Tale of the ‘Belsnickel’

    Remember your grandmother’s special holiday cookies? Or a Christmas book you only read at this time of year? Well, courtesy of Joel Alderfer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Center in Harleysville, Pa., here are a couple of old Pennsylvania German traditions that may get the memories — or the imagination — flowing.

    Meet the Belsnickel (Bell-SHNICK-el)

    He or she dresses up in strange clothing around Christmas time, wearing a cloth mask, and he comes to your house looking for children. Yes, the Belsnickel is supposed to be scary.

    He scratches on windows, or taps at them with his stick and when he knocks on the door you have to let him in because he carries candy in his pockets.

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    Like Santa, the Belsnickel knows if children have been good or bad. The good ones get a scattering of candy across the floor, from this masked know-it-all. And the bad ones get – guess what – a scattering of coal or stones.

    Or how about the decidedly more tame Christmas Plates?

    While the Belsnickel only tends to come around now in reenactments, many conservative Mennonite and Amish families still do Christmas Plates.

    The family will set their special plates out around the dinner table the night before Christmas, and the next day they might find a modest gift of candy, or fruit, nuts or a pretzel.

    And next to the plate they may get something like a pocket watch, or a jack knife, or a handkerchief — some other kind of modest gift.

    In many families, this is the extent of the gift-giving at Christmas.

    Both of these traditions are described in the book Christmas in Pennsylvania by Alfred L. Shoemaker, which may be hard to find now.

    But ask around; if you’re lucky maybe you’ll find some Pennsylvanians that can describe these and other holiday traditions in even more detail.

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