PA Dutch Traditions

“He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice.”

For many children, having one’s name on Santa’s naughty list means coal in your stocking and no gifts under the tree come Christmas morning. But the Belsnickel, a creature of German folklore brought to Pennsylvania by immigrants, takes a different approach to children on his naughty list.

Who is the Belsnickel?

The Belsnickel originated in the Palatinate region of Europe and is thought to be based on a companion or servant of Saint Nicholas. He is often adorned in animal fur, torn and dirty clothes, and will sometimes wear deer antlers atop his head. Hence the German word “bels” translates into fur, and “nickel” refers to St. Nicholas. The Belsnickel is also referred to as Kriskinkle, Beltznickle, Pelsnichol, and sometimes the “Christmas woman” when he arrives dressed in women’s garbs.

When Does He Appear?

Unlike Santa, the Belsnickel travels alone and arrives at homes one to two weeks before Christmas. Like Santa, he determines if the children he visits are deserving of Christmas treats, or discipline for their behavior. He carries a switch in his hand for the naughty and pocketsful of cakes, candies, and nuts for well-behaved children.

Upon his arrival, children are called upon to answer questions for him or sing him a song. In exchange, he throws cakes, candies, and nuts onto the floor. If children dive greedily for the treats or can’t recount their good behavior throughout the year, the Belsnickel will threaten to swat their hands or back with his switch. The well-mannered boys and girls get rewarded with the treats.

The Belsnickel’s visit serves to remind children that they still have time to stay out of mischief before Christmas Day and to think twice before misbehaving.

For those who dare to meet the Belsnickel, plan to visit Pennsylvania’s Americana Region during the holiday season. Each year, in early December, the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center holds Christmas on the Farm in Kutztown. The annual event celebrates PA Dutch Christmas traditions, and the Belsnickel always makes an appearance. This Christmas toast the legendary character with a Belsnickel Dark Lager, a locally brewed beer. A picture of the Belsnickel adorns the bottle’s label, and cinnamon and ginger extracts add a festive taste to the lager. The Belsnickel made his way into pop culture on the hit TV show The Office. Set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the episode, Dwight Christmas (season 9), features character Dwight Shrute dressed as the Belsnickel for an office holiday party. Dwight remarks, “Some people were born to be bad; I was born to be Belsnickel,” and goes on to judge his coworkers on their past year’s behavior.

So, “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why.” If you hear a tapping on your home’s door this holiday season, beware! It may be the Belsnickel coming to check in on you!