Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Dear Friend Mable come down on beldsnickle night"

This cheery card was postmarked on December 14, 1915, in Wrightsville, York County, Pennsylvania. It is addressed to Miss Mable Smith, also of Wrightsville.

The writing on the card is in light pencil, in cursive and appears to be the script of a child. Here is my best take on what is written:
Dear Friend Mable
come down on beldsnickle night
We want you to go along and we will paint you
let me know if you will come for sure
My address is the same as yours
Mable had an RFD (Rural Free Delivery) address that simply stated "Wrightsville, RFD, No. 1." So, presumably, if Mable just put a full name, Wrightsville, and RFD on a postcard, the postal workers would have known what to do with the reply. I think that's what the writer is indicating with regard to the "same address."

The beldsnickle referred to by the writer is either a variation or misspelling of Belsnickel. (It is also spelled Belschnickel, Belznickle, Belznickel, Pelznikel, or Pelznickel, according to Wikipedia, so clearly there is not wide agreement on one "correct" spelling.)

Belsnickel is a Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus type of figure in old German folklore. The Pennsylvania Dutch, here in the southcentral portion of the state, have kept Belsnickel alive in some of their December traditions. Here is a description, from Wikipedia:
"The Belsnickel shows up at houses 1–2 weeks before Christmas and often created fright because he always knew exactly which of the children misbehaved. He is typically very ragged and mean looking. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat bad children. The children escape unharmed, but they are scared into being good so that Santa will bring them presents on Christmas."
So — and this is a lazy simplification — Belsnickel is essentially Krampus, minus the demonic appearance. (Some versions of Belsnickel do, however, have the frighteningly long tongue associated with Krampus.)

Here's another excerpt from Wikipedia:
"Although he may seem like a harsh character, the tradition of Belsnickel is an amusing one and rather benign. Krampus and Belsnickel are two separate Christmas characters. Krampus is a wild, horned figure akin to the devil. His name translates to 'claw'. Belsnickel, on the other hand, dressed in furs and was very human, save for his short stature."
The "Belsnickel Night" referred to on this postcard is possibly (but not definitely) Christmas Eve. I'm not sure what "we will paint you" means.

For more on Belsnickel, see this November 2013 article by Kathy Lauer-Williams in The (Allentown) Morning Call and this 2008 York Town Square blog post by Jim McClure.

1 comment:

  1. My two grandmothers - one born in 1889 and the other born in 1883, often told me of their belsnickeling. It seems that they dressed in costumes similar to Halloween costumes and would travel from house to house on Christmas Eve asking for treats. I actually still have one or two belsnickeling costumes. For many years my mother wore the one costume as a Halloween costume during the early 1930's and my sisters wore the costume during the 1950's. Unfortunately the costume is in rather bad shape today - torn, dry rot, stained.