Prairie Tayles: Oh, You Better Watch Out

Dec 15, 2017

One of the bonuses of teaching for so many years is that I’ve learned much from local speakers who have shared their knowledge with my students and me. In  1986, Lawrence Weigel, a regional historian from Victoria, began a tradition of speaking to my classes about local Volga German Christmas customs. Even though my grandma’s family came to America from this region, I’d never heard about the character called Belznickel that Mr. Weigel brought to life in my English classroom.

This unique Christmas visitor wore a fur or buffalo hide coat and appeared in Volga German homes a few weeks before December 25th. According to our presenter, not only did this caller dress in rustic, handcrafted clothing, he also wore clanking chains wrapped about his waist to warn youngsters of his arrival. Sometimes he even carried a coiled whip to add to his intimidating presence. I was as wide-eyed as my freshmen were upon learning about this guy for the first time. This wasn’t the Santa we knew and loved.

My class’s informative guest told us this was an old-country custom intended to reinforce good behavior. Belznickel entered pioneer homes, where children lined up to confess the past year’s bad deeds. After owning up to their naughtiness, youngsters would kneel and pray. Belznickel might leave a piece of candy for repentant kids.

If a youngster failed to account for every shortcoming, this all-knowing being would remind the frightened child of his or her misdeeds with more than a few specific details. Our speaker went on to tell us about a time a teenage boy in his family had acted disrespectfully to this nighttime caller. In a flash, the dark Santa threw the miscreant into a burlap bag and toted him several miles away from home before turning the lad loose to find his way back home, a changed young man. 

According to Mr. Weigel, this folk personality who originated in the early settlers’ original native land of Germany was a means of social control. Parents would inform a neighbor or distant relative willing to play the role of Belznickel about their children’s poor behavior throughout the year. During a visit, if the children failed to fess up, the dark Santa would remind them and perhaps make them hold out their hands for a switching.

Several years after I first heard this tale, I discovered one of my younger colleagues at had survived annual visits from the Black Santa on Christmas Eve prior to the later arrival of Jolly Old St. Nick. My friend’s family also descended from German immigrants who had settled near Hutchinson. Like the pioneer children in Victoria that Mr. Weigel told stories about, this teacher along with her brothers and sister had to own up to their shortcomings under the watchful gaze of a Santa dressed in dark clothing as well as their watching parents.

After hearing these stories, I realized Belznickel was alive and well into the 1960s and maybe 70s. Hearing my friend’s firsthand accounts left no doubt that these visits impressed upon youngsters the need to be good throughout the year in order to avoid getting to know the Black Santa too well.

While I’m glad my grandma did not pass this practice on to her children or grandchildren, this old world custom intrigues me. Over time, I’ve found several Christmas decorations that depict Belznickel to display on a shelf or hang from our tree. When guests ask about the unusual Santa ornaments dangling among the evergreen branches, I get to share Mr. Weigel’s story and connect someone else with Kansas’s interesting past.