MEN DRESSED AS BELSNICKEL IN SINGERS GLEN, VA. PHOTO PROVIDED BY ROCKTOWN HISTORY.
"Belsnickel loved treats — especially liquid ones — so her momma always had a bit of hooch at the ready."
A clatter of bells in the distance, a rap at the window, or a knock on the door after dark sent chills down the spines of boys and girls in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Traditionally, in the weeks before Christmas, opening the door could reveal Belsnickel, a fur-covered spectacle with deer antlers that reached high into the night sky. Holding a hickory switch in one hand, a whip in the other, the masked creature would ask to see all the children in the home, and one by one, they’d line up to answer questions about how they’d behaved that year. If the crotchety fellow deemed the children worthy, he’d toss candy onto the floor before them. If he didn’t like an answer or a kid grabbed for the candy, he’d swat them with the switch.
When I was a kid, my older neighbor, Mary, told me stories of Belsnickel from her childhood. She grew up near where Bryce Resort is today, and her daddy ran moonshine all over the area. Like a Santa/Krampus hybrid, both kind and cruel at the same time, Belsnickel would show up to interrogate her. Naturally, she always answered that she’d been good, even if she’d be a hellion, in hopes he would report back to Santa.
Belsnickel loved treats — especially liquid ones —so her momma always had a bit of hooch at the ready. It was made, of course, by Mary’s daddy. If liquor put Belsnickel in a good mood, all the better, the whole family could count on a good Christmas.
It didn’t take long for Mary to realize Belsnickel was played by an uncle or neighbor, because her brothers would all go out belsnickeling before Christmas. By the time they got home, long after midnight, they barely made it over the threshold before passing out from the booze with which they’d been plied.
BELSNICKEL's recent 15 minutes of fame on "the office" television show
The tradition started centuries before in Germany and ran into the 1930’s in the Shenandoah Valley. Christmas parties and open houses may have actually originated from belsnickling, and if dressing up in masks and knocking on a neighbor’s door seems familiar, it’s believed belsnickeling also spun into today’s All Hallow’s Eve ritual.
That would explain why Mary’s second favorite holiday was Halloween. She delighted in kid’s like me showing up at her door, where she’d ask each of us if we’d been good or not. Then she’d try to guess who we were, which harkened back to one more part of the Christmas tradition — figuring out who was behind Belsnickel’s mask.
While belsnickeling is rare today, you never know. If you hear a hickory stem brushing your window, grab that jar of moonshine you’ve been hiding; open the door; and unless getting whipped with switches is your thing, don’t you dare reach down to pick up any candy.
Jimmy Proffitt, founder of the blog The Appalachian Tale, grew up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, but he and his husband now call east Tennessee home. His writing and recipes can be found in Okra Magazine, Southern Cast Iron Magazine, and Lodge Cast Iron social. Taste Of The South Magazine included him in their Taste 50 list for 2022.