Belsnickels and bar brawls: A brief history of Christmas revelry in Philadelphia

The region has been known to turn up around the winter holidays.

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Philadelphia Inquirer/Proquest
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Christmas Eve mischief. Christmas morning brawls. Marauding troupes of drunken pot-bangers, and a hirsute folk legend who whacks children with a stick.

Philadelphians love to turn up around the holiday — for better or worse.

Revelry in the city this time of year has long revolved around the now-controversial Mummers Day Parade, but a quick trip through news archives sheds light on plenty of other Christmastime traditions, including community cosplay that predates the parade.

Factor in the multitude of crimes, dances and other weird one-off happenings, and you start to see a pattern of madness emerge around Dec. 25 each year.

Here’s a sampling of the best holiday cheer — and fear — Philly has had to offer.

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Philadelphia Inquirer/Proquest

The terror and glee of ‘Belsnickel’

For centuries of Decembers, a crotchety old man was said to stalk the streets of Philadelphia and the rural swaths of Pennsylvania. He was Belsnickel — a haggard precursor to Santa Claus brought to the commonwealth by German immigrants in the 1800s.

Donning a fearsome mask, a bundle of birch sticks and a backpack full of mystery, legend holds that Belsnickel would rap on the windows of local homes to find out where the good boys and girls lived, instilling a mixture of terror and glee. He was clamorous and crotchety; he occasionally cross-dressed. For the good children, he would sometimes reach into his bag and throw them a handful of nuts or an apple. Others he would lash with whips for misbehaving.

There’s also “Group Belsnickeling,” in which droves of men and women would dress up as the paunchy prince of Christmas and maraud through the neighborhoods bestowing yuletide mirth.

An early form of the Mummers tradition, iterations of Belsnickeling have been happening since the city’s first settlements, though it was more popular on the outskirts of town. Philadelphia city officials at one point tried to outlaw the noisy custom, but by 1859, it was widely accepted that a ban was unenforceable.

Why is Belsnickeling around Christmas no longer practiced like the Mummers on New Years? Unclear, but it’s missed. Throughout the 1970s, Philadelphia newspapers published features nearly every December lamenting the loss of the old men who terrorized their youths.

It is hard to imagine an era of Philadelphia life in which Belsnickel would not be welcome, and yet here we are in 2020, with not so much as a Bel to snickel together.

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Philadelphia Inquirer/Proquest

Pig chases and ‘calithumpians’

Belsnickel belonged to a larger, more common custom of dress-up in 19th century Philadelphia.

At that time, Christmas traditions differed widely according to economic status. Middle and upper class residents came to fear the holiday as it was celebrated by working-class residents, who took to the streets and erupted in the taverns and squares with enough raucousness and port to make Dionysius look like an alter boy.

According to festival and folklore scholar Susan G. Davis, Christmas was a low period for work in the industrial city. The rivers and creeks froze, putting factory life at a standstill. This created more time for the workers to carry on — occasionally getting out of control.

The outdoor Christmas party sometimes lasted an entire week. Festivities included horse races, pig races, and other practices that drove the city’s well-heeled elites bananas.

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Philadelphia Inquirer/Proquest

Two of the most bothersome: shooting guns into the air (a tradition that dates back to 18th century Dutch settlers), and a more widely practiced form of “masking” (aka dress-up) that evolved out of the Belsnickel tradition.

On paper, the milieu does not seem much different than the Mummers. Come Christmas, Philadelphians would galavant through the street on horseback, foot or sleigh, with the goal of “making as much noise as possible,” according to one newspaper.

Called “fantasticals” or “calithumpians,” these paraders were by no means unique to Philly. The noise-making troupes date back to parts of Europe, and “serenading calithumpians” became popular in many American cities in the early 19th century. The Philly area was a natural home to the genre.

Christmas morning brawls

Philadelphians are notoriously pugilistic. The holidays here have been known to generate more than a fight or two across generations.

“9 WOMEN, 3 MEN SEIZED IN YULE BATTLE ROYAL,” the Inquirer reported of a Christmas morning bar brawl in 1941, just over the bridge in New Jersey.

Sadly, some of these holiday scraps devolved into holiday gun violence going back over a century. On Christmas morning in 1912, an inebriated patron got into a shootout with a bartender on South Street because…he didn’t have money to pay for his drink.

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Philadelphia Inquirer/Proquest

Excuse us? ‘Insane women hold gay dance’

Headlines in 1912 hit different. In 2020, a modern news outlet would certainly not run a story about a holiday dance party at a women’s psychiatric ward under the headline “INSANE WOMEN HOLD GAY DANCE.”

But that’s what happened for a story about the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, where West Philly’s Kirkbride Center sits today. Dancing was part of the treatment, the Inquirer reported at the time, and the annual Christmas ball was a big deal. Nearly 200 women at the hospital got to dance in the ballroom to live music “appealing to the sense of dignity and grace.”

The Grinches who stole Christmas (decorations)

Stoop thieves know no bounds. Potted plants, doormats, Amazon packages, address numbers — just about anything left outside a rowhouse is fair game for filching. The holidays add another target: outside decorations.

Every year, there are reports of missing reindeer, string lights, inflatable Santas and blow-up penguins. These “Grinches” rarely make headlines, but in 2013, one woman was caught after she made two trips to the same South Philly rowhouse to pilfer a bit of holiday cheer. The defendant pleaded guilty and received six months probation, according to court records. They have not been charged with a crime since.

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