For Pennsylvania Dutch children Christmas started yesterday, the beginning of ‘chriskringling’ (or ‘Kris Kringling,’) the two-week period culminating in Christmas. It’s a hybrid of trick or treating, mischief night, and Christmas caroling.
Tradition dictates that after dressing in costumes, the children sneak up to a neighbor’s house armed with noise makers of every shape and size. When all are positioned, a signal is given and a clatter sure to wake the dead booms out. The targets of the attack, usually aunts and uncles, invite the perpetrators in, where the identity of the children is guessed, and everyone enjoys hot cider and all sorts of sweet treats.
The Pennsylvania Dutch Santa figure, Pelze Nichol, or Pelznickel, which Americans tend to pronounce “pelsnickle,” eventually became re-worked to “belsnickle.” And so, as this Christmas tradition permeated south and into the Shenandoah Valley region, Kris Kringling and Belsnickling have become synonymous. Mrs. Annabelle Vance, a former Hardy County (WV) Folk Festival Belle, for example, says that “at Christmas time, she enjoys Kris Kringling, or Belsnickling, to provide gifts to the children of her community.”
Dr. Edwin Fogel says in Twelvetide “The Pennsylvania German belsnickel is derived from St. Nicholas, who lived in Asia Minor in the 4th century. He has many names in German including St. Nicles, Niclas, Neckels and Klas; his Dutch form is Santa Claus and the Pennsylvania name is Belznickel or ‘Niklas clothed in furs.’
“In the Shenandoah Valley the Belsnickel and Santa Claus are distinctly different. One is a mythical figure who is supposed to arrive after the children are in bed, and the other actually arrives while the children are still up. The belsnickel is a reality, not something to be believed in on a basis of faith and hearsay, as is Santa Claus.”
This duality harks directly from the Black Forest of Germany, where the annual visit of Santa Claus is preceded by that of Knecht Rupert, who goes around the village in a frightful disguise, visiting every house, and terrifying the naughty children by his acquaintance with their various misdemeanors.
related post: “The Belsnickle: definitely NOT Santa Claus”
Glenville Democrat and Pathfinder, July 19, 2007 (Hardy County, WV)