The last few weeks I have taken you on a tour of the sights, sounds, and tastes of a Christmas in Trinidad. Today I'm going to take you back to where I grew up.
Southeastern Pennsylvania is home to a large concentration of Pennsylvania Dutch, more accurately called Pennsylvania Germans. People in other parts of the USA tend to only associate the Amish and Mennonites with this cultural group. Tell someone you are Pennsylvania dutch and they will ask about black dresses, horses and buggies, and lack of electricity. The Amish and Mennonites are known as the 'Plain Dutch.' The Lutherans, Moravians, and others who live with modern conveniences are the 'Fancy Dutch.'
Among the PA Dutch there is a tradition of a visit from Belsnickelrather than Santa Claus. Belsnickel means 'Nicholas in furs' and the image is believed to be derived from the figure of 'Black Peter' who is St. Nicholas's helper in Germany. Someone would dress up in pelts and rags and mask his or her face. Belsnickel carried a bag of sweets and nuts in one hand and a switch in the other hand.
Belsnickel could visit at any time during December and he always arrived during waking hours, announcing his arrival with a rap at the door or window. Now before you get too excited about seeing this fellow let's remember he is carrying a switch. He's not the benign and jolly fellow that Santa Claus is. Belsnickel was every bit as likely to give the naughty kids a few lashes with the switch as he was to reward the well-behaved with nuts and sweets from his bag. If you were counted among the naughty there was opportunity to redeem yourself by singing a song or reciting a poem to Belsnickel. Unfortunately, there became a problem with some overzealous, justice-oriented Belsnickels and in some places it was outlawed. Today it is rare to actually be visited by Belsnickel but the threat is still made.
Among the PA Dutch there is a paradox. People are very charitable givers but those in need are not often good at receiving since self-sufficiency is so highly valued. In order for charity to be received the giver must make it seem as if the receiver is doing the giver a favor. 'I made all this bread. I simply can't use it before it goes stale and you know it's just wrong to waste it. I'd be grateful if you'd take some.' Belsnickel, however, allowed for widows and orphans to be provided for with no such dance. If Belsnickel brought you food you took it, no questions asked.
Merry Christmas and may Belsnickel be good to you!