Belsnicklers and Mummers, oh my!

He is described as a masked man who is known to be dressed in tattered and patched clothing, or a dress and a bonnet.  He often travels with friends who play musical instruments and play practical jokes.  I’ll bet you are thinking this isn’t a Christmas post, but indeed it is.  Any guesses who this might be? Belsnickle of course!


Each year a visit from the Belsnickle was a much anticipated tradition of America’s early German settlers. 1.  He would arrive as early as two weeks before Christmas and as late as New Year’s Eve.  Belsnickle roamed the countryside carrying an over-sized sac on his back where fruits, candies and nuts were tucked away until they were passed out into eager little hands.  The anticipation awaiting his visit was felt all around the countryside.

To announce his arrival, the Belsnickle raked a window with a branch or rang a cowbell.  When the door was opened, the children scurried around hiding in fear of this odd spectacle of a man.  To avoid being recognized by neighbours, the Belsnickle wore an over-sized hat and dirtied his face with mud, and sometime resorted to wearing a mask.

When the children came out of hiding, they were coaxed to recite their ABC’s, bible verses, or sing songs.  “Nice” children received goodies from the Belsnickle’s sac, but the “naughty” children received a switch with the branch used to scrape the window upon his arrival.

As German-American families migrated during the 1720’s and 1730’s 2., so did the Belsnickle.  During this time period, the Belsnickle began to travel with a character who would play music and play tricks.

During the mid 1800’s, the two man show evolved into a group activity known as belsnickling, shanghaiing or Kris Kringling, depending on the town or region. 3.

To avoid being recognized by family and friends, these bandits dressed in curious costumes and hats, and sometimes a mask.

The Country Living 1995 Holidays issue reported that Roy T. Stephenson, from VA, has fond memories of shanghaiing.  He travelled around with his troop making noise by striking a sawblade with a hammer, ringing cowbells, whirling noisemakers, and hollering 4. until the homeowners came out to serve cookies and cider.  When the homeowners came out to greet the travelling show, they were made to guess who stood under those masks and costumes.

Mummering in Canada was prominent in the prairies and in Newfoundland and dates back 200 years.  Today the tradition is carried on between Christmas and January 6th.

In Canada, the Ukrainian settlers in the prairies and Newfoundland started their tradition based on fasting, church going, feasting and merry-making. Although the two areas had similar traditions, there were two things that set them apart:  1)  special Malanka songs were sung on the prairies, 2)  prairie mummers were never female.

By the end of WWI, the Malanka mummering tradition weakend due to the harsh climate and nature of settlement patterns. 6.

In the last decade, the Malanka tradition on the praries has been revived, 7.  but with modern elements.  The term “Malanka” is known as New Year’s supper dance held on or about January 14th–New Year’s Day according to the old Julian calendar.


Modern day Mummary parade in Philadelphia

Mummery is still alive and well in Newfoundland.  A video can be viewed of a mummering event.

Newfoundland Mummering

More interesting links

Loreena McKennitt\’s Mummery Play video

Excellent 38 second video showing how the original Belsnickle dressed

Ukranian Malanka dance video

Mummer Blog


1.  Country Living Holidays, 1995 Edition, page 34.

2.  Country Living Holidays, 1995 Edition, page 35.

3.  Country Living Holidays, 1995 Edition, page 35.

4.  Country Living Holidays,, 1995 Edition, page 35.

5. 1

6. 3

7. 3

Belsnickler picture

Posted on : Dec 09 2009
Posted under Christmas |

5 People have left comments on this post

Dec 9, 2009 - 02:12:08
silvia h said:

Beth~ How fun!! TFS!!!

Dec 9, 2009 - 04:12:23
Myrna said:

This was sooo interesting. It is always so much fun to hear of different tradions.

Dec 9, 2009 - 07:12:54
Anita said:

Thanks for the history on this tradition. I had heard about the mummers parade because my mom grew up in Philadelphia.

Dec 10, 2009 - 06:12:38
beth said:

OMG Beth fun reading this. Thanks GF

Dec 10, 2009 - 09:12:18
margie c said:

This is very interesting! I love learning about other cultures 🙂

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