(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 12, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments. We hope you enjoy it as part of your Christmas celebration.)
dashed to the safety of my mother's lap as the door opened to reveal a bearded, very stern-looking man grasping a big stick in one hand and an old gunnysack slung over his shoulder in the other. His long fur coat was dark and somewhat rumpled. He thumped his stick on the floor as I clung ever tighter to my mother. Speaking loudly in his German dialect, he demanded to know whether or not I'd been a good boy all year. Any voice I may have had left deserted me at this point, so my mother assured him that, yes, I had been very good, indeed.
The old man's demeanor softened a bit as he pulled the grubby sack from his shoulder and continued to grill me on my deportment. From his sack emerged a small, plainly-wrapped gift. With gift in hand, he came over to where I was huddled against my mother and extended his hand. Somehow I summoned the courage to reach out and take the gift from him. He laughed heartily and then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone.
"Pelznickel" or "Belsnickel", as the old man was called in our German-speaking village, was one of my earliest childhood memories of Christmas. The word is translated loosely as "St. Nicholas in fur." He was not exactly Santa--whom I got to see in person for the first time when I was a bit older--but he was a popular Santa-like figure in German cultures of the past century. In some cultures he was more formidable than in others. To each of those who had been reported as being naughty, Pelznickel gave a lump of coal, or worse, caught them by the collar and "switched" them, albeit gently, with his big stick.
left) Dollhouse kitchen, hand-knitted
animals, toy stove, rocking horse
~click on images to enlarge~
The importance of the role Pelznickel played in Christmas celebrations long ago is evident in the many Pelznickel objects that survive from bygone eras: cookie cutters, chocolate molds, dolls, papier-mâché figurines, scrapbook cut outs, and postcards. He represents a composite of many older elements of Christmas figures and pagan myths that appeared in European and Asian cultures over the centuries. St. Nicholas (Nicholas of Myra), himself, was born March 15, 270, in the Antalya province of Turkey and died there on December 6, 346. He was never officially canonized, but became such a popular figure in folklore that he acquired the title of "saint."
We gathered at my grandmother's house again on Christmas Eve to await the coming of the Kristkindl ("Christ Child;" also the word from which "Kris Kringle" is derived). Tonight the focus was on the locked living room, where on occasion mysterious rustling could be heard. I put my ear to the door in an attempt to find out what it might be. Still mystified, I closed one eye and was about to look through the keyhole when everyone began to chuckle and call me away from the door. "We have to wait until the Kristkindl's work is done and the room is ready," my mother explained. "But how will we know?" I asked in puzzlement. "When the Kristkindl is finished delivering and sorting the gifts, you'll hear bells tinkling."
I was all ears. "Jetzt macht's bim!" ("Now the bells are tinkling!") I announced gleefully when the bells began a rhythmic tinkling only moments later. The door to the forbidden room was thrown open. Though the room was still darkened, there were colorful mounds of wrapped gifts, glistening in the bright lights of the Christmas tree. The Kristkindl had done its work well.
On Christmas Day, we gathered with a different set of relatives at my other grandmother's house. Once again we waited in front of a closed living room door. This grandmother was the matriarch in the family, authoritative and firm, but nevertheless kindly and cheerful in her own way. "Nobody goes in until I say so!" she announced. Just when I thought I couldn't wait a minute longer, she smiled and opened the door. The scene was more subdued than the one on Christmas Eve. It reflected more nearly the Christmases of the old communal system under which she grew up. The gifts were unwrapped but hidden under plain, white bed sheets, one sheet per person, and spread throughout the room. My grandmother directed each person to his or her hidden stash. At her command, we were allowed to whisk away the covers and experience immediate gratification. No paper, bows, or boxes to struggle with. I liked that a lot!
What really caught my attention--even more so than the gifts--was my grandmother's tree. It had a stem and evergreen branches alright, but it just didn't look the same as the tree at our house or those at the homes of other friends and relatives. By the next Christmas, I was old enough to figure out what was so different about Oma Rettig's tree. It's "trunk" was an old broomstick with holes drilled in it. Every season my grandfather gathered fresh, small evergreen branches at the local cemetery or from a stand of evergreens in the woods. The branches were pushed securely into the holes and spaced far enough apart, so that when the candles were lit, there was less of a chance that the tree would catch fire.
Focusing again on my presents, I discovered that the Kristkindl had brought me a whole box of my very favorite candy: Cherry chocolates. Oma delighted in giving her grandchildren a sweet treat every now and then. She kept her candy safely squirreled away in a locked cabinet with a false keyhole that required knowledge of the location of a secret lever that would allow access to the cabinet's interior. But she dispensed the candy much too sparingly as far as I was concerned! The Kristkindl definitely had the right idea: a whole box instead of just one piece at a time and no secret cabinet!
ow different our Christmases are nowadays. Gone is the broomstick tree, the Kristkindl, and Pelznickel. Santa brings our presents now, all wrapped in the latest designs, the tree is often real and much larger, and our living room doors are open year-round. I find that I'm actually not sad about that. Changing customs have, in many ways, made my life richer. Besides, those childhood memories make great stories to tell today's children--and generally to anyone else who will listen!
Questions or comments? Please use the form below or D-mail me directly. I enjoy hearing from my readers.
For another take on St. Nicholas, please click on Carrie Lamont's December 6 article, "An orange in your Christmas stocking?" and for an interesting and informative article on Christmas trees, see Oh Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, also by Carrie.
Pelznickel with mother and children is in the public domain.
Icon of St. Nicholas is courtesy of Wikipedia.
Tree and toy photos are mine, with permission of the Amana Heritage Museum.
© Larry Rettig 2008
A Sampling of "Santa" EquivalentsCountryName for SantaCountryName for SantaArmeniaGaghant Baba
CzechoslovakiaSvaty MiklasIndiaGanesha ChinaDun Che Lao ren Italy Babbo Natale
ScandinaviaJulenisseRussiaDed Moroz SpainPapa Noel
YugoslaviaDeda MrazUnited StatesSanta, Santa Claus, Saint Nick, Saint Nicholas