Friday, December 16, 2011

Valley Christmas Folk Traditions

The three solemn holy days that span the darkest days of winter are also paired with folk customs that include performances in masks and other disguises. The holy days are All Souls, Christmas, and Lent; Halloween, Belsnickling, and Mardi Gras are the folk traditions coupled with the holy days.

Pelsnickling, as it was called locally, was a popular rural amusement, especially among the Pennsylvania-German settlers living in the western side of the Shenandoah Valley and eastern West Virginia. Pelsnickling or Belsnickling occurred during the last half of December. Also during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries similar customs adopted by other ethnic groups in the Shenandoah Valley were Kris Kringling, Shanghaiing, and urban mumming. Belsnickling derived from the earlier activities of the Belsnickle.

The Belsnickle: The word Belsnickle (Nicholas in Furs) has its roots in the German words for fur (pelz) and for the generous St. Nicholas whose saint day is December 6. The character was a blend of Continental and English winter traditions adopted in the New World in the early 1800s, particularly among the German immigrants in eastern Pennsylvania. The Belsnickle character incorporated a time tested practice by parents to get their children to behave. The Belsnickle figure, ugly and frightening traveled from house-to-house on Christmas Eve scaring children in his mask and fur coat with switch in hand. The visited had to provide a treat and libation for this visitor. Common offerings were ginger cakes and hard cider. If a child was one of the last to be visited on Christmas Eve, the severity and fearsomeness of the Belsnickle might be greatly diminished. At the end of a visit, the Belsnickle would toss nuts and maybe hard candy on the floor for the children to find on Christmas morning. In the middle of the 1800s, the character of the Belsnickle and the more benign Kris Kringle would come together and eventually become the Santa Claus of today.

Belsnickling gained popularity after the Civil War. Participants adopted the disguises of the Belsnickle. From before Christmas to the new year, groups of costumed friends would go house-to-house to offer greetings. Derived from English mumming pieces, one traditional greeting was:

Christmas is coming; geese are getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny, half penny will do;
If you haven’t got a half penny, God bless you!
The Belsnicklers included adults, teens, and younger children who usually dressed in handmade disguises and masks made from household and farm items and materials. Frequently men dressed as women and vice versa. The revelers would go out for the fun of it arriving at neighboring houses by walking, on horseback, in sleighs, and in the twentieth century by automobile. Once invited into the house, the Belsnicklers would play pranks, dance around, and joke until they were identified and offered refreshments. The offerings, similar to those given to the Belsnickel, depended on the ages of performers. A source of local Belsnickling remembrances is found in John L. Heatwole’s Holidays and Pastimes.

These Belsnickle(ing) traditions belonged to the “Low (or Fancy or Reformed) Dutch.” The conservative Mennonite and Brethren religious groups frowned on these activities, though some members confessed to participation. If a member of one of the stricter sects was found to have acted “in an unbecoming manner,” the person would need to confess to the behavior or be “disfellowshipped.”

Belsnickling, as well as the related Kris Kringling and Shanghaiing customs began to fade during WWII when people tended to be cautious about letting people into their home. Also the influx of new residents from outside the Valley community diluted local constancy.

While this article focuses on Belsnickling, the reader can perceive how the other customs associated with this time of year had similarities. Often the traditions were fluid and substitutable. Belsnickling is one of the lost folkways of the region, but Halloween and Mardi Gras celebrations contain elements of Belsnickling high jinks.
John L. Heatwole. Holidays and Pastimes. 2000.
Elmer Lewis Smith, The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society. Vol. 26. Schlechter’s. Allentown, PA. 1962.
Alfred L. Shoemaker. Christmas in Pennsylvania. A Folk-Cultural Study. Stackpole Books. Mechanicsburg, PA. 1959/1999.
Scott Hamilton Suter. Shenandoah Valley Folklife. University Press of Mississippi. Jackson. 1999. Shenandoah Germanic Heritage Museum.

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