Have you seen the previews for the movie Krampus? These days we don’t tend to think of monsters during the Christmas season, but back before we had the option of watching Elf or A Christmas Story on TV every night, we humans satisfied our need for entertainment by sharing Christmas stories around the fire. There is an ancient tradition of telling “winter tales” that included fantastic or paranormal elements inspired by our fears of the dark.
My favorite figure from these tales is the Belznickel, a figure from Germanic legend that is very much like Krampus. They’re the opposite of St. Nicholas. Where the saintly Nick rewards children who’ve been good, the Belznickel does the opposite – he punishes the bad.
With whips and chains.
That could make for a very scary Christmas if you’ve been bad.
He goes by different names including Belznickel, Krampus, Black Peter, Knecht Ruprecht, and my personal favorite, the Swiss version, Schmutzli. Despite the different names, the image is strikingly similar. The Christmas demon is generally depicted as dark, with the figure of a man but the horns and sometimes feet of a goat. He carried a whip to chastise, and chains to confine or remove miscreants.
Some believe stories of the Belznickel derive from the vindictive Germanic god Woden, whose name in older dialects was Pelzmartel. According to legend, Pelzmartel and his wife would come to earth each year from December 25 to January 6 and they were welcomed with bonfires. In mumming tradition, the evil Belzickel figure is always portrayed by a man while his companion, the good and generous Christkindl, is always potrayed by a woman despite the fact that the name translates to Christ child and should therefore be male. This suggests that the “Christkindl” character is just a Christianized version of Woden’s wife, who was said to be as good and kind as Woden was nasty.
Others trace the Belznickel tradition to the popular stories of St. Nicholas, a bishop who lived in around the year 300 in an area now part of modern Turkey. Nicholas supposedly put money in a girl’s shoes one night to keep her from falling into prostitution. From that came the custom of putting gifts in stockings or on the floor. In some places, it was expected not only for the Belznickel to threaten punishment but also to scatter candy and treats on the floor to reward well behaved children. If they reached down to pick up the goodies while he was still there, they risked getting hit with a whip or switch.
Stories of a mischievous or macabre “helper” for St. Nicholas vary according to different cultures. In Switzerland, for example, Schmultzli was said to threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them to the Dark Forest. There are even tales of him drowning particularly naughty offenders.
The Belznickel tradition took on a new twist in 19th Century America. A Pottstown Pennsylvania newspaper article from 1826 calls him a Christmas “marauder” who created havoc every night leaving the streets strewn with lumber debris. The newspaper describes the Belnickel as short and “chunky” with a long beard and clothed in a black bearskin cap, red plush breeches and moccasins “the same worn by the Chippawa Nation.”
Often those dressing as Belznickel blacked their faces, and that became such a part of the tradition in the U.S. that by 1905, at least one journalist speculated that the entire Belznickel legend originated with African-American slaves performing at Christmas.
The black face disguise goes along with another part of the Belznickel tradition that seems to fit Halloween better than Christmas. Troupes of men would go from house to house in costume, play up the part of the Christmas demon, and then be treated to drinks and food. This is called “Belznickeling.” Even as recently as 30 years ago, a group of these revelers scared the heck out of one college student returning home for a visit with her parents. After the rest of the family had gone to bed, she heard noise outside and looked out the window to see the house surrounded by men wearing masks. She woke her parents and begged them not to open the door, but they did anyway and the men pushed their way inside and staggered into the kitchen, demanding drinks. Her parents tried to explain that this was an old European tradition.
In my experience, I would expect the college students to be the ones dressing in costumes, stumbling around in search of alcohol. Maybe the tradition of Belznickeling is still practiced more widely than we realize.
I found the Belznickel character so interesting that I used him for the basis of my traditional Regency Christmas story “Bride of Belznickel,” which was published by Ellora’s Cave Cotillion in ebook a few years ago but just released in print this year in my anthology A Not-So-Traditional Regency Christmas. In my tale, the heroine Hannah is forced to spend Christmas with cousins who ridicule her at every turn. To get even, she tries to scare them with tales of a Christmas demon. But then her stories start to come to life, and no one knows what to do about it, Hannah least of all.
I think we need a few figures like Belznickel or Krampus to remind us that it really does matter whether you’re naughty or nice to other people, especially during a season that is supposed to be about peace, joy and good will but is often more about stress, pressure and competition. I don’t want to be dragged off to the netherworld by a cloven-hoofed demon, but my family will certainly agree that there are times when I deserve to be. At times when I need a reality check, maybe a dose of fantastic horror is just what is required to keep me in line.