Beginning in the 19th Century it was proclaimed in America that Santa Claus was a more up to date interpretation of Saint Nicholas, the tradition having been originally brought over from Europe by the Dutch community who celebrated the saint's day back in the Netherlands. But Saint Nicholas, the amiable gift-giver, didn't appear in America until after Santa Claus had become an established figure. What is more, the Dutch colonists in question were members of the Dutch Reform Church and as such had no time for the celebration of saint's days as they were strongly opposed to the Catholic church and all such 'papist shenanigans'. In actual fact the legend that the Dutch brought Saint Nicholas to America was invented by Washington Irving in an 1809 satire, the fictional 'Knickerbocker History' and has no basis in fact. (A typical example of something getting into print and therefore being faithfully believed as gospel truth… including my ideas and theories here… take what I say and go and check it out for yourself!)
It is rather to Saint Nicholas' reprobate companion, glowering from the shadows, that we must look back for the origins of Santa. With his coat of hair, dishevelled beard, bag and face blackened with ashes, he isn't laughing a merry “Ho! Ho! Ho!” He is in fact the creature who fathered Father Christmas, not Washington Irving or even some Asian saint.
It was the German immigrants in Pennsylvania who celebrated the Yule season with one of their most notable traditions – a character called Pelznichol, which literally means 'Furry Nicholas'; Pelz in German meaning hide or fur coat – the word that has become 'pelt' in English. Pelznichol was indeed “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot” and was known by many variations of his name, including Bellsnickle and Bellschniggle among others, following in a global spiritual belief that calling a god or deity by its real name should always be avoided at all costs.
The forms in which the Christmas visitor appeared in early Pensylvania might have been lost to us if it hadn't been for a man called Albert Shoemaker who wrote a book entitled 'Christmas in Pennsylvania: A Folk-Cultural Study'. Shoemaker tells us that early 19th Century Pelznichol went, whip in hand, from house to house with cookies and chestnuts, rewarding well-behaved children but frightening and whipping those who had been naughty. Pelznichol's appearance varied but he was always black-faced, bell-jingling, dressed in animal skins or patches and carrying a whip or bag.
The 'Philadelphia Gazette' of December 19th, 1827 describes Bellschniggle as
“ Ebony in appearance, dressed in skins or old clothes, his face black, a bell, a whip and a pocket full of cakes and nuts… It is no sooner dark than Bellschniggle's bell is headr flitting from house to house… He slips down the chimney at the fairy hour of midnight, and deposits his presents quietly in the prepared stocking.”
Here, surely, it is easy to see the fore-runner characteristics of our jovial but shy Santa!
What an amazing day I've just had! Lovely trip over to Wrexham... the countryside looked absolutely stunning in this glorious warm sunshine that we are having! and then a wonderful hour spent talking on air to the delightful Denise Oliver of Calon FM. I think that I could definitely take to going on the radio - it was such great fun! If you would like to hear us chatting about my book 'Merry Midwinter…
Venturing into getting a book published is a fascinating process and has some quite extraordinary - and unlooked for - results! This coming Thursday (19th April) I am being interviewed on one of the local radio stations, Calon FM, so if anyone is in the area, why not tune in around 11.am. to hear me talking about 'Merry Midwinter'? The weather is due to be beautiful and spring-like, which is just…
These people are helping to fund Merry Midwinter.