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Editorial: Sharing Christmas traditions

by Josh Kramer

Recently, a group of colleagues and I had a good-natured conversation about family Christmas traditions. The memories shared were mostly fun, sweet and wholesome, like picking out a Christmas tree, looking at lights, baking cookies, Elf on the Shelf, Christmas Eve church services and visits from Santa.

As folks recalled some of their most memorable visits from Santa or St. Nick, I recalled a far less warm and fuzzy Christmas tradition from my childhood.

You see, I am of German-Russian heritage. An old tradition of my kinfolk, which seems to have fizzled out (and probably for good reason), is the not-so-cheerful (heck, even downright out-of-my-mind scary) visit from the “Belsnickel.”

It wasn’t until I left home and moved out of German-Russian country that I realized the rarity of the Belsnickel tradition. I often tried to describe Santa Claus’ companion, explaining a darker side of the holiday season. The scary, manlike creature wore a mask, rattled chains and tormented children. Since this was a time before Google, my recollections of the Belsnickel were often met by a puzzled look of astonishment.

I told of times this menacing creature wrestled my uncles, threatened the children and disciplined those who might not have made Santa’s “nice list.” On more than one occasion, I was not on the side of the list a kid wants to be on. And thus, I began my Christmas Eve celebration by being drug out of the warm house and thrown into the nearest snowbank (for only a short time, of course). The adults seemed to relish in the fear, and their own version of “fun,” that could be seen in the kids. All in jest, of course.

Like I mentioned, the weird tradition of annual visits from the Belsnickel seems to have fizzled out. Our kids will not get to experience the Belsnickel tradition for themselves. Perhaps today, those visits would be considered borderline cruelty. To those of you who might have been an accomplice to such creepy Belsnickel visits, don’t fret. The statute of limitations has more than likely expired.

As we embark on this holiday season, let’s make a point to share stories, even if they sound a bit strange. Let’s put down our devices, talk, reminisce and enjoy the company of friends, family and neighbors. Tell stories. Exchange knowledge. Share the memories, wisdom and heritage with the younger generation. Show them what made us who we are today.

And now that I have your attention (I hope!), I would like to make a shameless plug and suggest the gift that keeps on giving each month of the year: a subscription to the North Dakota Living magazine! It’s a great gift and, unlike the Belsnickel, will be a welcome addition in your home.

Peace to all and Merry Christmas!

Josh Kramer, editor-in-chief of North Dakota Living, is executive vice president and general manager of NDAREC. Contact him at