Huh? Travel magazine claims Nova Scotians love Belsnickeling at Christmas

If a group of misguided, fur-clad Santa Clauses appears on your Halifax doorstep, you likely have Porter to blame.

The tradition lived on in the South Shore 50 years ago, not Halifax as the article suggested

An article in Porter's airline magazine about a Halifax Christmas tradition called Belsnickeling created a bit of confusion on Twitter. Namely, because few people had heard of it. (Emily Williams/Twitter)

If a group of misguided, fur-clad Santa Clauses appears on your Halifax doorstep, you likely have Porter to blame.

While the airline might not have dropped the crowd off at your home, its magazine did recently publish a story about a purported Christmas tradition "most Nova Scotians" engage in: Belsnickeling.

The problem, of course, is that few people in Halifax seem to have even heard of the allegedly "age-old" custom, much less practise it.

But the story ignited a bit of holiday merriment on Twitter.

Lifelong Haligonian Emily Williams came across the piece published in the November/December issue on Thursday while flying home and couldn't help but share her confusion.

Her tweet was quickly met with reassurance — friends and neighbours had not, in fact, all been Belsnickeling without her. 

Belsnickeling originated in Germany several centuries ago and, according to news stories and mid 20th-century periodicals, involved a visit from Saint Nicholas's fur-cloaked companion. Good boys and girls could expect nuts and small presents, while naughty ones might see the wrong end of a switch.

The tradition evolved. 

Eventually, children dressed up as the Belsnickel themselves, donning furs and masks and offering their neighbours a song in exchange for treats and the chance to guess their identity. Think of it as a wintry version of Halloween.

There was, in fact, a time when a small group of Nova Scotians followed the tradition. 

German immigrants who settled on this province's South Shore in the Lunenburg area recall it happening regularly until about the 1960s.

That history was mentioned in an unsourced section of a Wikipedia article, which the Porter magazine author said inspired the piece.

"Even though we realize that this is a tradition of the Lunenburg area and not of Halifax, strictly speaking, we thought that this unusual fact might be of interest to anyone travelling to Porter's main Nova Scotia destination," Annick Weber wrote in an email.

A man dressed as Santa Claus sits in his chair and waves to onlookers at the Fairlane Village mall in Pottsville, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (Jacqueline Dormer/Associated Press)

The tradition remains alive in the memories of Lunenburgers, but it's no longer widely practised, according to local genealogist Hugh Corkum.

Lillian Keeping, 77, whose husband is organizing the town's Christmas parade, says there won't be any Belsnickeling involved in it. She donned the costumes herself as a girl, but says her own children — now 51 and 53 — never went out to follow in her footsteps.

Tradition in Halifax, Penn.

Under the locator of Halifax, the Porter article suggests that "most Nova Scotians will gladly brave the frigid temperatures, Belsnickeling around the icy streets of their hometowns." However, there aren't any citywide plans for it here.

Those wanting to celebrate it this Christmas can still do so in Halifax ... but in Halifax, Penn. The community of Dutch and German descent will hold its 16th Christmas parade and Belsnickel this year.

About the Author

Laura Fraser

Social Media Editor

Laura Fraser is an award-winning journalist who writes about justice, politics and the human experience. On weekends, she can be found in hiking boots, on skis, or guarding home plate for The Hazzards.