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The Belsnickel: Santa's Fur-Wearing Pennsylvania Dutch Cousin

Bel’s Who?...Belsnickel.

When Christmas comes around, small children clamor with excitement. It’s the time of year when Santa Claus comes around and brings them gifts and treats. He slides down the chimney, flies a sleigh led by reindeer, and is a jolly, old man.

But there are also other characters in folklore that carry holiday traditions from other cultures. Many come with lengthy histories and come from other countries. Over time, they found their way to the United States. 

In the Northeastern region of the country, Pennsylvania is well known for its Dutch culture, especially in and around the areas of Lancaster. There’s a folklore legend that’s part of the PA Dutch fabric. He was brought over from the likes of Germany and Sweden and is a character called Belsnickel. 

According to an article from the Penn Live Patriot News, Belsnickel translates to: 

The name Belsnickel is a compilation of the German word “bels,” which translates into fur, and “nickel,” which refers to St. Nicholas.

Keeping Traditions Alive

German and Swiss immigrants who found themselves in Pennsylvania worked to keep their family traditions alive and well. One such tradition has to do with a character who’s been carried on in PA Dutch Country. This PA Dutch folklore features a fellow named Belsnickel. The tale goes back hundreds of years. In fact, it started in Europe back around the 1700s. 

In unique style, Belsnickel wore furs, sometimes rags, and a mask.  At times, his face would be darkened with charcoal. He was hardly a friendly sight. His purpose was to visit children in the area and find out who’s been good and bad. Those naughty children wouldn’t want to disappoint Belsnickel. Naughty children were scolded, but punishment was stronger for those who tried to get away with lying. 


Belsnickel carried either a stick or switch (small bundle of branches) to discipline those naughty kids, while children who had been well-behaved instead got candy or other small treats! When arriving at a home, he’d rap on the window with his stick. No chimney fun for this old man. And if those well-behaved children made a mistake and rudely grabbed at the candy offered, they might get a small smack from his switch on their knuckles. He wasn’t messing around! Behave, or else…

Are Belsnickel and Krampus One in the Same?

Wait a minute. That sounds something like Krampus? Are they one in the same? No, not at all!

They may carry certain similarities, but they are two distinct figures from folklore. Krampus is a little more twisted with horns and a scary face with blood-shot eyes. This creepy “character” of folklore trails behind Santa Claus seeking out naughty children. 

The gritty Krampus is a tougher critic, because he doesn’t just carry a switch, he’ll bag up the children to feast on them later. Yep, think I’ll avoid Krampus if I can! 

One last note of differentiation, Krampus folklore seems to be from the Austrian region, though there’s not a clear time to pinpoint when he first came about, whereas Belsnickel is clearly from Germany and Sweden.

As for Belsnickel, based on an article in the York Daily Record, after the war, American’s weren’t especially enamored with the Germans, so the PA Dutch quietly let this tradition slide, so as not to draw attention to their German roots. 

Dwight Schrute as The Belsnickel

Other Neat Belsnickel Stuff

Curious to see more about this folklore legend? The Museum of Shenandoah Valley offers a quick look at some of the Belsnickel masks of past.

What about in modern times? Does anybody even know about Belsnickel, these days? Actually, yes.

One fun fact is that the folklore was introduced to a massive swath of viewers when one of the characters on “The Office” dressed up as Belsnickel! Yes, “The Office.” The episode aired in 2012. While the video isn’t available on NBC’s website, you can still see a picture of Dwight dressed up as Belsnickel from the show here. If you’d like to catch a quick clip of the scene, there’s a segment on the episode on YouTube that you can see here.

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