Appalachia Christmas Holidays in Appalachia

Ever Heard Of Belsnickle?

Belsnickles

Belsnickles from Pendleton County, WV-notice the creepy 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 Matthews-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 to be good or all they’ll find in their Christmas stocking is a hickory.

I’m not sure many kids today know what a hickory is-much less a Belsnickle. Do you?

Tipper

 

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40 Comments

  • Reply
    Evelyn Swadley Johnson
    December 24, 2018 at 4:46 pm

    I lived in Brandywine, WV, am 80 years old, and I remember belsnickles in our area. This consisted of local people who dressed in outlandish costumes and masks. They would arrive at our home in the country without us being aware of anyone around, slip silently to our front porch and in unison stomp and yell as they looked in the window. This continued until we admitted them into our house, where they sat and talked in disguised voices. The object was to ask questions to individuals, in order to try to guess their identity. Once their identity was known, they were required to removed their mask. Usually there were 8 or 10 belsnicles, and when all were identified, they left and went to another house to entertain. Sometimes, treats were offered, but the main objective was to entertain.

  • Reply
    Becky Ramsey
    December 24, 2015 at 6:26 pm

    In our family Bell Sneckler took a gift away if you were not good from Christmas to New Years.
    If you were good, you received another gift.
    (Great for those gifts that don’t arrive on time!)

  • Reply
    Stacy
    December 30, 2014 at 10:39 am

    We still go Belsnickling today in Grant County, WV. It’s great fun! There’s usually about a dozen of us…sometimes different people go with us but there’s always the same 5-6 regulars each year. We dress up in clothes that are too big for us (the bigger the better). You wear gloves and usually a pillowcase or some sort of mask over your head. There are several houses that we “hit” each year and they try to guess who we are. After all or most have been guessed we grab a quick bite of something they offer to eat or drink and on to the next house! It’s all in fun. No one gets scared because it’s usually the same houses we visit each year and they look forward to us coming. I think one of my most memorable years “snickling” was when we crashed a cousins 50th birthday party. We had a fellow from Italy with us and he’d never heard of such a thing. We told him to just speak Italian to whomever he talked to. No one guessed him of course. They weren’t expecting the belsnicklers at all at that party! Merry Christmas!

    • Reply
      Glenda
      December 29, 2019 at 3:21 pm

      Hi Stacy!!! You Belsnickled us last night!!!! Great fun!!! Love ya!!!!

  • Reply
    Jean
    July 27, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    In Northern Alabama, this practice was carried on until the 1960’s and was just as described with the putting on of dough faces and going from home to home and being very silent and having the occupants guess the identities. Treats were to be expected and accepted. However the name belsnickling was replaced by the term “sernading” not to be confused with the serenading of carols. I have often wondered where this custom came from. I witnessed myself in the 1940’s thru 1960’s and my parents participated in the 1930’s.

  • Reply
    Chris
    December 14, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    My mother’s family is from Franklin, WVa. My grandma told us about belsnickling, dressing up in a strange costume to go visiting and giving treats to folks you couldn’t guess, but she never mentioned it was specifically a Christmas tradition. I never thought too much about it until I saw a recent episode of the Office where the character Dwight dresses up as a character called Belsnickel to highlight the “weirdness” of his Amish background. The word was familiar to me even though my grandma calls it belsnickeling and doesn’t talk about “the” Belsnickel.

  • Reply
    Nancy L.Sparks
    June 14, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    I had an Aunt when I was 7 or 8 yrs.old.. Come to our house one Christmas Dressed in my Uncles, Red Long Johns & ringing a string of bells like you would hang on a Grocery Store door knob, to let them know they had a customer…..& calling out..BELL SNICKLE, BELL SNICKLE…. & told us we were to give here a treat.. So my mom gave her an apple or an orange….we lived in Harman,W.Va. Then…i thought it was cute…that would have been Christmas of 1953….becausemy dad died in Jan.of “53” & Before daddy died he played Santa at my Uncle Blakes Grocery Store…. I Loved it… To me it was a great memory that I have varried all my life…& that was the only yr.that she did Bell Snickling……Nancy L.”Harman” Sparks….

    • Reply
      Dianna Payne
      December 19, 2018 at 6:13 pm

      Nancy, I read with great interests of your article. Since my maiden name is Harman and my dad’s family was from Harman I found the article very interesting. My dad was Ira Harman and his dad was Andrew. My niece in Charleston, Wv., has done a lot of genealogy of the Harman’s. I know she would enjoy hearing from you and so do a I. Her email is [email protected], Linda Goff. Mine is [email protected]. I live in Gilbert, Az.

  • Reply
    Suzanne
    January 28, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    My family is of German descent and celebrate the Belsnickle; however, we celebrate him in a much different way. If you are not good from Christmas morning to New Year’s day, the Belsnickle will take the children’s toys. If you are good, on New Year’s day, you will be rewarded with a bag of candy at your back door after a rapp at the door.

  • Reply
    George Dengler
    December 19, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I’ve heard of the Belsnickle because my parents were German and came from the part of southwest Germany were Belsnickle hailed from. My mother came from a small village in the Odenwald region and my father from Mannheim which is in the Palatinate (Pfalz) region in southwestern Germany along the Rhine, the Saarland, and the Odenwald region of Baden-Württemberg. So good to hear that the Belsnickle liebt auch in West Virginia! ( lives in West Virginia also!) Pass auf kinder der Belsnickle Kommt. Watch out children the belsnickle is comming!

  • Reply
    jj
    December 18, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    I have never heard of belsnickle or hickories, lol. In our area, bad kids were threatened with a lump of coal in their stocking…

  • Reply
    RB
    December 17, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Well, never heard of ’em and don’t think I’d want to meet one, cause I’m not sure I’d fair well – haven’t been all that good a girl this year. LOL
    Sounds more like Halloween than Christmas, but probably originated before Christmas did like many Christmas traditions did.
    God bless.
    RB
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  • Reply
    Becky
    December 17, 2011 at 9:44 am

    I definitely know what a hickory is. I’ve never heard of a Belsnickle, but it sounds like a lot of Christmas fun!

  • Reply
    Paul
    December 17, 2011 at 7:01 am

    Never heard of belsnickle, but something seems familiar about it. Maybe it is a “Chivary” I am thinking of. That was when people visited newly married couples to test their worthiness. If not satisfied they played tricks on them like throwing the wife in a pond or putting animals on roofs.
    I wouldn’t suggest trying to bring back belsnickling unless you warn your neighbors first!

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    December 16, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Thanks for another reason to adore West Virginia!!!

  • Reply
    Jenny-Jenny
    December 16, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Coal in the stocking is what we were threatened with… My mom always talked about how the “Brownies” were watching through the windows and would report to Santa. Our friends were told they would get a potato in their stocking if they were naughty.

  • Reply
    downthelanegirl
    December 16, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Tipper I live in WV. Pendleton county is north of us and I have never heard of belsnickle. Never heard of the switch thing either. Have heard of a lump of coal.

  • Reply
    Ken
    December 16, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Tipper,
    Never heard of Belsnickle…Ken

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    December 16, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    I was a regular partaker of “hickory tea” I fear. At a reunion some years ago my Mom’s cousin said: “Suzie, you turned out all right — I wasn’t too sure when you were around 5, but you made it!”

  • Reply
    Charlotte
    December 16, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    My sister-in-law made a belsnickle doll last year at Christmas; first I had heard of it. But I do know what a hickory would be — Daddy said as children they would get switches in their stockings sometimes. I guess it was true.

  • Reply
    Bob Aufdemberge
    December 16, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Even though I am of German descent I’d never heard of Belsnickle or known of any similar custom. Some of these customs came from localized areas in the old country and weren’t in use by everyone.

  • Reply
    Cyndi
    December 16, 2011 at 10:52 am

    What a cute story and fabulous photo!
    Thanks for sharing Tipper!
    Smiles, Cyndi

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    December 16, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Never heard of Belsnickle, and my Mom’s family were German (Propst) out of Catawba County, NC, although my branch of the family went to north-central Alabama before 1900.
    I definitely heard about stockings with switches or lumps of coal in them if I was bad. Never actually received them at Christmas, but on occassion at other times of the year, I did get the business end of a hickory switch!

  • Reply
    Brian Blake
    December 16, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Believe it’s “Pelsnickle,” for the traditional fur coat (pelt) that St. Nicholas wears to ward off the chill on his wonderful Christmas journey.

  • Reply
    Kimberly
    December 16, 2011 at 9:49 am

    I have heard of the Belsnickle but I do not personally know of anyone who practiced this tradition.
    I am ALL too familiar with hickory and every other type of switch! 🙂

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    December 16, 2011 at 9:42 am

    I too know about hickory stick, not the Belsnickle though. Sounds like a version of trick or treat.
    Most kids today don’t know that to get a treat you must perform a trick.

  • Reply
    Pam Moore
    December 16, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Sounds like caroling with a twist. We went caroling and were invited in for hot chocolate or eggnog. Great fun, but around here (in Florida) it is never done:{

  • Reply
    Mamabug
    December 16, 2011 at 9:35 am

    This is something new to me Tipper. I’ve never heard of this before reading your post. I bet they were rather scarey looking; especially to a child.

  • Reply
    Lonnie Dockery
    December 16, 2011 at 9:07 am

    That’s a new one on me. I’ve never even heard the word. I am however, intimately familar with a hickory.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 16, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Tipper, that’s a really interesting story and probably a puzzle piece from my mother’s past. She alluded to a childhood experience that terrified her. She wouldn’t give me any details but it involved some adult/adults and a “false face”. I wounder if this is the origin of her childhood experience. She is of German descent.
    It made a lasting impression on my mother and she was always protective/overprotective of small children.
    Thanks for the story!

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    December 16, 2011 at 8:57 am

    One of my Maternal Great Grandmothers was a Wikle of German extraction, however I have never heard of belsnickle either. The threat of switches in your stocking was common and in fact I have tried to use it to get my Grandchildren to behave, they just laugh and tell me “Papaw we’re not afraid of you” so I guess you have to have actually used a switch on a child for the threat to help. Do you have any idea what the significance of the Belsnickle Tradition was? By the way the threat of switches never worked with me either as I was growing up even though I knew what a switch felt like and the bushes around our house looked like the trees in Africa where a herd of short elephants had grazed. There was a Peach Tree near the back of the house that never had a chance to bear fruit until I was grown. I wonder if any other readers were raised on “Peach Tree Tea?” which by the way, isn’t a beverage. Merry Christmas to all!

  • Reply
    LINDA L. KERLIN
    December 16, 2011 at 8:44 am

    I am German thru and thru so of course, I was aware of the Belsnickle—I also worked in a museum in Lanc. co Pa. where every year t the Christmas-tide customs were done in a first person–never was the Belsnickle portrayed as Halloween-typed figure but more of a Santa-type but not a nice character with soot on his face and clothing.

  • Reply
    Ed Myers
    December 16, 2011 at 8:29 am

    From one who suffered (justifiably) from same, I know full well the hickory wheal, although my mother preferred having us go out and cut our own out of willow (I think she liked the snap-back effect and accompanying sound of the willow branch, as opposed to the actual injury inflicted by the hickory).
    One might say in this regard that I was and am a taste-tester for rural, mountain punishments.
    While not familiar with a belsnickle, I am not surprised that it or the process exist or existed. There are so many micro-climates of diverse cultures represented in these mountains, that I doubt most manifestations thereof will ever see the general light.
    In other words, this place is chock full of known and private eccentrics, and I love it.

  • Reply
    Belva
    December 16, 2011 at 8:27 am

    I have never heard of Belsnickle either. As children we were told that Santa was watching you and that you had better be good or you would wind up with a bundle of switches. The giving of treats to the belsnickles kind of reminds me of going Christmas caroling. We used to go around to all the houses and most everyone that we sang for wanted to give us a treat. Most handed out candy canes and cookies but some did give us an apple or an orange. One lady always gave us a big cup of hot chocolate.
    Thanks, Tipper, for sharing such an interesting post with us!

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    December 16, 2011 at 8:24 am

    Wow! I wonder how many misbehaving boys and girls learned how to behave real quickly! Good story!

  • Reply
    Karen Larsen
    December 16, 2011 at 8:19 am

    I live in Pennsylvania Dutch country here in central PA. I have heard of Belsnickle, but have not heard about the tradition of going door to door. I does sound like Halloween, which was from the Scotch-Irish peoples. I have some Belsnickles, which look like an old fashioned Santa with a hooded coat.

  • Reply
    sandra
    December 16, 2011 at 8:02 am

    for once you have something I have never heard of, not even the word. kind of like a Christmas trick or treat maybe? interesting info, learn something new ever day in blog land.

  • Reply
    Eva M. Wike, Ph.D.
    December 16, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Well Tipper: This is a new one on me even though we are of German descent! Of course we have ‘been here in these mountains’ since the early 1700’s so such tranditions could have faded away. I am going to share this with my German exchange student who just sent us a delicious gift (German pastry!) for Christmas! Maybe he can shed some light on this subject!
    Best wishes!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    December 16, 2011 at 7:06 am

    Tipper,
    Yes, I’ve heard of Belsnickle…but not much of it..I remember my Grandmother and Aunt on my Fathers side talking about it around Christmas…My Grandfather was of German descent..I thought they were talking about Halloween misplaced when I heard the discussion at the time! And thought it a little crazy for Christmas..LOL My Mother always said they were a little “teached in the head” so I was beginning to believe her..I do remember warnings about getting hickory switches in my stocking if I wasn’t good, told by my German side relatives…
    After we moved to Tennessee it was always told that kids would get coal in their stockings, if they were bad..I thought well, it wouldn’t be to awlful bad..’cause at that time we used a coal stove in the house and that would be like money in the pocket….errrr stocking! LOL
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    kat
    December 16, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Have never heard of belsnickle but do know what a sock full of hickory switches is about. As kids we were told that’s what we’d get if we didn’t behave ourselves. Don’t know that the threat worked!

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