Often described as a more crotchety version of Jolly Old St. Nick, Belsnickel (also spelled Belsnickle, Pelznickel, and several other variants) arrived in America with German immigrants in the early 18th century.
According to German folklore, Belsnickel was one of the companions of St. Nick, but instead of helping to deliver toys on Christmas Eve, he would visit households a week or two before the holiday. Dressed in fur pelts or a disheveled robe tied with rope, and carrying a bag of treats in one hand and a switch in the other, Belsnickel would reward children who had been good, and punish those who had misbehaved.
German immigrants, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch), celebrated by dressing up as Belsnickel and going house to house. There, they’d have the children sing a song or recite a poem before offering them treats – or a tap with the switch.
Over the decades, the practice has waxed and waned, but appears to be in ascendancy once again, and not only by those of German ancestry: even the TV comedy The Office has gotten into the act.
To collectors, Belsnickels are among the most prized of Christmas collectibles, and especially desirable are the figures made in Germany from the late-19th century to World War I. Most of these are made of chalk or papier-mâché, range in size from an inch to over two feet tall, and were used as tree ornaments, candy containers, and for displays.
To the average person, Belsnickels might appear at first glance to be Santas – and many sellers in secondary markets include both terms in their descriptions – but they are distinguished by their unsmiling visages and the evergreen branch or switches tucked into the crook of one arm. Also unlike Santa, who is usually dressed in a red suit, Belsnickels appear in a variety of colored robes ranging from white to much rarer purples and browns.
Though the majority of Belsnickels can be had for quite reasonable prices, recent online auction include a small (7 3/4 inch) papier-mâché figure in a mustard-colored coat that sold for $332.99, and a somewhat similar 9 inch specimen that fetched $395.
There was also a candy container that generated a lot of interest (24 bids) even though it had been damaged and the seller was uncertain whether it was genuinely vintage or a more recent, artist-made piece. In spite of these questions, it garnered a final bid of $605!
Of course, none of these approach the $22,500 paid for a 16-inch tall German candy container with a glass beard, brown robe, and a lichen moss tree.
Would you like to learn more about Belsnickels? Check out the following resources, and
Christmas in Pennsylvania (60th Anniversary Edition), by Alfred L. Shoemaker and Don Yoder
Pennsylvania Dutch Christmases, by Gerry Kershner
Belsnickel: The Santa of Your Nightmares (The Morning Call) – As told by Der Belsnickel to staff writer Denise Reaman
Belsnickles: Santa minus the ho-ho-ho (LiveAuctioneers.com) – Interesting article includes some record auction prices.
The Golden Glow (GoldenGlow.org) – Vintage Christmas Collectors Club includes a magazine, yearly convention, articles, links, more.