Christmas hobgoblin hobnobs in Lancaster, Hershey


November 22, 1992|By Lois Fegan | Lois Fegan,Contributing Writer

Der Belsnickel might be long gone, but the wily hobgoblin is not forgotten in the Pennsylvania German communities where he flourished in the 1800s. He will return to life this Christmas season in two museums 30 miles apart, one in Lancaster, the other in Hershey.

As he did in the century-old Christmas legend that by the 1920s had all but disappeared, he will reward good children with nut meats and apples and naughty ones with a flick of his switch.

For Maryland folk who want to catch a glimpse of this figure of Pennsylvania German folklore, it's a two-hour drive to Lancaster or Hershey. The bogyman will make three appearances each day on Dec. 3, 4 and 5 at the Landis Valley Museum, near Lancaster, and also will turn up on Dec. 5 at the Hershey Museum of American Life in nearby Chocolate Town.

The two faces of Belsnickel

German folk tales say that Belsnickel originally had two faces: one, the good side, Krist Kindl (subsequently to become Santa Claus); the other, Belsnickel, the wicked side of life. Eventually, they became one.

"He contained both the good and evil elements of nature," says Jerri Horner, a staff member and guide at the Landis Valley Museum.

Mostly Belsnickel dresses in rags, an assortment that sometimes includes striped pants tucked into threadbare boots, usually a red vest and always a black cloak and top hat. His hair is long and scraggly, and his face and eyes are blackened with burnt cork. He carries the goodies in a big sack over his shoulder and a bundle of sticks whittled into pointed switches. He dispenses both freely.

Belsnickel prevailed from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, when the character made a transition, according to "Christmas in Pennsylvania: A Folk Cultural Study," by Alfred L. Shoemaker. The author explains that originally the creature was a rural personage, traveling alone from farmhouse to farmhouse on Christmas Eve, rewarding good children and punishing the


Custom of mumming

In the 18th century, the custom of mumming developed in Philadelphia. There, on Christmas Eve, folk performers from the churches went in groups from house to house, presenting short dramatic sketches, expecting a reward of food or coins. This practice evolved into urban Belsnickeling, as youths donned masks, banded together and toured city neighborhoods playing musical instruments and singing. The occasional ruffians used the holiday visits to terrorize their hosts.

The two interpretations existed side by side throughout the last half of the 19th century. By 1920 both customs had virtually disappeared, and only septuagenarians and their elders remember them today.

In its heyday, the Belsnickel tradition was carried to wherever Pennsylvanians migrated, as far as Virginia, North Carolina and Nova Scotia. Curiously, Belsnickel's name changed depending on its localized pronunciation.

In 1985, the Hershey Museum of American Life, a little gem tucked away behind the sports arena in the resort community, decided to reintroduce Belsnickel in a holiday presentation. It was so successful that it has been repeated annually by request, says Tanya Richter, spokeswoman for the facility. "For too many years, the legend was lost," she says.

During the eight-year revivals, some modifications have been made. "Not really revisionist history," Ms. Richter says, "rather a toning down to make him more palatable to small children. Many were frightened by the original interpretation, his demeanor and the snapping of his whip." Ms. Richter and Ms. Horner agree that Belsnickel is not really understandable to children under 4 and warn parents that he might intimidate small viewers.

One for kids, one not

The Hershey version actually is aimed toward children, while the Landis Valley Museum's presentation is geared more for adults. Even the settings point up the difference. At Hershey hundreds of viewers, mostly youngsters, crowd the big open area in the museum for the 2 p.m. performance. In Landis Valley, the figure is the climax of reservation-only luncheon tours, three a day on each of the three scheduled December programs.

Al Baker, a Harrisburg actor and English teacher, will portray Belsnickel for his second year in the Hershey performance. At Landis Valley, Mike Riordan takes over the role for his fifth season. Both love the give-and-take with the audience, and both have their favorite bits of dialogue.

No switch

Mr. Riordan, a barbershop quartet singer, brings Belsnickel to life with his booming voice as he stomps his feet and dramatically accuses visitors of smoking behind the outhouse or sleeping in church. Mr. Baker always gets a big response when he questions the kids about washing behind their ears. But he doesn't administer a sharp switch of the whip to the ill-behaved before permitting them to pick up and eat the goodies he tosses on the floor, as accuracy requires.

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