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About the Belsnickel

Published December 23. 2009 05:00PM

The Belsnickel used to visit the homes of Pennsylvania Dutch children many years ago.

In those days, the children were often told during the year, "Du besser bischt gudt der Belsnickel kumpt". (Loosely - you better be good, the Belsnickel will come.)

The last sighting of Belsnickel around here reported to us was by Ruth Rinker of Sciota. She grew up in the West End of Monroe County Ruth tells us that Belsnickel visited her home only once, in 1926. She was around 6-years old then.

Ruth, then Ruth Gougher, lived on the "outskirts" of Kunkletown with her parents Mr. and Mrs. George Gougher and her younger brother, Walter. It was Christmas Eve, 1926, just a little after dark. Ruth and her 4-year old brother, both in stocking feet, were dressed in their flannel nightclothes almost ready for bed. Mom and Dad were around, but Ruth's Grandfather had gone to visit some neighbors. They heard some sleigh bells jingling. Then, there was a scary rattling on the porch. Suddenly, there appeared at the window an old man in trampy clothes. He scratched his switch on the window to get the kid's attention and scare them The kids were really frightened. They wouldn't go near the door. So Ruth's dad opened the door for Belsnickel

There stood the Belsnickel. He was an old man dressed in trampy clothes. He wore brown knickers, boots, and a dark overcoat. His long gray beard flowed out from under a visored cap and poured over his tattered scarf. He was about the same height as her grandfather, but Belsnickel had a potbelly as big as a pillow Belsnickel only stepped a foot or two into the Goucher's kitchen. He scattered peanuts and oranges on the floor - a very special treat in those days.

This relaxed the kids a little. A sudden rush of braveness came over Ruth and Walter. It was brought on by the treats Belsnickel had spread on the floor in front of him. They moved forward and started picking up the orange and peanut treats Then, without even the hint of a warning, Belsnickel lashed out with his fresh cut switch. He started thrashing their legs with the birch twig. It hurt, tells Ruth.

The kids scampered and ran. They hid behind the old brown Apollo cookstove. They stayed behind the stove until Belsnickel left. Then the kids came out from behind the old brown cookstove and picked up the treats.

After that they went to bed - their legs still smarting a little from the Belsnickel's switch. The next morning when they awoke, Ruth and her brother Walter found gifts under the Christmas tree. Belsnickel had returned later Christmas Eve and left them under the tree for Ruth and Walter. That was the one and only time Belsnickel visited Ruth and Walter. After that, it was Santa Claus instead of Belsnickel who visited the Goucher home in Kunkletown each Christmas to leave presents for the kids.

Ruth and Walter liked Santa much better than Belsnickel. Santa doesn't have a switch Knecht Ruprecht, perhaps a distant cousin of Belsnickel, still visits children in Germany. Several weeks before Christmas, St. Nikolaus and one of his helpers, Ruprecht, visit German children. St. Nikolaus (Santa) has a list with all the children's names. The list tells what things naughty and what things nice the children did during the year St. Nikolaus gives the kids treats, oranges, candy, apples and nuts, for the nice things they have done.

On the other hand, Ruprecht carries his ò•ÃƒÂµ•ÃƒÂ´•ÃƒÂ¥• (stick). Ruprecht swats the naughty kids with his ò•ÃƒÂµ•ÃƒÂ´•ÃƒÂ¥•Ã‚®• The kids sing Christmas songs and recite poetry as part of the festivities Then St. Nikolaus makes a list of what toys and things the children want for Christmas Neither St. Nikolaus, nor his nasty helper Ruprecht, return on Christmas day. Rather, on Christmas Eve, Christkind and the Christmas Angels come, unseen by anyone, and place gifts under the tree.

Merry Christmas!


(Author's Note: We asked other people with Pennsylvania Dutch roots if Belsnickel had ever visited them. Only a few had been visited by him. Some said they had heard about Belsnickel from the older folks, but their childhoods were spent years after Ruth Rinker's 1926 encounter with Belsnickel In the early 1900's, as well as the 1800's, the West End of Monroe County, at the foothills of the Pocono Mountains, was a very remote and isolated area. (So were many other rural areas.) It's rather tempting to speculate therefore, that it was difficult for St. Nikolaus, Ruprecht, Christkind and the Christmas Angels all to make their way to the West End at Christmas time. Perhaps that is why Belsnickel performed all the tasks of these other Christmas personalities -Ruprecht's switching, St. Nikolaus' scattering treats, and Christkind's leaving gifts.

These Christmas personalities are very cooperative indeed. They change and modify their schedules and roles somewhat to accommodate the Christmas customs and calendars of each region, or sometimes each household, they visit. Unfortunately, Belsnickel is another one of those precious and unique elements of the local Pennsylvania Dutch culture that is being lost with so called progress.

We would like to hear about more encounters with Belsnickel. If you have or if you know anyone who has ever encountered Belsnickel please let us know. We would like to put together a compendium of stories about Belsnickel - before he disappears forever)

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