Dec 192011

Gerald C. Milnes concludes Signs, Cures, and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore (University of Tennessee Press, 2007) with the chapter “Revels and Belsnickles,” discussing the Europe-wide habit of marking the winter months in the disguised masquerade of unruly spirits. (Folklorist Violet Alford and social anthropologist Carlo Ginzburg document these phenomena as well, which are often accompanied by animal-masquerades; Ginzburg hypothesizes that both the masked “spirits” and the seasonal “animals” are efforts symbolically to imitate the Spirits of the Dead.) “It has been proposed that the cold and dark northern European winters held such authority over human existence that, in prehistory, people sought to give assistance to powers that could influence the change to longer, lighter, and warmer days- The midwinter period received great attention and was assigned great importance, and the period from November to March was filled with ritualistic activity.” Most importantly: “Early European folkways that reflect that historical activity are still found in West Virginia.”

(Interestingly, Mr. Milnes starts next by discussing megalithic stone circles, used to measure increase and decrease in sunlight. This brings him to James Frazier and The Golden Bough, then to a “spurious social movement” [that's us, folks], prompted by Frazier’s work and books such as The Witch Cult in Western Europe [1929] by Margaret Murray, whose wide dissemination “inspired the neo-pagan movement that began in the mid-twentieth century and has carried on into the twenty-first.” Few of the “hundreds of titles proposing modern activity with direct connections to historic pagan activity” withstand scholarly scrutiny- Mr. Milnes feels- but “with published approval given to ritualistic behavior and magical methodologies, the practitioners are here to stay, and they believe that their actions assist nature’s processes in ways that have have lingered since prehistory.” [p. 184])

Again, that is Us that he is talking about, giving “published approval” to “ritualistic behavior and magical methodologies,” us Practitioners, “here to stay,” believing that our actions assist Nature’s processes- in ways that have lingered since before That which we call History began.

European masked (“mumming”) traditions, also called “guising” (from disguise), “allude to the death sacrifice, curative reactivation, and rebirth of the spirit” that form the basis for the seasonal customs that range from late October to early November (All Souls’ Day/ Halloween/ Samhain), to the Winter Solstice (Saturnalia, Christmas), and on to Spring (Fastnacht, Mardi Gras, Carnival, Lent, Easter). Although the various ethnic groups that settled in Appalachia arrived with their own distinctive means of observing the mid-winter season, the custom of belsnickling became prominent. Belsnicklers disguise themselves and roam the countryside (sort of like Trick or Treaters, actually), offering and receiving sweets; occasionally playing pranks; and challenging those whom they visit to guess their identity: the “custom is strong within living memory among older people,” and the practice continues in West Virginia. “Belsnickle” derives from the Anglicized name of a German mid-winter Elf: Pelz Nicholas, “pelz” meaning “fur” or “pelt,” so, “St. Nicholas-in-fur.” This Elf was once a dark, forbidding character: “Be careful or the Belsnickle will get you!” being a good way to keep children mindful, especially as the Belsnickle carried a switch with which to punish naughty or disobedient kids.

Nonetheless, belsnickling “is a ritual tradition so strong that you can not find an older Pendleton Countian who did not participate in, or is at least well acquainted with, the practice.” (p. 190) For surely, “these practices stem from ancient midwinter observances that originally were efforts to assist nature in the death/ rebirth process,” (p. 196) and the “drive to re-experience and influence the ancient tug of war between the cold, dark, and negative aspects of winter and the good, light, fertile, and growing aspects of spring/ summer still form an archetypal force that will not be denied.” (p. 194)

In conclusion, allow me to quote a poetic blessing recited by belsnicklers as they visit a neighborhood:

“Awake, awake, my neighbor dear,

And to my wish prolonging year,

The new year now is at the door;

The old one’s past and comes no more.

I wish to you a happy year,

That from you bad luck may be clear;

You and your families and all the rest

May with content be ever blest.

And you I will incline

This shall be an ending wish of mine.”

Merry Solstice, Jugglers!