Monday, November 21, 2011

K.A.C. 2011 - T - 34 ...

     Today we turn to one of the strangest Christmas traditions I have come across in my research in a long time (and that's saying something), called belsnickeling. It's a holiday practice that stems from the Appalachian Valley area of Virginia and West Virginia - essentially, think "naughty mummers" for lack of a better term. A group of men would dress in outlandish costumes and go door to door, putting on some form of entertainment and demanding payment for their performance (usually food or drink, most often drink) - if the payment wasn't to their liking, then some mischief was performed at the offending house. The belsnickelers would go from house to house continuing their revelry, getting paid off with more drink at each house, until they were fully in their cups and God knows what their act looked like as the evening progressed. As you can see from the photo at left, the belsnickelers were always masked, so if the mischief got out of hand you didn't know WHO to blame for it the next day (the thought of looking for who was the most hungover in the town must not have occurred to the locals back then). 

     Actually, belsnickeling is no more than an American regional offshoot of a much older Newfoundland tradition, called mummering or jannying. From Wikipedia: "Mummering is a Christmastime house-visiting tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador ... It typically involves a group of friends or family who dress in disguise and visit homes within their community or neighbouring communities during the twelve days of Christmas. If the mummers are welcomed into a house, they often do a variety of informal performances that may include dance, music, jokes, or recitations. The hosts must guess the mummers’ identities before offering them food or drink. They may poke and prod the mummers or ask them questions. To make this a challenge for the hosts, the mummers may stuff their costumes, cross-dress, or speak while inhaling (ingressive speech). Once the mummers have been identified they remove their disguise, spend some social time with the hosts, and then travel as a group to the next home.
     An old Christmas custom from England, mummering in a version of its modern form can be traced back in Newfoundland into the 19th century. Although it is unclear precisely when this tradition was brought to Newfoundland by the English, the earliest record dates back to 1819.
 The tradition varied, and continues to vary, from community to community. Some formal aspects of the tradition, such as the mummers play have largely died out, with the informal house-visiting remaining the predominant form.

     For a time even the old house-visiting tradition of mummering or jannying seemed to fade, especially in the larger centres of Newfoundland. In the 1980s mummering experienced a revival, thanks to the locally popular musical duo, Simani, who wrote and recorded "The Mummer's Song" in 1982. One researcher has noted that, "in common with many other folk revivals, the resurgence of Christmas mumming in Newfoundland is largely based on a selective and idealised conceptualisation of the custom. As part of this revival, one particular form of mumming - the informal house-visit described above - has come to represent the custom in Newfoundland as a whole, while other forms that were equally prominent in the island’s cultural history have received comparatively little attention."

     To give you an idea what it would have been like to have been visited by mummers or belsnickelers, here is a video of the Mummer's Song mentioned above:

     By the way, the tradition still continues in certain communities - of course, in this day and age, it is usually in small, tight-knit neighborhoods where everyone knows each other. Today, no one in their right mind is going to look out their window, see masked strangers asking to come in and 'entertain' them and give them passage, unless they have a darn good idea who they are in the first place!

     There's also a darker side to the belsnickel - in the rural mountain areas, he is a distant cousin to our old K.A.C. buddy Krampus, usually described as dressed in furs and with a mask, looking for children who have been bad during the year. No coals in your stocking courtesy of the belsnickel, though; he is more of a hands-on fellow, preferring to throw out sweets for the kiddies and when they reach out to scoop them up from the floor, he whips out switches and goes after their fingers! Thus the Belsnickel served as a timely reminder to the children to be good  ... or else! To learn more about the darker side of this character, read here: 

     Today, as with many other customs, belsnickeling is all but forgotten. It does live on in different ways, mostly as 'the boogeyman' of Christmas to generations of children whose parents grew up hearing of (and perhaps fearing) his arrival - many families have some variation of the Belsnickel Christmas ornament for their tree, as a more gentle reminder to their kids - there's also Belsnickel Beer and other items with the name ... and, of course, there are still the holiday parties! So, if you're at a particularly raucous affair and the police show up, you can always try the excuse that you were just belsnickeling ... let me know how THAT turns out! :)

     I'll be back with another Holiday Head-scratcher tomorrow! 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this wonderful blog post! I discovered it today when I was writing a blog post of my own about Belsnickel. I added a link and some of the information from your blog. It is at:

    Very, very interesting material.