Another whipping character from Germany that has taken root in the US state of Pennsylvania is that of Belsnickel. Masked, and dressed in tattered clothes and furs- very much like the alpine Christmas bogeymen-Belsnickel visits children in the early days of December. He comes equipped with a sack of sweets- and a whip. However, Belsnickels’ aim isn’t to punish the naughty and reward the good but to persuade all children to mend their behavior.
Belsnickels’ name matches his dual purpose. It comes from the German for a smack, suffixed with ‘nickel’ for St. Nicholas. This is because, unlike many of his other European counterparts, Belsnickle combines the benign gift-giving aspect of St Nicholas with a more feral festive presence.
Originally native of the Rhineland, Belsnickel accompanied German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth century. The Belsnickel tradition began to be recorded soon afterward. On December 5th, just before St Nicholas day, groups of young men were observed dressing up in skins and furs to celebrate ‘Belsnickle Night.’ They roamed the streets of their settlements, rattling chains and bells and acting boisterously, in imitation of the rites of Krampus.
Elsewhere, Belsnickel, himself was at large. Jacob Brown of Maryland described a visit from Belsnickel sometime around 1830. Browns’ Belsnickel was also called Kriskinkle and sometimes even The Christmas Woman- because he often dressed in women’s clothes. He made his appearance one or two weeks before Christmas. The figure of Belsnickel was probably undertaken by the Father of the house, who had previously absented himself under the pretense of work.
According to Brown, sometime after dark, a mysterious figure in a long robe and hood arrived, bearing a sack crammed with goodies: cakes, fruit and nuts- and a long hazel stick. This character would rap on the window of the house and ask for admittance. The children of the house would only let him in if he answered a question or sang them a song. However, once inside, Belsnickel would scatter the contents of his sack, and the children would dive in to collect the goodies.
As the children fell upon the sweet treats, Belsnickel roamed amongst them, switching them on their backs. This ‘beating’ came to be seen as a warning towards good behavior, but like so many other Christmas switchings, Belsnickels’ beatings had an earlier significance. Like the whippings of the Krampus and the Perchen, it was initially administered as a good luck charm for the children’s well being.