Twas the week before Christmas and down on the farm
Three simple wreaths hung on the side of a barn.
More hung on the doors, made of cedar and pine
Amongst which dried flowers and seeds did entwine.
No fake plastic baubles, shiny tinsel or such
Would be found in the land of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
The fanciest touch these ornaments showed
Was the colorful plaid of a ribbon or bow.
Greens covered the table, and apples – and lookie!
A window was hung with freshly baked cookies!
All natural décor was the theme of the day
Folks flocked from all over to see the display.
The bull in his pasture, the hen in her coop,
Weren’t bothered by crowds that wandered the loop.
Two horses were lonely, away from the mob
But one was soon “Best Friends Forever” with Robb.
Then what to my wondering eye should appear
Than a raggedy man stalking ever more near.
He was dressed all in fur, his face tarnished ash black
He carried some switches, a whip and a sack.
His presence caused fear, my skin started to prickle
The German legends were true!
Here came Der Belsnickel!
He comes before Christmas, Santa’s disciplinarian,
To chastise young children who act too contrarian.
“A photo, but quick! I’m much in demand
I have a young child I must reprimand.”
The children were wary, they peered round the bend
At the sight of the Belsnickel there with my friend.
“I know what you did”, he started to scold
But in fact this strange man had a true heart of gold.
The children soon smiled, and started to giggle
At the humorous tales told by the Belsnickel.
With other children to greet, it was time to move on
But he had one last caution before he was gone.
Der Belsnickel exclaimed as he strode out of sight
“Merry Christmas to all, and behave well tonight!”
“Pennsylvania Dutch” is a misnomer. The people that settled in Lancaster and surrounding counties are not Dutch from the Netherlands but German. The term “Dutch” comes from a corruption of Deutsch which means German.
The legend of Der Belsnickel takes many forms. In Pennsylvania German regions it goes back to at least the early 1800s. The Belsnickel – in one version of the tale – was a grouchy-looking man dressed in ragged, dirty clothes and furs (“St. Nicholas in fur” is one translation of Belsnickel.) He wore ashes on his face or a mask, and carried a switch and a sack of treats. The Belsnickel appeared in houses in the weeks leading up to Christmas as a reminder to children to behave. He often asked the children to recite for him or sing a song. Then he would throw candy, fruit and nuts on the floor. A child who jumped forward too eagerly might get the wrong end of the switch. The good children would end up with a fistful of treats.