Christmas Customs

Christmas was an eventful time of the year. During the celebration was the appearance of two individuals - the Belznikel and the Kriskind.

The Kriskind and Belznikel

The name Belznikel is in two parts. Belz (actually spelled Pelz) is a pelt or fur coat and nikel is a nasty person. This unsavory person, using a switch would punish the boys who had misbehaved during the year. Sometimes he would also put them in a large sack and drag them away. Whenever a boy was being bad, he was warned - "Der Belznikel kommt" (the Belznikel is coming).

The Kriskind (Christ Child) was portrayed by a small woman in white gown and veil. She would give treats to the good children, who were mostly girls. To show obedience they would kiss a switch the Kriskind carried.

This disciplinary custom is hard to understand today.

When and how did these two characters come about? It started with St. Nicholas. We learned about him being in Holland where he delivered gifts to the good children. He was portrayed as a tall gentleman in elegant robes and riding a white steed. He had a demon-like helper who would put coal in the bad children's wooden shoes. When the Dutch settled New Amsterdam they brought St. Nicholas. The Dutch name for him was "Sint Nikolaas" which the English colonists found difficult to pronounce. Hence it got evolved to "Santa Claus". With the help of a poet and a cartoonist we know him as being rotund in a fur-trimmed suit - without a nasty helper.

Let's go back many centuries. St. Nicholas was born in Asia Minor in the 300s AD. As a boy, he was a very kind person helping and giving gifts to needy people. Legend has it that even as a boy he became a bishop performing miracles, which was the source of some traditions. He died on December 6th, which became St. Nicholas Feast Day and time for gift giving. By the Middle Ages this had spread all over Europe. He was recognized as the patron saint of children, mariners, wayward women and even thieves. Legends of him attributed to this variety of persons.

As in Holland, St. Nicholas had a demonic assistant in Germany. Throughout the country he took several names based on semi-pagan rituals. There was Knecht Ruprecht (a servant of Saint Nicholas), Ru Klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ash Nicholas), and Pelznikel (Furry Nicholas).

Here is another interpretation of the name Pelznikel. The word nikel is a contraction of Nicholas.

It was during the Reformation in the 1500s, that St. Nicholas was banned in parts of Germany. Martin Luther believed that St. Nicholas did not represent the true celebration in the birth of Jesus. It was probably at this time that gift giving on December 6 was changed to December 25. St. Nicholas was replaced by another person called Kriskind based on Germanic folklore. The children were taught that the Kriskind was not actually Jesus himself but a messenger from him. This person was an angelic-like figure in robes with a crown and wings. On Christmas Eve a burning candle was put in a window of the homes to light up the street as the Kriskind entered the town.

Dating to 300 AD, there was Saint Lucy who was the patron saint of light. This could have been the origin of the Kriskind.

The Belznikel was not caught up in Martin Luther's reform and had survived. He would accompany the Kriskind as he had with St. Nicholas.

It was these two characters that were perpetuated in the German colonies in Russia.

The folklore of the Christmas legends and traditions are based on fact and fiction. The activities varied in not only in the different countries but also in the countries themselves. St. Nicholas Eve is still observed in some European countries, especially in Holland. Belznikel and Kriskind migrated to Russia and finally to America. However, they did not survive for very long in this country. It was St. Nicholas who did and with a new name: Santa Claus.