Excerpted from Spooky Maryland
My sisters and my baby brother danced about the house, whispering to each other excitedly about the coming of der Belznickel on that snowy December 5th evening, the day before the Feast of Saint Nicholas. According to the stories, the good Saint Nicholas chains up the Devil on the eve of his Birthday – December 6th — and makes him visit all of the children in the village to see if they have been behaving themselves and deserved the attention of Kirstkindel. Those who are good will receive gifts, but those who are naughty…. Well, those children who do not know their prayers or their school recitations or who have been troublesome at home might find themselves whipped with der Belznickel’s switch or tied up with his chains; and they will receive coal in their stockings instead of presents.
Of course, I did not participate in the excited whispering or silly romping of the youngsters. I was above such foolishness, having turned twelve on my last birthday. Instead, I peeled potatoes in the kitchen to help meine Muter with dinner. I heard several pairs of feet stampeding up the stairs and shaking the floorboards over my head and sighed a little at all the dramatics. Just then, someone tugged on my skirt, and I looked down at Hans, my three-year-old brother.
“Gretel, will der Belznickel come tonight?” he asked me, his huge blue eyes wide with anxiety. I scooped him up into my arms and gave him a reassuring hug.
“Yes Hans, he will come tonight,” I told him. And he would too. I had seen Uncle Oskar stashing a dark costume – consisting of raggedy fur-trimmed black clothes, a headband with goat-horns glued to the top, a long whippy switch, and a thick, rattling chain – in the empty stall in the barn about an hour before sunset. Right after dinner, Uncle Oskar would duck out to “see to the horses” and a few moments later, der Belznickel would make his visit to see if we children had been good enough to receive the attentions of Saint Nicholas tomorrow.
“Will he have a switch and chains? Will he tie us up?” Hans asked.
“Der Belznickel only ties up naughty little boys and girls. But you have been good, so you do not need to worry,” I said. I put him down and he scampered off upstairs to talk to Inga and my other sisters while I finished the potatoes.
There were fourteen of us at dinner that night – Muter, Vater, my four sisters and three brothers, Uncle Oskar, Aunt Helga, their two children, and me. As the oldest child, I watched over the others and made sure that the babies got fed. Then Uncle Oskar slipped out to “feed the horses” and the grown-ups exchanged happy grins over the little children’s heads.
The first sign that “der Belznickel” was approaching was a loud, rude banging on the front windows. Hans and Inga screamed when a soot-covered face with long black whiskers was pressed against the glass. Then the front door burst opened and der Belznickel rumbled into the parlor, rattling his chains. The children cowered and whimpered and screamed half in fear and half in delight at the raggedy creature with his goat’s horns and bag full of something – was it candy or coal? The answer depended on what happened next!
Der Belznickel made all of us – even me – line up in a row in our parlor. Starting with me, we began to answer whatever questions he asked us. He rattled his switch at me and made me quote the Scripture passage from last Sunday’s church service. Martin – the next oldest – recited a poem he had memorized for school. And on down the line. Every time we got an answer right, der Belznickel would stomp about in rage because he hadn’t tricked us, and the little ones would squeal.
I was distracted from Uncle Oskar’s antics by a strange flickering in the lantern light. Something was wrong with Uncle Oskar’s shadow. I began watching his shadow as he made Ludwig recite next. When Uncle Oskar lunged one way, the shadow went the opposite way. As I watched, it lifted the chains over its head. The shadow’s hands seemed impossibly long, and the fingers looked more like claws. I shivered, chills running over my skin. The horns on the shadows head were very sharp, and the legs impossibly long. Then the shadow broke away from Uncle Oskar completely, just as Ludwig finished his recitation. While the grownups and children all cheered for Ludwig’s success, the shadow slid over the wall like oil and coiled up near the ceiling. Then it opened glowing yellow eyes and looked straight at me.
I gasped, my heart pounding in my throat, and I could feel my legs shaking. My terror was masked by the happy shrieks of the youngest children, who were watching Uncle Oskar – the pretend Belznickel – stomping up and down the hallway rattling his chains and howling in “anger”. I faced the opposite direction, toward the corner of the room, watching the real Belznickel slide down the wall, his shadowy form slowly solidifying into a short, twisted figure dressed in coal black fur with a broken nose and glowing yellow eyes. No one else noticed him as he slithered like a snake passed my parents and Aunt Helga and began stalking the hallway at Uncle Oskar’s heels.
My stomach was twisted into a knot. I wanted to run away and be sick, but I couldn’t tear my eyes off the evil figure that stopped before my cousins and watched as they spelled several difficult words at Uncle Oskar’s request. Johanna stumbled a bit, and der Belznickel gave an audible chuckle and seemed to grow larger within the shadow of my Uncle Oskar. When Johanna recovered herself enough to finish spelling her word successfully, der Belznickel shrunk in size and frowned. Occasionally, the creature would dart a look at me and give me a twisted grin.
Little Hans was the last one in line, and he was terrified. He stared up at large Uncle Oskar and couldn’t breath a word.
“Have you been a good boy?” Uncl
e Oskar asked, taking pity on the small figure. Hans nodded fervently, and Uncle Oskar patted his head and handed him a boiled sweet. Behind him, der Belznickel stomped in rage and then dematerialized, becoming a thick black oozing mass that gradually sank back into Uncle Oskar’s shadow and was gone.
I staggered a little, as if a weight had been released from me, and stared suspiciously at the shadow, wondering if the creature was really gone for good. My siblings and cousins were mobbing Uncle Oskar, demanding sweets from “der Belznickel” since they had all done so well with their recitations. As he handed out the treats, I heard a knock at the window. I looked out into a pair of glowing yellow eyes in a twisted face.
“I will see you again next year Gretel,” der Belznickel hissed through the glass. “Try not to be too good.”
I screamed then and fainted, toppling to the floor before my Vater could catch me. They told me later that all was confusion in the parlor for several minutes, during which time Uncle Oskar slipped away. I awoke to the stinging sensation of smelling salts, and clung to my Muter and cried as if I were no older than Hans. My siblings and cousins laughed at me, their own fear forgotten, but my Muter hushed then, realizing that my terror had nothing to do with Uncle Oskar. She sent them away to the kitchen to eat their sweets. When they were gone, I told Muter and Vater and Aunt Helga what I had seen and heard.
Vater nodded his head several times as I spoke, and then said: “Meine Kind, I once saw the real der Belznickel too when I was about your age. I will tell you now what my Vater told me then. Der Belznickel is bound by the goodness of Saint Nicholas. If you are a good child – if you do your best and try to be kind and say your prayers – no harm will come to you.”
I shuddered, remembering the look on der Belznickel’s face when he called my name.
“I will, Vater. I will,” I promised fervently.
“I have heard that people who see der Belznickel also have the good fortune to see Saint Nicholas,” Aunt Helga added unexpectedly. “My Muter told me that she saw them both at the Feast the year she turned twelve. Watch carefully tomorrow, Gretel, and you may also see the blessed Saint.”
The grown-ups hustled me to bed after that and Muter tucked me up tight. I was quickly joined by my sisters, who drifted off immediately, but I couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing the leering face of der Belznickel before me, and hearing him call my name. Downstairs, the grandfather clock chimed the hours away as the house grew quiet and the adults went to bed.
As time ticked its way toward midnight, a moonbeam shone through the window, shining across the room and dazzling my eyes. Beautiful, it was, and comforting. I slipped out of bed and went to look out at that moon that was turning our room into a shadowy and mysterious place. It was as bright as noon outside, and the trees and bushes cast serene shadows over the snowy landscape. Then I saw, riding up to the road on a dashing white horse, was a bearded man dressed in red with white fur lining his hood. It was Saint Nicholas. Running before him and muttering darkly, was der Belznickel. The grim little figure seemed more comic than scary now, bound by his rattling chains and forced to dance to the whim of the good Saint behind him.
For a moment, the Saint paused in front of my house and looked up at my window. He raised a solemn hand to me, and I smiled and waved back. Then he spurred his horse away down the road, der Belznickel scampering ahead of him like a little black dog, and they disappeared into the dazzling snowscape under the light of the full moon.
With a soft sigh, I returned to the comfort of my bed, sensing that this was the last time I would see either der Belznickel or Saint Nicholas. And I knew something else too. I knew that I had nothing to fear from the grim little creature, not now, not ever. I fell asleep with a smile on my face, and woke the next morning to the joyful shouts of my siblings on Saint Nicholas Day.