Appalachia Christmas

Belsnickle And Christmas

 

Belsnicklers

Belsnickles from Pendleton County, WV-notice the masks on the floor at their feet. (third man from left is Boss Bland-a friend of Matthew Burn’s Grandpaw Alfred Kile)

I first heard of Belsnickle a few years ago, when I read a post written about them on Matthew Burn’s Appalachian Lifestyles website. Here is a portion of Matthew’s post:

People where I am from in Germany Valley, WV, still talk about the Belsnickel and belsnickling, which occurred every year around Christmas time. People dressed up in costumes and went door to door, scaring people and it was all great fun. People tried to guess who you were in the costume, and if they didn’t, they had to give you a cup of hot cider or some other form of treat. While this belsnickling still occurs in some parts of Pendleton County, it doesn’t in my old neighborhood, the last time anyone can remember it was in the early 1980’s. My Dad talks about going belsnickling when he was a kid and remembers it fondly, he said that if people expected belsnicklers to come by, they’d make up cakes, cookies and other goodies and pass them out. Dad also recalls that some homes they visited gave them fruit (Apples & Oranges), which to him were a real treat. You have to remember, this is the dead of winter in a very harsh area, so I’m sure these belsnicklers were a sight to see, carrying lanterns and singing and hollering at the top of their lungs, celebrating a centuries old tradition from a far-off land. Keeping with the traditions of my ancestors, I proudly display my belsnickel every Christmas, and even have a huge belsnickel that tops our Christmas tree.

Both areas of Appalachia-mine and Matthew’s-have retained many of the traditions and customs brought over the big pond by the folks who settled here. I find the German influences-like Belsnickle fascinating-because they are so different than the Scot-Irish influenced traditions and customs I grew up with.

As Christmas drew near, children were told Belsnickle could tell which children had been naughty. Dave Tabler’s great site Appalachian History had this to say about Belsnickle punishing children who needed it:

The Belsnickle traveled from house to house brandishing his switches in the air. He would use these switches to whip naughty children. To good children the Belsnickle would hand out cakes or candies. These “gifts” were thrown upon the floor, but if a child were to try to recover them in the presence of the Belsnickler, the child would quickly receive a “whack” on the backside with a whip.

Although I had never heard of Belsnickle before reading Matthew’s post-I have heard unruly children being warned all they’ll find in their Christmas stocking is a hickry.

I’m not sure many kids today know what a hickry is-much less a Belsnickle.

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I was reminded of this post after sharing the quote from The Foxfire 40th Anniversary Book a few days ago. If you know anything about the Belsnickle-please share what you know in a comment!

Tipper

This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig & the Acorn in December of 2011.

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13 Comments

  • Reply
    dolores
    December 17, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    I don’t remember the original post, and I don’t remember my dad speaking about this tradition as he was a hundred percent German, but he was raised in the city. However, I think as I child I may have been a bit scared of one of these persons. This was a great story and something for me to share with my family.

  • Reply
    Frank Vincent
    December 17, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Wow…! Belsnickel in the good ol USA?!?!
    I recall from living in Germany that he was like the alter ego to “Cinterclaus” (sp?).
    Supposedly he arrived before Santa and was dressed in tattered clothes and was such a horrible sight to children (good or bad) that he scared them into being good so that Santa would bring them gifts and not coal or switches in their shoes that they’d set out by the front door of their homes…
    Where we lived in Central Germany they didn’t have Christmas parades or such so I never seen Belsnickel making rounds through the neighborhood… Perhaps in Southern Germany as they maintain more of the old German traditions and dialect…
    Merry Christmas Everyone!

  • Reply
    eva nell wike, PhD
    December 17, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    Tipper: I guess we lived too far back to know of the belsnickle tradition.
    IF IT SNOWS IN MURPHY WILL IT ALSO SNOW IN ANDREWS?
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Carol Stuart
    December 17, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    As a child I grew up in Hardy County, WV (close to Pendleton County) and most of the people who settled there were from Germany. People used to go house to house “Kriskringling” just before Christmas and they were dressed in costumes, wore masks and looked scary to me the first time I saw them – I was in second grade and I remember hiding under the table! We gave them cookies and coffee. Guess it was the same as Belsnickling – just a different name.

  • Reply
    St. Snicklaus
    December 17, 2014 at 11:50 am

    ♪♫ Snickle bels, snickle bels, snickle all the way. ♪♪♫

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    December 17, 2014 at 10:37 am

    That is so interesting. I wonder if my Stonecypher or Corn ancestors ever belesnickled.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 17, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Tipper,
    I can’t remember my Dad’s family celebrating the Belsnickle tradition. Their relatives were from a different area of Germany where the tradition was celebrated.
    I do remember my Dad telling us kids that the ‘belsnickle’ would get us if we weren’t good before Christmas. Mother always hushed, hushed him!
    I guess we thought he made that word up! He was always making up funny words and saying’s we thought! Now that I am grown and reflecting, I find they were truisms from his heritage in Appalachia!
    I know there were times that we drove our parents up the wall during the year. However, we never got coal or hickory switches in our stockings!
    Interesting post Tipper,
    PS…Is it going to snow tomorrow
    in Murphy or Andrews!

  • Reply
    Sgt. Hans Georg Schultz
    December 17, 2014 at 9:32 am

    I see NOTHING! I know NOTHING!

  • Reply
    Vernon Kimsey
    December 17, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Whoo Hooo….Thank you Tipper.
    Thanks,
    Vernon Kimsey

  • Reply
    Tamela
    December 17, 2014 at 8:08 am

    Belsnickling – I find it strange that I haven’t heard of that. The branch of my family with which I am most familiar (personally familiar by only 3 generations; familiar with several more generations by research), came from Germany and settled in the West Virginia area before it was “West” Virginia. They were “Schaub” first – then “Shobe” – wonder if your contributors or readers have any connections.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    December 17, 2014 at 8:06 am

    How interesting, a different version of Santa??

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 17, 2014 at 7:46 am

    That sounds kind of scary to me. There was something that frightened my mother as a child, she called it a false face. I wonder if it was this tradition that frightened her.
    If it was from Germany Valley, WV Was Belsnickering a German tradition brought here?

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    December 17, 2014 at 7:29 am

    Belsnickle customs were not practiced in Choestoe, Union County, Georgia where I grew up. But the threat of “nothing for Christmas,” or “Nothing in your stocking but a hickory stick” were commonly held. The goodies to give out to visitors, and the orange, apple and nuts in stockings were practiced at Christmas. What special treat from your childhood do you still practice nowadays? Have a joy-filled Christmas!

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