Category: Twelve Days of Christmas

America and the Old, Dark Christmas

America and the Old, Dark Christmas

In earlier centuries, Americans partook in many of the same dark Christmas traditions that gave birth to Europe’s Krampus.  This episode examines our untamed holiday history.

The most obvious example of this is the character of Belsnickel, (sometimes: Pelznickel, Belschnickle, Bells Nickel, etc.), who, like the Krampus, usually appeared on St. Nicholas Day, carrying a whip with which to threaten or strike naughty children. He was found particularly in German-settled areas of eastern Pennsylvania, but also in Appalachian West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Southern Indiana.

Belsnickel’s costume could vary widely depending upon what was available to the performer, but usually involved a long coat, hat, and almost always false whiskers — all chosen primarily to cover the actor and make him difficult to recognize. For that same reason, his face would also often blackened with soot or covered by any sort of mask available.

Belsnickel drawing
Belsnickel illustration by Ralph Dunkelberger (1959) in Berks History Center (PA)

Belsnickel often wore a fur coat or hat, a coat trimmed with fur, or a fur-lined coat turned inside out (to create a weird effect and make the garment less recognizable). The choice of fur probably had less to do with some essential attribute of the character and more to do with the season itself. Nonetheless, the name “Belsnickel,” which is a derivation of the German “Pelznickel,” has often been incorrectly interpreted as “Fur Nicholas.” In fact, the “Pelz” here derives from pelzen, meaning, “to beat.”  Pelznickel (and Belsnickel) carried in his pocket or bag, small treats, which he would scatter over the ground. Naughty children trying to grab these would feel his whip.

Like Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht or the Krampus of Alpine Austria and Bavaria, the whip was the Belsnickel’s essential attribute. In fact, in the 1800s, Pelznickel/Belsnickel would probably not have been that different in appearance from the Krampus as the modern image we have of that creature was only standardized as such with advent of Krampus postcards and their imagery dreamed up by city-dwelling artists, along with growth of a competitive community of mask-carvers in the early 20th century.

The popularity of the Belsnickel tradition soon saw it spill over from its original December 5-6 celebration to all the days leading up to Christmas and later New Year.  As the tradition grew in popularity, Belsnickel was no longer represented as a solitary character but by groups of Belsnickels, whose behavior became increasingly rowdy and unwelcome. Rather than giving gifts or treats, these groups tended to ask for handouts from homes and businesses visited.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of American newspaper accounts documenting this trend.

Belsnickel appearing in groups. (photo: Museum of the Shenandoah Valley)

We also take a side-trip to South America, where the figure of Pelznickel arrived with German immigrants in the town of Guabiruba. Brazil. Unlike North America, where the Belsnickel had largely died out by the 1940s, Pelznickel events sponsored by the Sociedade dos Pelznickel continue to thrive – but with an interesting twist.  There, the Pelznickel wanders about outfitted  in moss and other tropical vegetation, accessorized with Krampus-like mask and horns.

Pelznickel Brazil
Pelznickel in Guabiruba, Brazil.

The Belsnickel gangs were not the only groups of costumed youth carousing or begging on American streets during the holiday.  Some of the earliest reports of this sort of thing come from Boston, where they were known as “Anticks” or “Fantasticals,” a name also used elsewhere.  In Philadelphia, they might be called”Belsnickels” or simply “clowns” or “shooters” (thanks to the fact that these groups tended to carry noisemakers, including guns).  In New York, these bands of noisemakers, often equipped with actual musical instruments played discordantly, were known as Callithumpians, or Callithumpian bands.

In Philadelphia, the rowdy costumed traditions of immigrants from Great Britain and Scandinavian melded with those of the Germans and were eventually domesticated by civil authorities into a more manageable form, the annual Mummers’ Parade.

In New York, no such solution was found, and Mrs. Karswell reads for us dramatic newspaper account  from 1828 describing holiday chaos in that city.

Eventually a remedy to New York’s seasonal turmoil was suggested by John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, whose love for the traditions of “Old Amsterdam” suggested Holland’s patron Saint Nicholas as a distraction from the street carousing.  His re-creation of pious domestic rituals involving the saint would eventually displace holiday activity from the street to the home, and refocus festivities from rowdy unmarried men to children rewarded for good behavior.  Some peculiar twists and turns along the way are described.

st. nick
St. Nicholas material Pintard commissioned for the New York Historical Society.

NOTE: This episode consists of material originally written for the book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas, but excised due to page-count.  Mr. Ridenour’s book, it should be noted, happens to make an outstanding gift for the holidays.

The book by your host
The book by your host. A most excellent gift!

 

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

Harlequin is an enigmatic figure with roots in dark folklore of France, specifically that of the Wild Hunt (Chasse Sauvage) a nocturnal procession of ghosts or devils, particularly associated with the time around Christmas and New Year.  The myth is also common to England and examined more closely in its Germanic manifestation in Episode 16, “The Haunted Season.” We open with a snippet from an album dedicated to Hellequin’s folkore by a Belgian band called Maisnée d’Hellequin.

In the show, we trace a thread leading from medieval stories of Hellequin (Harleqin’s ancestor in France) and King Herla (the English equivalent) to the more recent theatrical figure of Harlequin, along the way examining a link with the traditional English Christmas play (mummers’ play) and its role in the evolution of the figure of Father Christmas.

 

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our first story comes from the French-Norman monk Oderic Vitalis, from volume two of his Ecclesiastical History. It was written in about 1140, making it not only the first account mentioning Hellequin (“Herlequin” in his text) but also the first European ghost story, one Vitalis relates as a true event transpiring on New Year’s Eve 1091, and told to him by an eyewitness, a priest, by the name of Vauquilin (Walkelin).

While returning  from a visit to an ailing member of his parish, Vauquilin, hears the thunder of what sounds like an approaching army and is met by a giant with a club, whom he recognizes as Hellequin and who in this case serves as a sort of herald of the ghostly crew that follows.  It’s a richly detailed and extravagantly ghoulish tale, splendidly read by our own Mrs. Karswell.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say, that the spirits Vauquilin sees passing are enduring a sort of purgatorial torment for past sins, an apparently temporary but unenviable state of earthbound damnation.  (For more on medival tales of ghosts visiting mortals from purgatory, see our “Ghosts from Purgatory” episode.)  In the procession, these sinners are accompanied by devils who torture them, chief among these, apparently Hellequin.

Our next story, from around 1190 paints a more detailed picture of the English version of Hellequin, King Herla. It was written in Wales by the courtier Walter Map and contained in his eccentric collection of myths and pseudo-historical anecdotes called De Nugis Curialium, or “trifles for the court.”  This one’s more of an origin story explaining King Herla’s transition from mortal king to ghostly rider.  I won’t give away the details on this one either, but it involves a dwarf king’s wedding party inside a mountain, parting gifts, and bad gift etiquette.

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our third story comes from 14th-century France and is a bit different as it doesn’t describe what are supposed to be supernatural events but a representation of this, a fictional procession imitating Hellequin’s ride.

The procession in this text takes the form of a charivari, a sort of parade with participants noisily banging pots and pans or playing discordant music on various instruments. Charivaris were most commonly occasioned by weddings, in particular those which defied some social convention, such as the rushed wedding of a widow or widower who not honoring a suitable period of mourning.

In our story, the wedding is that of a figure named Fauvel, who is marrying the allegorical figure of Vainglory. Fauvel, by the way, is a horse representing all the worst traits of social climbers of the day.

The satiric Romance of Fauvel (“Romance” = “novel”) was written in 1316 by a Gervais du Bus, then much enlarged in 1316 with additions, including our charivari scene, by another writer by the name of de Pesstain.  The text describes a particularly carnivalesque scene including a bizarre, wheeled noise-making machine, and all sorts of taboo-breaking behavior by the participants. The connection between the Wild Hunt and carnival is also noted in an 18th-century German carnival procession we hear described, one mimicking in this case Frau Holde and her retinue. The Fauvel passage ends with the narrator encountering a giant recognized as Hellequin, who is bringing up the rear — leading from behind in this case.

Fauvel
Charivari illustration from The Romance of Fauvel.

We then have a look at the theatrical, Harlequin who originated in the 16th century as a stock figure from the Italian commedia della’arte, where he’s known as Arlecchino. He wears a black half-mask along with a suit sewn with multicolored diamonds. And he always carries a sort of short club, an element that seems to be borrowed from the diabolical Hellequin.  Though he’s most well known as an Italian figure, Arlecchino seems to have his source, as a theatrical entity, in a devil of this name from medieval French mystery plays.  We also look at some supernatural Hellquins in secular plays including a 13th-century work by the Norman poet Bourdet and the satiric work, Le Jeu de la feuillée by Adam de la Halle.

We then follow the theatrical Harlequin to England where in the 18th century, the commedia plays morphed into were called “harliquinades,” frothy comedies, which eventually evolved into the British tradition of Christmas pantos/pantomimes.

We also examine a little remarked upon influence of the commedia and harliquinades on England’s seasonal mummer’s plays, particularly the traditional Christmas Play.  An echo of Arlecchino’s trademark slapstick, or club, along with a mumming character called “Father Beelzebub” helps us connect the character of Father Christmas found in these plays with the devilish old Hellequin/Herla of French and Anglo-Norman folklore.

Father Christmas (on left) from Sandys Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (1852)