Once upon a time in the German Swiss Alps, a Christmas tradition was born. Near the holidays, villages were visited by a legendary character dressed in ragged furs. On the fur outer-garments were small bells and sprigs of holly.
This sprightly guy was called “Belsnickel,” which means “Trickster in Furs.” His visits were greeted with mixed feelings, for in one hand he carried a switch, to be used as a type of paddle on youngsters who had “behaved poorly” during the previous year. Over the other shoulder he carried a bag of treats for which the “well-behaved” children had to sing songs or recite poems. As the villagers scrambled on the cobblestone streets to retrieve the “goodies” scattered there by the Belsnickel, he would disappear for another year.
When people from that area emigrated to Colonial America, they brought along most of the Old Country’s customs. The legend of the Belsnickel, although changed in some ways, lives on today in many of the Pennsylvania “Dutch” families of Lancaster and neighboring counties.