Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmastime in the Land of the Belsnickel

Here is a story that I wrote about the Belsnickel. Please don't refer to him as Santa Claus, or else I'll have to go Belsnickel on you! This was originally written as a children's story, but as the story progressed I think it became apparent that it is a little much for most children. The Belsnickel story here is an amalgamation of Belsnickel tales that I have heard all of my life. My Grandmaw Mary always said that the Belsnickel lived up on North Mountain rocks, up the mountain from where we lived. I find this incredible since there are so many other creatures that inhabit these cliffs (i.e. Old Fon, The Snollygaster, Old Saul). Many of the tidbits that you will read in my story come from different tales told by my Grandmaw Mary.

People where I am from in Germany Valley, WV, still talk about the Belsnickel and belsnickling, which occured every year around Christmastime. People dressed up in costumes and went door to door, scaring people and it was all great fun. People tried to guess who you were in the costume, and if they didn't, they had to give you a cup of hot cider or some other form of treat. While this belsnickling still occurs in some parts of Pendleton County, it doesn't in my old neighborhood, the last time anyone can remember it was in the early 1980's. My Dad talks about going belsnickling when he was a kid and remembers it fondly, he said that if people expected belsnicklers to come by, they'd make up cakes, cookies and other goodies and pass them out. Dad also recalls that some homes they visited gave them fruit (Apples & Oranges), which to him were a real treat. You have to remember, this is the dead of winter in a very harsh area, so I'm sure these belsnicklers were a sight to see, carrying lanterns and singing and hollering at the top of their lungs, celebrating a centuries old tradition from a far-off land. Keeping with the traditions of my ancestors, I proudly display my belsnickel every Christmas, and even have a huge belsnickel that tops our Christmas tree.

The following is an old photo of belsnicklers in the Bland Hills of Pendleton County. The 3rd man from the left is Boss Bland, a friend of my grandpaw Alfred Kile (whom I talked about in the post "The Ballad of Alfred and Attie"). Notice the masks at the belsnicklers feet!


Christmastime in the Land of the Belsnickel
by Matthew Burns, December 2008.

There is a land
Of wilderness glades, and craggy cliffs,
Of hidden coves and ancient forests.
Home of the Belsnickel.

Among this dark forest
Under the roots of a great oak tree
There is a limestone cavern
That is completely hidden from view.

In this dank cavern, Belsnickel makes his home,
He is hairy and covered in animal pelts,
With moss in his hair and lichens on his skin.
He lives in the cave, with his loyal servant Rupert.

Rupert is donned in the same manner as Belsnickel,
Only he is even dirtier,
Blackened from the soot of many fires
And smudged with the grease of many meals.

Every year, when it gets to be about this time of year.
When the leaves have been shed, the winter winds start to howl,
And the forest creatures prepare for winter in their own way.
Belsnickel and Rupert start plotting….

Plotting mischief and mayhem, of wreaking havoc
On the intruders who live in their valley.
They regale in events of seasons past, when they scared cattle,
Carried away children, and spread fear throughout the countryside.

A favorite pastime of Belsnickel and Rupert is tossing dried leaves and moss.
Down the chimneys of the valley homesteads,
Causing flue fires that sometimes engulf the home.
And laugh as the intruders frantically try to save their belongings.

Belsnickel has also been known to feed wild onions to the dairy cows,
So their milk will taste of onions and will be unfit for use by the intruders.
But most of all, Belsnickel and Rupert await Christmas Eve.
When everyone is indoors, reveling in the merriment of the season.

That is when Belsnickel becomes most embittered for being disturbed.
He loves the Winter Solstice, but can’t even bay at the moon,

Without the intruders hunting him with their ferocious hounds.
Belsnickel reckons that if he can’t celebrate, neither will they.

Late in the night, he and Rupert go from house to house,

Prying open the windows and breaking down doors.
Seeking vengeance they will yank children from their slumber,
And beat them with switches. Rupert hopes to toss a few in his sack, as well.

At these thoughts, pure joy shows on the face of Belsnickel and Rupert,
Primitive chuckles erupt from Ruperts snaggled mouth.
They are both anxious for night to fall,
And to begin their night of havoc.

Hours later, the forest is again quiet and Belsnickel and Rupert,
Having returned to their lair, await morning.
Fulfilled with their accomplishments, they celebrate.
They are the protectors of the forest, and without them, all would be lost.

In the valley, the bewildered & fearful intruders tell their children,
“Der Belsnickel punishes you for being bad. Next year you must be better.”
Through the giant roots of the oak tree, Belsnickel glances at the moon,
And breaks into a sorrowful and celebratory howl.


Granny Sue said...

Matthew, This is a good telling of a story I've heard about, but never really thought about being part of West Virginia's heritage. I have learned so much about the German influence on your blog, and it's like opening a plain bag to find it filled with favorite candy.

I have a similar at my house. Now he will be called by his proper name, along with Grandfather Frost.

Vera said...

I am 70 years old and I can't believe I never heard of Belsnickel, "that's a new wrinkle on my horn"

Matthew Burns said...

Granny Sue & Vera,

I went back into the post and included an old photo of belsnicklers in Pendleton County. While the photo was taken before my time, it was taken in my community.


Janet, said...

I have never heard of Belsnickel either. Good story.

Tipper said...

Interesting-I've never heard of Belsnickel. I like your story!

The Tile Lady said...

The Belsnickel was fascinating! I had never heard of it, and I enjoyed both the background info and the story! My Mother has info on my great aunt doing something similar in AL but the people who dressed up in disguise went to visit at people's homes (not on Christmas eve, but other times) and would carry on long conversations with them, and even be invited to eat, and the trick was for your true identity to never be discovered. It was called something-setting, but I can't remember the name....has anyone heard of this practice?

nannylou said...

My Grandma told about these revelers in Randolph Co.