Before our much Americanized, and commercialized, version of St. Nick, kids growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch homes were taught the Belsnickel story, said Zach Langley, director of education at the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University.
Really, the Belsnickel was the ultimate judge of whether kids were being good or bad, Langley said.
Europeans who immigrated to America from the Alps brought with them the legend and tradition of the Belsnickel, Langley said.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas in rural Pennsylvania, a man from the town would dress in dirty clothing to take on the character of Belsnickel, Langley said. In many cases, he'd ask kids to recite a Bible verse or some other question to gauge their disposition, he said.
Children were rewarded with nuts, fruit or some other small trinket. But the kids who erred would get a rap on the knuckles, or worse.
"The classic Pennsylvania German image is a fur-covered guy walking around with a switch," Langley said.
By the early 20th century, Pennsylvania German families began to assimilate into American customs and the Belsnickel fell out of fashion.
And around that time, the familiar version of Santa Claus that we've come to know and love was developing. His image, Langley said, is due in no small part to advertising and the popular media of the day.
Nowadays, the Belsnickel makes appearances during depictions of early Pennsylvania German life at museums and historical societies, Langley said.
That's not a bad way for the Belsnickel to be remembered.
This story originally appeared in The Reading Eagle, December 30, 2010.