Extraordinary Stories

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The "A Man Dressed in Fur, Face Darkened and Carrying a Whip!" Story

It was an ordinary guy.  Actually the night before Christmas and all through the house the children are looking out their windows for the arrival of …. Belsnickel.  Belsnickel is the first character in the history of Christmas characters who clearly distinguished between good children and bad children, unlike Santa Claus who came about and presented gifts to those whose names were on the famous "Santa List."  Belsnickel was known to leave switches for children who were bad through the year and would leave small toys, mittens, candies and fruit for the well-behaved on Christmas Eve.  The story goes in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities that just before everyone would go to bed, Belsnickel would announce his arrival by knocking on the windowpanes or doors.  Children actually would get to see Belsnickel peering in their windows dressed in old skins, face covered in soot, carrying a bell and a whip with pockets full of nuts and cakes.  
Had to be a scary sight for any child to see this guy on Christmas Eve.  This all began way before Santa Claus was ever a thought in the minds of children in the German and Dutch communities.  Legend has it that Belsnickel used to drag naughty children into the forest and make them pay for their mischievous behavior throughout the year.  It was here that he would give them a chance to redeem themselves by either dancing, singing or reciting poems or a Bible verse.  Can you imagine a character such as Belsnickel existing in today's society.  Certainly parents would be wearing sidearms as soon as the sun went down on Christmas Eve.  No wonder that Belsnickel disappeared into obscurity and a more friendly character known as Kriss Kringle came into the hearts and homes of children on Christmas Eve.  
I found stories in newspapers from the mid to late 1800s in towns located in south-eastern Pennsylvania where the Old Order Amish and Pennsylvnia Dutch told the story of the Belsnickel.  Then a rival character known as Santa Claus, also known as St. Nicholas, arrived on the scene.  and the rest is history.  I'm sure you have heard the 1897 story titled "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" which was first published in the New York Sun.  As a child, I never heard of Belsnickel, but I suspect there might have been tales told about him in the country side of Lancaster County, Pa.  Can't imagine what that might have been like to be a child and be frightened of the approaching Christmas Eve.  How different my Christmases and the Christmases of my children and grandchildren might have been had Belsnickel survived into our lives.  Guess I was just lucky.  See …. it pays to be nice!  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.

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