Belsnickles: Santa minus the ho-ho-ho

A large German belsnickle candy container with glass beard wearing a long brown robe flecked with mica, 16 inches tall, made $22,500 at Bertoia Auctions in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — While most children’s Christmas stories focus on Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas, depending on what country you are from) as a jolly gift-giver who delivers toys to “good girls and boys,” he’s not the only game in town. His polar opposite was the Krampus, which according to Central European lore was a half-goat, half-demon creature who punished children who behaved badly. Somewhere in the middle was the Belsnickle, a dour Santa-type figure who gave gifts to good children but left switches to those who misbehaved. Often depicted as a tall thin figure, his face disguised by charcoal, he would visit children from the week before Christmas to up to a week after the new year began. Like Santa, he often carried a burlap sack from which to dispense treats or punishments.

According to commentary on the website Appalachian History, “The Belsnickle traveled from house to house brandishing his switches in the air. He would use these switches to whip naughty children.” If a child was deemed “good,” however, the Belsnickle would distribute cakes or candies.

Holiday antiques, especially Christmas ones, are popular with both casual collectors and those with an abiding, year-round passion for festive decor. Belsnickles are a favorite with many, who favor examples that were made in Germany around the turn of the 20th century. “Belsnickles are prized Christmas collectible figures that were made in Germany from the 1870s until the time of World War I. The name is derived from ‘Pelz Nichol,’ or fur-dressed Santa, and was changed to Belsnickle by German immigrants in the United States,” according to the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, a club for collectors who have a passion for pre-1979 Christmas antiques and collectibles.

A large belsnickle candy container in a red robe with blue trim and gold flecks, 18 inches tall, realized $18,000 in November 2017 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Belsnickles come in various sizes, ranging from a few inches tall to large examples at around 2 feet tall. The larger ones were typically made for use as store window displays or for affluent households. Outfitted with snowy white hair, long flowing beards and a stern expression, the belsnickle usually carries a burlap sack or feather tree and is dressed in a majestic robe. A piece’s value is often affected not only by its condition but also the color of its robe. Often, their painted robes are dusted in mica sprinkles to give the illusion of sparkling snow. A cardboard tube inside, accessible through the base or the robe’s folds, contained candy treats.

“Belsnickles come in a wide assortment of colors, red being the most common,” said Jeanne Bertoia, owner of Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, New Jersey. Her company has sold many belsnickles dressed in robe colors that ranged from reds, blues and greens to a variety of pastels, the latter being especially desirable to collectors. Purple is considered the scarcest color, and those with icicle beards are also quite valuable, Bertoia said.

A rare glass icicle beard belsnickle with folded arms, 20 inches tall, brought $13,000 in November 2018 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Collectors often look for unusual belsnickles, such as those with open mouths or figures that stand on a base made in the form of a snowy mound. Unique touches such as an ornate headpiece or real fur trim on the robes add to their value. Since German belsnickles were made for the American market, a few were even designed to hold an American Flag.

While some are purely decorative, most belsnickles double as candy containers. “They are made both ways, but the more desirable ones are the candy containers. They lift off their base, and the candy is accessed from inside the figure’s boots,” Bertoia explained. Generally, belsnickles are composed of papier-mache, but sometimes they were made of chalkware or even terra cotta, she added.

Antique belsnickles can vary in price from a few hundred dollars into the thousands. The top belsnickle price on LiveAuctioneers’ results database was for a 16-inch tall German Santa Claus candy container with a glass beard (shown at top of page) that brought $22,500 in November 2016 at Bertoia’s. The composition figure wears a long, mica-flecked brown robe with a hood studded with gold beads, and holds a lichen moss tree in his arms. Another rare belsnickle wearing a dark purple robe and having a glass beard earned $17,000 at Bertoia’s in November 2013.

This belsnickle candy container that wears a gold crown and stands 18½ inches tall earned $14,000 in November 2017 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

From humorless to moderately amusing, belsnickles have remained a favorite holiday decoration, even well after Santa Claus, in all his roly-poly jolliness, overtook the belsnickle tradition in popularity. While there is no TV cartoon made about a belsnickle coming to town, the coveted German figures of a century ago continue to grace fireplace mantels and shelves during the holidays, while also delivering joy to collectors year round.

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