Up until the second World War, if a Shenandoah Valley [VA] family was a member of the Lutheran or Reformed church, the children could expect a Christmas Eve visit from the Belsnickle. The practice might even go well beyond just one evening, running for nearly two weeks, starting a week before Christmas and continuing until New Year.
The Belsnickle was not Santa Claus! He was ugly and he frightened the children. He typically wore a costume made from stockings and burlap or paper bags. In many cases, Belsnicklers used charcoal to blacken their faces – the ultimate goal being to disguise yourself enough as to prevent identification.
The Belsnickle traveled from house to house brandishing his switches in the air. He would use these switches to whip naughty children. To good children the Belsnickle would hand out cakes or candies. These “gifts” were thrown upon the floor, but if a child were to try to recover them in the presence of the Belsnickler, the child would quickly receive a “whack” on the backside with a whip.
It was the custom for the Belsnickle to receive a treat at each house. While not welcome in all homes, in most instances, Belsnicklers were indeed invited in, and after unmasking and identifying themselves, were rewarded with refreshments of doughnuts, molasses cakes, coffee, lemonade, or cider.
Nor were alchoholic libations uncommon. In which case, as the Belsnickle proceeded on this visits, he no doubt became more and more oblivious to his behavior and the severity of his whippings.
By the early 20th century Belsnicklers usually traveled in groups – much like trick-or-treaters of contemporary times – from farm to farm, “making merriment as they went, a boisterous, noisy, and happy group.” Starting shortly after dark, the practice would end long before midnight.