Belsnickling—A CHRISTMAS mumming custom found in areas of German settlement throughout North America, its name derives from a German MUMMING tradition known as Peltznickel. Similar to numerous mumming and “masked solicitation” Halloween rituals (including SOULING and STRAWBOYS), belsnickling may have contributed an important element to the modern American Halloween celebration —TRICK OR TREAT.
One description of belsnickling in West Virginia began on Christmas Eve, when a small group in costumes and masks led by “Old Belsnickle” visited homes in the community, guided by CANDLES placed in windows. A knock on the door would be followed by the announcement that “Old Belsnickle” was visiting, and the visitors would enter to line up before the residents. If anyone could be identified through the disguise, they had to perform a “trick,” a small performance of song, dance, etc. If none in the group could be identified, they were treated to food and drink. As the group moved from one house to another, they were joined by family members from the last home, so the size of the group increased as the night wore on. It’s possible that the phrase “trick or treat” derived from this custom, spreading out from West Virginia throughout the country. This custom is almost identical to a NEW YEAR’S mumming custom from the Yorkshire area in England (sans mention of Belsnickle).
Although the belsnickling custom omits the phrase “trick or treat” when practiced elsewhere, it takes on other interesting elements: In Nova Scotia, for example, the belsnickles served the purpose of both mummer and bogeyman—part of the performance involved querying terrified children as to whether they’d been good or not, and rewarding them with a piece of candy if they replied in the affirmative. Parents used belsnickles as a threat to bad behavior, and many children were actually afraid to venture outside after dark around Christmastime. At the end of each performance, the Nova Scotia belsnickles asked for “a bit of brouse,” and were usually given a small CAKE or piece of fruit (which they carried with them throughout the night, and consumed at a party upon the conclusion of their rounds). In his 1972 article “Belsnickling in a Nova Scotia Island Community,” Richard Bauman notes: “In recent years, belsnickling has died out on the Islands, though the Islanders see an echo of it in Halloween trick-or-treating…”