Living in these hills can be very interesting, especially when you hear all of the tales that go along with them. There are ghost stories, there are stories about the War Between the States, there are stories about feuds (Hatfields and McCoys occurred an hour and a half from my door), there are old ballads. But the stories that I am going to share for the sake of this blog are the Christmas stories, as mountain culture still has a peculiar way of celebrating this day every year.
First, I have to explain that there are two Christmases back in the hills. There is Old Christmas and there is New Christmas. You see, the folks in the hills never forgot the original date their family celebrated when they settled the rugged areas of then Northwestern Virginia. In the early 1700s the calendar was changed, and it left a twelve day gap from the New Christmas to the Old Christmas. Hence, the "Twelve Days of Christmas." In many areas to this day there are twelve days of feasting and celebrating, which also includes the practice of "belsnickeling" or "kringling."
The first gift giver of Christmas came into the woods and hills of this region in about the same time as the early settlers. He descended down with them from the settlements and stories of Pennsylvania where most of these folks had either lived for a while or had travelled through. He was the Belsnickle or Furry Nicholas. He was a mischievious fellow and would often deal punishment out on the children in an interesting way. Dressed in buckskins and animal fur with soot on his face, the wild man bearing gifts would come in and throw down candy upon the floor. The child who would grab it without asking first was whacked on the bottom with a birch rod by the Belsnickle.
Eventually, folks made a game out of the coming of the Belsnickle. To begin, the character visited homes in a similar way as many Santas do today. Often, he would wear a mask or disguise his face. Being a neighbor or a family member, the Belsnickle would amaze the children by telling them all of their misdeeds from the year before. The fun was then guessing who it was after he left. Over the years, "belsnickling" became a sport of the younger men in the villages who spent the Twelve Days of Christmas much like they would Halloween. They dressed in wild costumes and pulled pranks. Many a cabin had its chimney blocked with a sheet. The band of mischeif makers would laugh as the family ran out of their home which had filled with smoke.
Today, the Belsnickle still visits some of the remote areas in the northern mountains of our state. He is still as ornrey as ever. He pretty much remains there as the new guy, Santa Claus, moved in after Harper's Weekly started showing pictures of him at the North Pole in the 1860s. But that is another story.
For pictures of the Belsnickle please visit my gallery. Friends, I encourage you to seek out the history of Christmas in your area. It is amazing what you will discover.