Enter the Belsnickel
The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own.
The Belsnickel — which roughly translates as “Nicholas in furs” — came to Pennsylvania with settlers from western Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. Instead of Santa, the Christ child, or Kristkindel, visited children with gifts. (His German name evolved into Krischkindel and then the Anglicized Kris Kringle.) The Belsnickel, though, was Santa gone rogue. Here’s an explanation of the difference from an 1890s guide for Pennsylvania Germans learning English (hence the short, simple sentences):
In the evening the Kristkindel goes around to the houses and distributes Christmas presents. The children await him. Sometimes Belsnickel comes and frightens them. He throws chestnuts around, and when the children run to pick them up, he hits them with a whip. A. R. Horne, Pennsylvania German Manual for Pronouncing, Speaking, and Writing English (Allentown: National Educator Print, 1896), p. 71.
Now there’s the Christmas spirit I’ve been searching for! Offering kids treats, then beating them when they take them! In other traditions the Belsnickel took over the Christ child’s job, and in one story he walked around town in dirty clothes or furs, carrying a stick or a whip, asking children to recite a Bible verse. If he approved of their answer he’d give them candy, nuts, or little cakes; if not, he’d beat them.
In practice the Belsnickel may not have been quite so nasty: a cousin or uncle likely dressed the part, rapping on children’s windows, asking them if they’d been good, tossing candy on the floor and switching them lightly just as a reminder. There might also be a sort of mummery, with bands of people dressed as Belsnickels (Belsnickeln?) going door to door and demanding, rather than bringing, treats such as sugar cookies.
By the end of the nineteenth century, just as the Pennsylvania German dialect was losing out to English (with the active backing of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I might add), the Belsnickel was melting into Santa Claus, whose worst punishment was a stockingful of coal. And the door-to-door mummery, of course, was co-opted into Hallowe’en.
Not everyone approved of this, of course — either the Belsnickel or Santa. In 1894 a Lutheran minister complained in a letter to The Lutheran Witness that his congregation would not be dissuaded from incorporating Santa Claus into the Christmas festivities. “The festival of the Nativity is not to be turned into an exhibition of childish theatricals…. Let no Belsnickel fright nor Santa Claus buffoonery defile the temple of the Lord.” 1 And the poor man hadn’t even dreamed of Rankin-Bass yet!
Today, the Belsnickel is nearly forgotten, and most of what remains of the original tradition comes from a poem by Henry Harbaugh, written in the 1860s. It’s written in Pennsylfaanish Deitsch, the Pennsylvania German dialect, which means that the words and spellings aren’t standard Hochdeutsch (high German) and may confuse even those of us who supposedly remember our college German. Happily the Pennsylvania German Society offers this English translation, but here’s the original Deitsch:
O kennscht du den weischte, den gaschtige Mann?
Hu! — derf m’r den Kerl e Mensch heese?
Ja, dass er en Mensch is mag glaawe wer kann,
Er gukt mir zu viel wie der Beese!
Seh juscht ‘mol sei’ Aage, sei Naas — alle Welt! —
Er dhut’s Maul uf un zu wie die Scheere;
‘N Schwanz wie ‘n Ochs, ja, des hot er, gelt?
Un en horiger Belz wie die Bäre.
Kummt der in dei’ Haus, dann gebt’s Lärme genunk,
Er sucht die nixhutzige Kinder!
Un find ‘r eens, geht er uf eemol zum Punkt,
Un dengelt gar bumm’risch die Sinder.
Er schtellt sich do hi’ mit d’r forchtbare Rudh,
Un brummelt sei’ drohende Rede;
Do werre die Kinner uf eemol arch gut
Un fange recht heftig a’ bete!
War eens — wie’s manchmol der Fall is — recht knitz;
Wollt d’ klee’ Fitz der Mutter verschpettle:
Ich wett, es lacht net for d’r Belsnickelfitz —
Es dhut um gut Wetter gschwind bettle.
Nau schittelt d’r Belsnickel grausam sei’ Sack,
Raus falle die Kuche un Keschte;
Wer gut is, kann lese, — wer schlecht is, den — whack! —
Den schmiert ‘r mit Fitzeel zum Beschte.
Vum Belscnickel hab ich nau ebbes gelernt,
Des wer’ ich ah nie net vergesse:
Nooch dem dass mer se’t werd eem ah in der Aernt
Die Frucht vun seim Werk ausgemesse.
First they took our language, then they took our Belsnickel. I certainly never heard of the guy growing up. As lost cultural heritage goes, this one maybe isn’t so bad. But if we’re going to revive Germanic traditions, could we at least revive the ones we brought here in the first place and made our own, before we gave them up for Anglo-American commercialism? (Now that I mention it, clearly there’s an opportunity for franchising here. “O kennscht du den weischte, den gaschtige Mann?” sung to a tune reminscent of “Here Comes Santa Claus” by the Ray Conniff singers? A Rankin-Bass-style stop-motion Belsnickel turns in his whip when he learns the True Meaning of Christmas?)
Friends, Pennsylvanians, German-Americans, lend me your ears: Show some pride! Learn your own history! And bake some Belsnickel cookies, while you’re at it. They’re just sugar cookies, but if you call them Belsnickel cookies, it will make you superior in precisely the way you’ve been hoping listening to NPR and attending Krampuslaufen would do. Trust me.
- Letter from E.F.B. to The Lutheran Witness, 12:17 (Feb. 7, 1894), p. 135. ↩
This is adapted from Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking, first published in 1938. I’m assuming these cookies were intended for Belsnickelers who went door to door demanding treats at Christmas time. They’re really just sugar cookies, but quite good ones.
A couple of notes: This is a very rich, soft, dough. You absolutely must chill it before you can plausibly roll it out, and even then it will be difficult to work with; if you are lucky enough to have a marble paste-board, now’s the time to use it. When taken from the oven they should be lightly browned and set at the edges, and they are definitely worth the trouble, rich and crisp and just sweet enough.
The cardamom sugar sprinkle is not traditional; the original recipe called for plain sugar. But I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and so if I do it, that makes it Pennsylvania Dutch. Enough said.
- ½ cup butter, melted
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
Pour melted butter over sugar in a bowl and beat until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs, beating one at a time, into the mixture.
- 1½ cups flour
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- a pinch of salt
Whisk together and add to the wet ingredients.
Chill the dough for at least an hour.
Roll the dough out on a floured board, quite thin. Cut into small rounds or other shapes. (The cookies will spread as they bake, so leave room on the sheets and don’t get too fancy with the shapes.)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon cardamom
Sprinkle the cookies with cardamom sugar.
Bake at 400° until set and lightly browned, about 10 minutes for ⅛-inch-thick cookies (or 7 to 8 minutes at 385° in a convection oven). Cool on sheets for a few minutes, then transfer to racks.