By Black River Santa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was born on this day in 1840, in Votkinsk, in the Russian Empire. Though he never played Santa Claus, the score he wrote for the two-act ballet, “The Nutcracker,” adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," is part of our collective Christmas soundtrack, and attending a stage performance is an annual family tradition for many during the holiday season. I know this has to be a @Drosselmeyer favorite!
By Black River Santa
I enjoyed reading other members' stories about the infamous Belsnickel, and thought I'd share our version here in the hills of Northwest NJ.
“Out on the lawn there arose such a clatter” – no it wasn’t St. Nick.
If the thought of a lump of coal isn’t enough to induce good behavior in your kids at Christmas time, then maybe you need a fur-clad, masked man with a switch – who is not afraid it use it. In Germany, particularly in Lutheran or Reformed households, the Belsnickel, a dark and mischievous figure, would start arriving two weeks before Christmas. Wild and ragged looking, his face was often blackened with coal or covered in a mask that had a long tongue sticking out. With a switch (or even a crop or a whip) in one hand and a sack of goodies in the other, he’d arrive at a house, unannounced, and tap menacingly on the window with his switch. Naturally, most kids would scream and look for the first place to hide, but when their parents opened the door to let him in, they would be gathered together to greet the surly Belsnickel. The Belsnickel would demand to know who had been naughty and if he thought you were fibbing, he was liable to give you a swat with his switch. Then he’d ask each child to recite a bible verse or sing a song. If he was satisfied, he would toss a generous handful or two of candies and nuts on the floor. Those greedy children who jumped too fast for the goodies, got another lick with the switch.
When German immigrants came to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought the Belsnickel with them, where he continued to be part of the yule time celebrations in the heavily German settled areas of Pennsylvania, Appalachia, and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. German Palatines that settled in my area of New Jersey, in places like Long Valley, Oldwick, and Califon, in Hunterdon and Morris Counties, also continued the tradition. Over time, however, the menacing Belsnickel was replaced by the Bell Snicklers - groups of merry roving Christmas revelers whose festivities resembled Halloween more than Christmas. The late, Helen Haggerty Geist offers a wonderful description in her, The Califon Story, first published in 1966, and still available in reprint from the Califon Historical Society.
“Another custom, which is peculiar to this section at Christmas time, was ‘bell snickling.’ In case you are not familiar with this term, or its practice, may I tell you that the observance of ‘Halloween’ had not yet been introduced to this section as a time to disguise oneself in any way possible… Instead, the disguising was done on Christmas Eve as the ‘Fun Makers’ knocked on the door and waited for it to be opened and for the people to guess who the folks were who had disguised themselves. Of course, each family was to treat his guest on candy or cake or some other goodie which he might possess. If a stranger were present, who was not familiar with this strange custom, he often would be scared when the door was opened, and the callers were found to be the ‘bell snicklers’ of Christmas Eve.”
By Mervyn The Hired Hand
There is a chasm where two trees once stood nearly side by side. One was tall, strong, and had beard-like moss hanging from its many branches; the other was squat, stunted and with a smooth, shiny bark.
Fortune was kind to the bearded tree by placing its seed near a stream, where there were no other trees to shade it from the life-giving sun, and where it was protected from violent storms by the walls of the gorge. The other tree was not so fortunate. Its seed had caught in a crevice on the edge of a cliff where the soil was dry and sparse, without shelter from the ruining storms.
The tree with beard-like moss on its branches grew quickly and easily, multiplying its size and strength each year while the smooth-skinned tree grew very slowly, and would have died except for its natural tenacity and clinging roots. In fact, the smooth-skinned tree grew so slowly, and the bearded tree grew so fast, that the former was deprived of a good deal of sunlight by the shadow of the latter.
After many years, the bearded tree reached its terminal height and stopped growing. Shortly thereafter, it caught a disease and started to decay from the roots upward. Through all this the shiny-skinned tree continued to grow, slowly and painfully as it had done before.
This continued until at last the top of one was no closer to the sun than was the top of the other. Then one day the tree with bearded branches, though in part resisting such action, fell against the tree with the shiny skin. Each was split in half nearly to the roots, so that half of one rested between the halves of the other.
The edge of the cliff and the floor of the gorge are now overgrown with small saplings reaching for the sun. Bearded branches and shiny branches are intermingled in the chasm. There are even a few gnarled specimens of each slowly growing on the edge of the gorge. There are also a few trees with shiny skin that have beard-like moss hanging from their many branches. They appear more healthy, and are growing faster than other trees there.
Children play in the leaves in autumn with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, thinking the feasting of Thanksgiving and the horrors of Halloween will soon be over, allowing their favorite season to bloom again. Conscious that respect, kindness, generosity, and inclusiveness permeate that season, they dream of the bearded wonder with smooth skin and thank the trees for the role model they provided. Holiday children revel in their small roles in creating magic, learning about love, hope and joy.
At least in one quarter, time and nature achieved a thorough integration of disparate species, and affected a desirable change in the order of things, perhaps showing the way for others to follow.