You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry
Leave it to my Irish in-laws to teach me something about Pennsylvania Dutch culture.
A few years ago, when I first started accompanying my future wife Kerstin to the Jersey Shore for the holidays, I was puzzled by the hirsute little figures that were hanging all over Aunt Patty’s Christmas tree. “Those are Belschnickels,” she said. “Haven’t you ever heard of them?”
The Belschnickel (also spelled as “Belsnickel” or “Peltznichol”) -- something that translates loosely as “Nicklaus in furs” -- is apparently a favorite Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas legend. He’s a kind of “Anti-Claus,” a wild, scary-looking creature with a long scraggly beard, dressed in a raggy robe of fur and wearing a furry hood or a hat. Sometimes he wears a robber’s mask, too, and he carries with him a sack of mischief in one hand and a switch or a whip in the other.
The Belschnickel visits children at Christmastime, and if he finds that they have not been good all year, he might smack them with the switch, or leave coal in their stockings – or both. If they’ve been good enough, they might get a piece of candy from him. (I just hope he keeps them separated in his sack – coal dust on your candy can’t be good for you.)
If Santa Claus represents parental patience, kindness, generosity and love -- the unconditional love that we all want from our mothers and fathers, especially during Christmas time -- the Belschnickel is a holiday fable born of sober reality. He’s your boss watching over your shoulder with a Christmas bonus in one hand, and a stack of unfinished business in the other … or that frowning major client of yours who needs you to finish his year-end project or else he’s not going to be paying your bill until the next fiscal year … he’s your father, keeping you in line with carrot-and-stick discipline, telling you to eat your peas or else you won’t be getting a bicycle under the tree this year.
The sources tell us that the Belschnickel is not so well-liked by children, but beloved by Pennsylvania Dutch parents. No doubt it is a useful tool for them. At the same time, for those of us who have lost touch with our Pennsylvania Dutch roots – or, in the case of my wife’s family, who never had any Pennsylvania Dutch roots – the Belschnickel represents a welcome opportunity to acknowledge our missteps and laugh heartily at them. Even our two-year old little cousin understands the ritual power of this kind of annual confession. When we ask him what he’s getting for Christmas this year, he replies, “Nussing. I don’t listen to my mommy and daddy, and I take off all my clothes.”
Along with the other family traditions I’ve adopted since marrying Kerstin (such as saying we’re not exchanging gifts and doing it anyway; singing songs we’ve written to the tunes of familiar Christmas carols about all the misfortunes our family has suffered during the year; and gathering around the chimeneya on the front deck in 47° weather, knocking back Rolling Rock ponies), I’ve joined my family in collecting Belschickels for the tree. We get ours from a cherished source, hand-made for our Christmas trees by a second-generation Belschnickel-maker from the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
As of this Christmas, I now have two of them. But -- as Aunt Patty reminds me -- I’d better be a good boy next year, or Santa won’t be bringing me another one.