When I was a kid, we used to go to the tree lighting at Fort New Salem, a local living history museum. Besides the interpreters showing us how to make punched tin lanterns and fold paper stars, there was a terrifying figure who lurked in the hedges–the Belsnickel. He wore layers of cloaks and scarves so I never could see his face. He had a passel of willow switches on his back, and a pocket full of candy canes. Although I never heard of him actually giving switches to the parents of naughty children, and my parents never switched me, I avoided him. I was more afraid of the humiliation if he gave my parents a switch than of the switching itself.
Today’s reading, describing a Christmas celebration in 18th-Century Germany, includes a similar guest. I’m curious as to whether this style of Christmas holiday would seem as alien to modern Germans as it does to modern Americans.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE
By Samuel T. Coleridge
Ratzeburg, Germany, 1799
There is a Christmas custom here which pleased and interested me.The children make little presents to their parents, and to each other; and the parents to the children. For three or four months before Christmas the girls are all busy, and the boys save up their pocket-money, to make or purchase these presents. What the present is to be is cautiously kept secret, and the girls have a world of contrivances to conceal it—such as working when they are out on visits, and the others are not with them; getting up in the morning before day-light, and the like. Then, on the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlours is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go. A great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fastened in the bough, but so as not to catch it till they are nearly burnt out, and coloured paper hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out in great order the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift, and then bring out the rest one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces.
Where I witnessed this scene there were eight or nine children, and the eldest daughter and the mother wept aloud for joy and tenderness; and the tears ran down the face of the father, and he clasped all his children so tight to his breast, it seemed as if he did it to stifle the sob that was rising within him. I was very much affected. The shadow of the bough and its appendages on the wall, and arching over on the ceiling, made a prettypicture, and then the raptures of the very little ones, when at last the twigs and their needles began to take fire and snap!—Oh, it was a delight for them!
On the next day, in the great parlour, the parents lay out on the table the presents for the children: a scene of more sober joy succeeds, as on this day, after an old custom, the mother says privately to each of her daughters, and the father to his sons, that which he has observed most praiseworthy, and that which was most faulty in their conduct. Formerly,and still in all the smaller towns and villages through out North Germany, these presents were sent by all the parents to some one fellow, who in highbuskins, a white robe, a mask, and an enormous flax wig, personates Knecht Rupert, the servant Rupert. On Christmas night, he goes round to every house, and says that Jesus Christ his master sent him thither; the parents and elder children receive him with great pomp of reverence, while the little ones are most terribly frightened. He then inquires for the children, and, according to the character which he hears from the parent, he gives them the intended presents, as if they came out of heaven from Jesus Christ. Or, if they should have been bad children, he gives the parents a rod, and in the nameof his master recommends them to use it frequently. About seven or eight years old the children are let into the secret, and it is curious to observe how faithfully they keep it.