The Legend of Belsnickel Picks Up Where Santa Left Off

How I imagine Belsnickel looks

The state of affairs post-Christmas for parents of young children looks like this: the Elf on the Shelf is gone, and Santa’s on break until next December. Children hold their Christmas presents safely and smugly in their arms, knowing they’re no longer at risk of landing on the naughty list, and Christmas-celebrating parents everywhere instantly lose leverage over our kids to get them to do what we want. 

Before Christmas, my girlfriends and I were chatting about the convenience of the Don’t make me call Santa threat, and we all admitted that we’ve used it from time to time to keep the kids in line. We half-jokingly lamented that we’ll miss its swift effectiveness once Christmas is over.

I’m not saying coercion is the best parenting method, but I am saying that it works, at least in the short term. Children have countless opportunities each day to test our boundaries and our patience and it’s nearly impossible for us not to take the easy way out every once in a while. At least during the holiday season, we get the opportunity for a short cut — threatening children with no Christmas presents is an efficient way to get them to hustle out of the house on time, or to stop whining, or to stop fighting, or to… [fill in the blank here].

So during this pre-Christmas chat, my friend Sarah told us about a post-Christmas solution: Belsnickel. Belsnickel was her grandparents’ way of keeping their kids in check between January and November — those long months before parents can start name dropping Santa again. In their family, Belsnickel is a rogue Christmas elf who hangs around and snatches away “naughty” kids’ Christmas presents any time of year.

I’m actually guessing on the spelling of Belsnickel. It could be Bell Snickel, Bells Nickel, or any variation of letter combinations — Sarah’s never seen it in writing — but I’ll explain in a little bit why I landed on the spelling that I did. 

But first, can we all agree that the idea of Belsnickel is terrifying? It’s a little creature who doesn’t even have the common courtesy of a shelf elf to make its presence known and causes children to live in fear all year long that their personal possessions will be taken away from them.

I am not saying Belsnickel is a good idea, but I am saying that I get it.

Most modern parenting experts will tell you that issuing arbitrary punishment (e.g. Belsnickel) is far less effective than implementing natural consequences for undesirable behavior.  And, yet, here we are — well-meaning parents trying our best in a world full of conflicting and confusing parenting advice and judgment at every turn for the choices we do make. What I’m saying is that Belsnickel happens.  

And, believe it or not, it could be worse. 

I googled “Belsnickel” in preparation for writing this article and discovered that it is a character from Germanic folklore that came to America through the Pennsylvania Dutch community. Here’s a direct quote from Wikipedia: “Belsnickel is a man wearing furs and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He is typically very ragged and disheveled. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also pocketsful of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.”

It seems Sarah’s grandparents took creative license with not only the stature of Belsnickel but his timing and intentions because he traditionally appeared before Christmas, more like a sadistic Elf on the Shelf. “He would rap on the door or window with his stick and often the children would have to answer a question for him or sing some type of song. In exchange, he would toss candies onto the floor. If the children jumped too quick [sic] for the treats, they may end up getting struck with Belsnickel’s switch.”

In a world where you might be regretting a parenting choice, remember that it could have been way worse. Your rogue Belsnickel elf could have been a window-rapping, switch-hitting, fur-wearing Belnsickel. It’s the sum of our parenting choices that shape our kids, not a single decision we make, even if it’s introducing an ever-present, all-knowing, vigilante elf into our homes (see I Retired Elf on the Shelf and Here’s What Happened for more on this). Trust yourself and your choices. You’ve got this.

I should also note that I’ve met Sarah’s father and his parents, and they’re all lovely people with no permanent damage due to the Belsnickel years. And now I’m curious — have you heard of Belsnickel? Is this or a similar tradition present in your family? What shortcuts have you taken to gain compliance from your kids? 


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Rebecca is the former Managing Editor for both Mid-Peninsula Moms Blog and San Francisco Moms Blog. She and her husband moved to San Francisco from the East Coast in 2008 and love raising their two children in the city. Rebecca worked for two Fortune 500 companies in a variety of HR roles before surprising everyone, including herself, and leaving her job to stay home with her kids. She's written for a variety of online parenting publications including Scary Mommy, Motherly, and YourTango, but promises that she can talk about non-parenting stuff in real life. Follow her on social media at @rlang165 and on


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