Hound’s Quill ~ Traditions of our ancestors

Unidentified belsnickelers in the streets of Singers Glen, Rockingham County, VA, about 1910. Collection of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, Dayton, Virginia.

By Vesper J. Snow, columnist

The Page and Shenandoah Valley have holiday traditions that our ancestors brought from native countries. This is no surprise and doesn’t seem like an earth shattering sentence, but some of them are not well known. So sit down and enjoy your apple wassail for a few minutes. 

In addition to being a hot beverage served during the act of wassailing, the event falls into two types – house to house visits in which people sing and drink the beverage, and orchard visits. Today’s equivalent of the “house to house” event would be Christmas Caroling. The “wassailers” spread cheer, and are generally invited in for a “cup of cheer” and cookies in exchange for song. Unless one knocks at Ebeneezer Scrooge’s door the singers are met favorably. During the orchard visits, the apple trees are sung to and blessed to ensure a good harvest for the following year. This is English in tradition, but originated with the Norsemen.

Another tradition brought to America  known as Mari-Lywd is Welsh and is performed during the winter months. Mari-Lywd festivities are becoming more popular in the United States in cities. So what is it exactly? This begins with the decorated skeleton of a preserved horse head carried on a pole by an unknown person camouflaged in white fabric. Other merry-makers dressed in costumes such as Punch and Judy join in and seek entry into homes by knocking on the door and exchanging quips and rhymes. Once inside food and beverages are served. Some believe the horse represents the fleeing of Mother Mary (Mari) on a donkey from Egypt (Joseph and Jesus went too). Some theologians debate this and claim the event is more grounded in folklore. So to learn more about this one, please research and draw your own conclusions 

The Mari-Lywd horse made a public appearance with Krampus at a recent holiday parade in the United States. Krampus is a horned folklore figure (devil-like) from either Bavaria or Germany (Alpine folklore) who scares naughty children into behaving. Krampus is nightmarish, unwelcoming, not someone on whose lap a child would want to sit.  He and Santa Claus have made public appearances together on occasion, Santa being the good guy who rewards the well-behaved. 

Most in this area are probably most familiar with the German influence. Burning candles were originally used on Christmas trees and gifts in small boxes were hung on the boughs also. (Not boot size boxes but necklace size). Candles on trees are unsafe of course and fortunately, people stopped the practice. But another German idea that occurred in the Valley and Luray is the act of Bellsnickeling.

Bellsnickel was a guy who showed up before Christmas, dressed in furs or rags with either treats or switches which he doled out accordingly. In this area, the act became a group of men who would show up disguised in masks and old clothing. They moved through neighborhoods to various homes and people had to guess who they were. If the homeowners guessed, the mask was removed and the bellsnicklers gained entry into the house. Since many traveled as friends, usually everyone’s identity came out. Food and drink were served. (Source: Museum of The Shenandoah Valley website

Bellsnickel showed up before the holiday and greeted children. Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas showed up after children went to bed. He shimmied his way down the chimney. Have you noticed  many of these holiday traditions involve letting strange people into our houses. My daughter screamed at the idea of Santa Claus entering the house after she was in bed asleep, “I don’t want that man sliding down our chimney. Don’t let him in our house . I don’t like beards. He has bad breath.”  

Another tradition, the bran pie is also known as the “bran tub” or “bran barrel”. This requires no baking skills at all. Simply put, small wrapped gifts are placed in a bran barrel and each person picks one. Generally, the barrel  was in the family barn and children scampered outside to get a gift.  Sometimes a different colored ribbon or string was tied to each gift and a child chose a color from a bag to decide what string to pull from the bran pie in a large holiday gathering with multiple families. This still happens today, but the Page Valley is one of the few who label this custom as “the bran pie.” Other names may be “Jingle Gift” or “Secret Santa.” 

So what are some traditions that you have that are steeped in ancestry? Gingerbread making? Fruitcakes? Participating in church events? Visiting Santa Claus?  Email me: vespersnow@yahoo.com.

Enjoy the season.

Vesper J. Snow has called Page County home for more than 30 years. A former reporter, Vesper works locally and has degrees in both communications and English. Vesper loves dogs, coffee and folklore.



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