general was becoming more widely celebrated, which is when we see the development of Santa as we know it today. The Belsnickle custom did not die yet however. Groups of men dressed in burlap paper bags would travel in groups from home to home. Once they revealed their identity, they were usually allowed into the homes and actually given treats and drinks themselves; much like the western practice of trick-or-treating during Halloween. The name Pelze Nichol was pronounced pels-nickle by English speakers of the US and the name eventually became Belsnickle as we say it today.
Throughout the early to mid 20th century, Belsnickle Santa figurines became a popular decorative item; combining the two mythical beings. Typically these collectibles were made from paper mache material and portrayed Santa in a more humble, less “jolly” light, with variations on the standard red coat and no expression; as we can see above in our Red Santa Portrait, his beard covers his face and his arms are tucked in. Belsnickle Santas like ours will add a bit of old world nostalgia to your home this Christmas. Our Santa Portrait could perhaps stir up an opportunity to share the tale of the old frightening Belsnickle with your friends and family.
An excerpt from Facts and Folklore of York County, Pennsylvania, by Georg Sheets
“He looked scary and carried a sack of presents, mostly nuts and hard candy, and a stick or a cane. He came when it was dark, before the children went to bed, and would rap on the window or the door with his stick,” Reigart said. “He would ask to see the children, and ask them if they had been good. He tossed nuts and candy on the floor, and when the children scrambled to get them he would switch them a little with his stick, admonishing them to be good.”