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! Here's an article on the continuation of the tradition in Nova Scotia:
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:
I'll be back with another Holiday Head-scratcher tomorrow!