The Pennsylvania-Germans brought many traditions to this country, a number of them centered on the Christmas season. Besides introducing the decorated evergreen early in the 19th century, they brought with them a legendary, mischievous character named Belsnickel dressed in fur and like a peddler, laden with small gifts and notions. On Christmas Eve, he would arrive at the Pennsylvania-German homesteads dispensing sweets and nuts to the good children but he also carried a switch or rod to deal with those children who had misbehaved. Combining Nicholas, as in Saint Nicholas, with ‘pelts’ or furs, derived the roots of his name, originally Pelsnickel. Tradition reveals that he was a companion to Saint Nicholas.
Despite his character, the doll above bears a kindly face and although the Belsnickel of folklore was 4 feet tall, this doll stands only 25 inches high. The coat is made of velvet and the vest, breeches and stockings of wool felt. The intricately woven hair and beard are constructed with horsehair and cover the papier-mâché head and painted face detailed with carved teeth and inset glass eyes. The figure carries a basket of toys and his robe is dripping with gifts along with a watch chain and a strap of bells. Some of the toys were added in the 20th century.
We know of two closely related figures; one with an original label from “Partridge & Richardson, North Eighth St., Philadelphia” (ceased operation in 1899) and the other owned by the Germantown Historical Society and currently on exhibit at the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill. The condition of this example is superlative and in 40 years we have seen nothing to compare to it. For more information on the Germantown Historical Society’s figure, see Karen M. Jones, “Christmas in Germantown,” The Magazine Antiques (December, 1982), pp. 1276-1280.
For over three decades this marvelous Santa, or Belsnickel, served as the holiday centerpiece in the home of New Jersey collectors. We are pleased to offer this exceptional example during the holiday season.