by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen
I’m not particularly scared of Santa Claus (his freakish ability to withstand the heat inside a chimney notwithstanding). But if I had grown up in a Pennsylvania German community and heard stories about Belsnickel, I would probably be terrified. We managed to capture a rare candid photo of him while surveying the archival collections of the Goschenhoppen Historians (right), and you have to admit, he’s a bit intimidating. The Goschenhoppen Historians told us that Belsnickel comes to everyone’s house at Christmastime, just like Santa, and similar to Santa, Belsnickel also brings candy. However, instead of putting gifts in children’s stockings while chuckling merrily to himself and scarfing down cookies and coca-cola, Belsnickel throws the candy on the floor. When the children bend down to pick it up, he whips them with a switch! Good children, you see, wouldn’t be so greedy…
With their annual blockbuster Folk Festival, three museum spaces, and a library and archives, the Goschenhoppen Historians are working on all fronts to preserve and interpret Pennsylvania German folk culture. I particularly enjoyed their exhibit on Fraktur, a Pennsylvania German folk art form of illuminated marriage and baptismal certificates. I was fascinated to learn about Martin Wetzler (active circa 1854-1888), a Jewish Fraktur artist. He inscribed family Bibles and created Fraktur for Christian events like baptisms, but added a Jewish touch with his signature–he often drew a Star of David and wrote his name in Yiddish.
The Goschenhoppen Historians’s archival holdings include many manuscripts, ledgers, deeds, and more. Surprisingly, one of their richest archival collections is records from the local lodge of the Independent Order of Redmen, a patriotic fraternal organization. Given the close proximity to Amish country, it would be interesting to see how this nationalist group interacted with the more insular Pennsylvania German communities of the area. There’s a lot to study at Goschenhoppen!