Meet Belsnickel, a Raggedy Santa-Like Character Who Threatens to Whip Naughty Children

A visit from Belsnickel is a tradition still celebrated among Pennsylvania Dutch.

Around Christmastime, kids look forward to Santa Claus’ visit, but they might not be so excited by a visit from Belsnickel, a raggedy character that doles out punishments as well as rewards. “Some people say my name means [Saint] Nicholas in furs. Other people say it’s the furry devil,” Patrick Donmoyer, who portrays Belsnickel every year, told Inside Edition Digital.

Donmoyer is the director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University. His job is to keep Pennsylvania German culture alive, whether by promoting dialect classes, encouraging the public to visit their research facilities, or striking fear into school children by dressing up as Belsnickel in December every year.

The tradition originated from southwestern Germany, and when the people of that region migrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th century, it was quickly established as one of the earliest Christmas traditions established in Pennsylvania Dutch culture, Donmoyer explained.

The character, who resembles an ominous Santa covered in tattered furs, rewards children who have been good with treats. Naughty children, however, get whippings with the switch Belsnickel carries around.

“If they can tell me something good they’ve done, I have a piece of candy for them,” Donmoyer said. “Otherwise, these switches get a bit of use.”

The word “Belsnickel” is an old German word, which translates to “Nicholas in furs” or “the devil in furs.” While Belsnickel sometimes gets confused with Krampus, Donmoyer explained the two are entirely different holiday villains.

He explained the character is meant to help children, who might instead be caught up in gifts and toys, reflect on their behavior in the year. “I’m here to make sure that the children from year to year recognize that this is a time of joyous occasion and gift giving, it’s also a time to consider the contents of our hearts, whether or not we’re really doing things for other people,” he explained. “Sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle.”

And no matter how the kids respond, Belsnickel reminds them that there’s still time to change their answers before Christmas Day.

“I threaten to come back before Christmas because there’s still time to make sure they can behave themselves, or modify their behavior if necessary,” Donmoyer said. “There's humor mixed in with it. The kids might be scared for a couple of moments, but really it's something that everybody seems to appreciate.”