Once upon a time, in the Pocono Mountain forest, in Pennsylvania, Santa Claus was bringing Christmas joy to the homes of the mountain forest folks - as well as the rest of the world. He heard some little children crying "What? - How could this be? Children crying on Christmas Eve?", thought Santa.

In a very uncommon event, Santa appeared before the kids.

"Why are you crying on Christmas eve?" asked Santa.

The children told Santa about the Belsnickel.

The Belsnickel lived deep in the mountain forest. Belsnickel was an older man. In the wintertime, his long gray beard flowed out from under his visored cap and poured over his tattered old scarf.

When he would go out in the winter's cold, he would wear old boots, brown knickers, and a trampy old topcoat.

The Belsnickel was very rigid and strict. His eyes were colder than Arctic ice. And he never put up with any foolishness.

In his younger days, Belsnickel had been a schoolmaster. He was known throughout the land as the meanest and toughest schoolmaster ever.

The children who attended Belsnickel's school were well behaved due to Belsnickel's very strict discipline. But they did not enjoy his school.

When Belsnickel finally retired, the kids were very happy indeed. They had one of the best parties ever.

Well, after Belsnickel retired, the teachers let the kids get away with murder. The kids didn't do their homework. They partied all the time. And they got into all kinds of mischief. Somebody had to step in and do something The parents didn't know whom to turn to. Finally they sought out Belsnickel "Belsnickel, you've got to come back", the parents said.

"Since you retired there is no one to discipline the kids. They do whatever they want to do. And they aren't learning a thing in school. Not only that, but the kids have gotten very unruly around their homes. And they have become very rude too."

"But what can I do" said the grumpy old Belsnickel. "I'm not at the school any more."

Then Belsnickel had an idea. In the middle of the winter he would get fresh oranges, fruits and nuts - a very special winter treat in those days - and go around to each house. He would use the treats to bait the kids. And when they would come after the treats, he would thrash them with his switch for their naughty deeds.

And so, every year after that, in the middle of the winter, around Christmas time, Belsnickel would hitch the horse to the old country sleigh. He would go to each child's house. Belsnickel would make scary noises on the porch and scratch at the window with his switch to frighten the kids and get their attention. After that he would knock at the door.

The parents would open the door for Belsnickel.

Belsnickel would take just one or two steps into the house. He would scatter his oranges, nuts and treats on the floor in front of him.

When the kids would come forward to pick up the treats, Belsnickel would take his switch to their legs.

The kids would scamper and run. They would hide behind the cookstove or whatever was handy.

After the Belsnickel would leave, the kids would come out from their hiding places and pick up their treats.

During the year, whenever the kids were naughty, the parents would remind their children that if they didn't behave, the Belsnickel would put them on his list and come to thrash them on the night

of the winter solstice - the longest night of the year.

Well, it worked! The kids were so scared of Belsnickel. All their parents and teachers had to do was remind them that if they misbehaved, the Belsnickel would come at Christmas time and take his switch to them. The children did their homework. They were well behaved. And they were polite.

But the kids were just terrified of this Belsnickel fellow. And what made it even worse for the kids was that Belsnickel came just a few nights before Christmas.

After the kids told Santa about the Belsnickel, they asked Santa for his help. And they promised Santa that if he would get the Belsnickel to stop coming around at Christmas time, they would behave all year long.

"OK", said Santa. "That sounds good to me. But if you don't keep your promise to behave all year, I'll cross you off my Christmas gift list."

Then Santa asked Rudolph, the reindeer, to lead him to the Belsnickel. "Merry Christmas Belsnickel" said Santa when he found him.

"Humbug", grumped Belsnickel

"Why do you take your switch to the children at Christmas time?", asked Santa.

After the Belsnickel finished explaining the reasons, Santa said, "Well, Belsnickel, then all you want is that the children should be good, right?"

"Exactly", said Belsnickel.

"Let me suggest a solution", said Santa.

"I'll keep a list of the kids who have been naughty and the kids who have been nice. I won't leave toys for the naughty kids at Christmas - if you won't go around switching at them any more. No toys will be punishment enough."

"You've got yourself a deal", said the Belsnickel.

"I'm getting very old and very tired. And I really don't enjoy having to go around every Christmas and taking my switch to the naughty children."

"But Santa", said Belsnickel, "if your plan doesn't work and the kids get bad again - well maybe I'll just have to come back"

"Belsnickel", said Santa, "now you won't have very much to do." "Why don't you come up to the North Pole with Rudolph and me. You can help us make toys for the kids. There's plenty of room and Mrs. Claus is an excellent cook, you'll see."

And so it was. Santa and the Belsnickel had their deal. Belsnickel retired and went to the North Pole with Santa. He doesn't come around any more - except sometimes he still helps Santa deliver his Christmas gifts in the Mountain Forests.

These days the parents tell their kids when they misbehave - you better be good or Santa won't bring you anything for Christmas!

Belsnickel now lives at the North Pole with Santa and his helpers making toys all summer long for Christmas eve night.