Glories of Christmases Long, Long Ago

Christmas itself is a time capsule, with a crumpled old green bow on it.

Like…the ornament I bought from Charleston in 2002, the first time I had shrimp and grits (as opposed to the ornament I bought in 2005, which was the first time I liked shrimp and grits). The Christmas plates and canisters that my mother-in-law gave me one year, without any hints or suggestions (see, Mom, I told you I liked them!). The wreath I made with my friend Mary Jane, who could wrestle pine cones onto a wire form like no one’s business.

It’s why it’s the most wonderful time of the year (assuming you like Charleston, Christmas plates, and my friend Mary Jane).

But I’m not interested in talking about recent history here. I’m talking about Christmases *long*, *long* ago. Like the song. Like this blog–historic.

In Pennsylvania, during the 18th and 19th century, Santa was not exactly a fat jolly giggling man but a frightening, evil, masochistic man (or woman) who was looking for free liquor and an excuse to hit young children. I know, I know…it sounds like your Uncle Dave after his football team loses. But hang with me here.

In the wild and unchartered pre-Santa Claus days (Thomas Nast didn’t do his first Santa cartoons until 1863; see them at, a mischievous and occassionally belligerent Christmas elf made his rounds of rural children. Dressed in patched and baggy clothes, often the clothes of the opposite gender (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickel rewarded good children with fruit and cakes, while the bad children were punished with whips from the Belsnickel’s lash.

As a “gut Dutchie” from Pennsylvania, I grew up with stories of the Belsnickel. Or Bellschniggle. Or Belsh Nichel. We Dutchies aren’t much for spelling. Apparently, all of the names stem from the German “Peltz Nicel,” meaning “Nicholas in furs,” which referred to the bearskin coat or skunk-skin cap that often accessorized the Belsnickel’s disguise. When he didn’t wear a cap, he wore a tall pointy hood, probably to keep him warm in the Pennsylvania winter.

The December 26, 1826 issue of the Pottstown LaFayette Aurora described the Belsnickel as “a mischievous hobgoblin that makes his presence known to the people once a year by his cunning tricks of fairyism. Christmas is the time for his sporting revelry, and he then gives full scope to his permitted privileges in every sharpe that his roving image can suggest.”

Again, a little bit like Uncle Dave.

I have loved Belsnickels since I was a little girl. Maybe because I was a good student, and I would have killed to see the bad kids hit with a stick while I feasted on nuts and oranges. Maybe because I’ve always wanted a fur hat of my own, or at least a fur muff that I could wear when I went skating like a scene from Currier &Ives. (Full disclosure: I can’t ice skate. I just like the costumes).

Boyertown, Pennsylvania has a craft show each November called “The Belsnickel Craft Show.” Oddly enough, there are very few Belsnickels there. For the record, that’s an honest-to-goodness, full-blown Thomas Nast Santa Claus there on the right. Not a Belsnickel at all. Someone should really tell the show promoters).

But once, years and years ago, I managed to find a humorless chalkware Belsnickel amongst the crocheted pot holders and funny looking wooden things. I bought him and brought him home, where he could glare at me from a side table.

He looked lonely there, so I bought a couple more, finding them at Christmas stores, in catalogs, at yard sales. I amassed my own little army of angry, arm-folded villains.

This is only about a quarter of my collection. It grows a little each year, and moves around the house: some on the side table, some on a dresser. Some I hide in the bathroom to scare my husband when he steps out of the shower.
There are Belsnickels made of papier mache. Belsnickels made of chalkware, poured in old chocolate molds. Some are–don’t tell–some kind of resin concoction. I have two cast iron ones, too…the scariest thing about them is the damage that they do when they fall off a dresser and on to my toes (which is why they’re typically the ones that I hide in the bathroom).

They’re my favorite part of the time capsule that is Christmas. They remind me of my childhood, and of my family’s origins in Germany, and of my many happy years as a credit-card-carrying member of the “Ladies for Economic Recovery” club. They remind me that you can travel across time as easily as you can travel to grandmother’s house.

Sometimes more easily; especially when the road to grandmother’s house is covered with 20″ of snow.

Merry Christmas! From my time to yours!!

PS–The Belsnickels featured above are rural Belsnickels. Meet their urban hip-hop brethren in my next blog, New Year, Old Tricks.