Nova Scotia Belsnickeling is real — and here's a photo to prove it
'I just thought everybody knew about it,' says Anna Ritcey, daughter of Riverport belsnickelers
This story was originally published on Nov. 27, 2018.
A magazine blurb about the Nova Scotian Christmas tradition of "Belsnickeling" has bewildered locals who have never heard of the strange activity — but Anna Ritcey has seen it with her own eyes.
A Porter Airline in-flight magazine article about Nova Scotians "donning Santa costumes to visit their neighbours, jangling chains and bells" was met with surprise and mockery from people in the province who questioned whether such a thing really exists.
But when Ritcey heard coverage of the controversy on CBC Radio, she recognized the tradition immediately and sent As It Happens a photograph of her parents Belsnickeling in 1976.
"I was quite shaken by your questioning of whether Belsnickeling was really a true Nova Scotia tradition," Ritcey told guest host Susan Bonner. "I just thought everybody knew about it."
Paul and Evelyn Ritcey, now deceased, Belsnickeled in the '70s when Ritcey was a teenager in Riverport, N.S., she said.
"I grew up in a relatively small village where everybody knows everybody and so Christmas you go door to door to visit people," Ritcey, who now lives in Quebec City, said.
"This was just part of the tradition where you dress up so people have to guess who you are — but the real idea is to just have a drink with some friends."
Belsnickeling originated in Germany several centuries ago and, according to news stories and mid 20th-century periodicals, involved a visit from Santa's fur-cloaked companion — the Belsnickel.
Good children could expect nuts and small presents, while naughty ones might see the wrong end of a switch.
It's believed German immigrants brought the tradition to Nova Scotia's South Shore in the Lunenburg area, where Ritcey says it was more of a grown-up activity.
Ritcey said adult revellers would dress up, visit their neighbours, have a few drinks, and challenge their friends to guess their identities — not unlike the Newfoundland and Labrador tradition of mummering.
Her parents did it every now and then, she said, she and her brother remembers Belsnickelers stopping by their family's home on several occasions.
She even snapped a picture of her parents and two of their friends in 1976, decked out in their Belsnickeling gear, which included hats and coats.
"It may be that they're scallop bags over their heads."
Ritcey says the cotton bags were a common sight in her village, at a time when scallop fishing was more prevalent in Riverport.
"I don't think it's meant to be scary. I sent the picture to my brother and he said it was going to keep him from sleeping," she said.
"It looks older than it is because it's black and white, but that was because I was in a [high school] photo club and I was developing and printing my own pictures."
A dying tradition
But even back then, Ritcey said fewer and fewer people were carrying on the tradition, and she doesn't know anyone who does it today.
"Possibly because people have other things to do," she said.
"Maybe that neighbours don't know each other that well, because that was part of it — that you just drop in unannounced to people. Maybe you don't do that so much as you used to."
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But if Porter has its way, Belsnickeling is due for a modern resurgence in the province.
"We're glad we were able to bring more attention to this provincial lore, and maybe with all of the online interest, Belsnickeling will become a wider spread holiday tradition in the years to come?" spokesman Brad Cicero said in a statement.
In the meantime, if you want to see some modern-day Belsnickeling, you'll have to head to the other Halifax in Pennsylvania, where folks of Dutch and German descent hold a Christmas parade and Belsnickel every year.
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Laura Fraser and Canadian Press. Produced by Imogen Birchard.