Merry Midwinter

By Gillian Monks

The new old ways to reclaim Christmas

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!


My mother came form an unhappy home background where her parents were always separating, then returning to each other. When she was only seventeen, she decided that she had had enough of this apart/together existence and so my mother left home. The Second World War was still in progress then and accommodation very difficult to come by, but friends of the family found her an empty shop, right in the middle of town, and she made her new home in the living premises at the back.

Being clever with her hands and good with a needle, she eventually decided to open a toy shop selling dolls which she had dressed or made, with beautiful layettes or extra sets of clothes, night clothes and accessories to accompany them – and this was long before such things became popular with toy manufacturers. She also produced gorgeously dressed beds and beautiful dolls house furniture – the wooden doll's houses, forts and garages being made by her father for her to sell in her shop, and painted and finished by her 'young man' my father-to-be. Her imaginative window displays became the talk of the town!

At Christmas, she set up a brightly decorated post box in the shop for the children to come and post their letters to Father Christmas in. What nobody else knew was that she and my young father-to-be spent their December evenings answering the letters where at all possible and posting their replies back to the children. It caused quite a stir in the town. One afternoon at the local market, my grandfather heard one man telling another how his little girl had sent her letter to father Christmas… “...And would you believe it? She actually got a reply!” he exclaimed in wonderment. This was in the days long before the Post Office and other companies made a business of writing to children if their parents paid a fee. No ever found out who was writing the letters, and they never asked for or received any money for doing it, but then I have come to understand that the Spirit of Midwinter works in many ways, using many willing hands to perform its joyous magic!

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