He may look like jolly old St. Nick with his snow white hair and flowing beard, but the character known as Belsnickle is a crotchety version of Santa Claus. Stern-looking and brandishing a switch instead of a sack full of toys, Belsnickle is like the dark side of Santa incarnate.
Belsnickle figures, coveted Christmas collectibles that grace homes during the holidays, can deliver joy to collectors year round, no matter how grumpy some of them may look. Here are 10 things to know about them:
1. Belsnickles originated in Germany in the 1870s
Also spelled Belsnickel, Pelznickel, and several other variants, the name is derived from “Pelz Nichol” (Nicholas in furs) and was changed to Belsnickle by German immigrants in the United States, according to Golden Glow of Christmas Past, a club for collectors who have a passion for pre-1979 Christmas antiques and collectibles. These figures were made until World War I.
2. Belsnickel was a companion of St. Nick
But according to German folklore, instead of helping to deliver toys on Christmas Eve, Belsnickle would visit households a week or two before the holiday. Dressed in fur pelts or a robe, he carried a bag of cakes and candy in one hand to reward good children and a switch in the other to punish naughty ones.
3. Belsnickles reflected the 19th century version of Santa Claus
Until 1881, that is. Although he had drawn Santa Claus years prior, it was the image German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast created in 1881 that is the now-iconic and modern image of Santa as the jolly and rotund man. The image change has a lot to do with why the mysterious, old-world Belsnickle has become such a popular Christmas collectible today.
4. Belsnickles have snowy hair and long flowing beards
They are also dressed in robes and most have a stern expression. They also usually carry a burlap sack or feather tree in the crook of an arm. While some are purely decorative, most Belsnickles double as candy containers, which are more desirable to collectors. They lift off their base, and the candy is accessed from inside the figure’s boots. Belsnickles are generally composed of papier-mâché or chalkware and sometimes even terra cotta.
5. Belsnickles come in various sizes
Ranging from a few inches tall to large examples that are around two feet tall, the larger ones were typically made for affluent households or for use as store window displays. The smaller forms can have a metal holder on top of the head for hanging on a tree.
6. Belsnickles come in a wide range of colors
According to Bertoia Auctions, which has sold many Belsnickles over the years, red is the most common color. Robe colors also range from blues and greens to a variety of pastels, the latter being especially desirable to collectors. Purple is considered the scarcest color, according to Bertoia.
7. Collectors like unusual features
Collectors look for Belsnickles with open mouths and teeth showing, which are rare and valuable. Also rare are figures with beards made of glass icicles. Other unique touches include an ornate headpiece or real fur trim on the robes, which add to their value, or face mask. Believe it or not, some Belsnickles even have kinder expressions.
8. Belsnickles may stand on a base
These bases are made in the form of a snowy mound, and since German Belsnickles were made for the American market, some were even designed to hold an American Flag.
9. Value is determined by three main factors
A piece's size, condition and overall aesthetics, including the color of its robe, all determine its value. Painted robes are also often dusted in mica sprinkles to give the illusion of sparkling snow.
10. Antique Belsnickles widely vary in price
These Christmas figures vary in price on average from a few hundred dollars up to thousands. The top price on LiveAuctioneers’ results database is for a rare and one-of-a-kind Belsnickle with a lamp fixture that sold for $25,000 in November at Bertoia Auctions. Bertoia also sold the next two most-valuable Belsnickle candy containers: one with a long, mica-flecked brown robe with a hood studded with gold beads and a glass beard that brought $22,500 in November 2016; and one made of snow-flecked composition with a rabbit fur beard and piercing blue glass eyes that sold for $19,000 in 2020.