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Hobgoblin Creatures Prance About Lunenburg at Christmas

Between holiday baking, frolicking in the snow and hosting cozy dinner parties, there are many ways to ward off the ‘winter blues’ in December. In the early days of European settlement in Lunenburg County, locals tried a lot harder to ward off evil spirits of winter.

Belsnickling, a pagan tradition brought over by the Germans, is similar to mummering in Newfoundland. If you were lucky, belsnickels would visit town sometime between Christmas and Old Year’s Night and bring festive spirit into your home.

Sometimes described as “hobgoblin” or “crotchety”, these visitors would go door to door, ask the children to recite their prayers and hopefully be invited in to receive a treat and a drink. There was always much fanfare – dory horns, bells and gunshots – announcing the coming of these guests.

The tradition has morphed over the years. The practice waned in the 1980s but the image has been kept alive by parade costumes and pop culture references. Christmas Island, the Hallmark movie filmed over the summer in Lunenburg, shows the main character dressed up as belsnickel in a fur coat and Santa hat. Not quite the scary and bizarre creatures described in early newspaper accounts. 

Ralph Getson, former curator at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, remembers his first time going out belsnickling at age 17. He set out alone in Rose Bay in his disguise, hoping hosts wouldn’t guess his identity. By the end of the night, there was a whole gang stumbling down the street.

Getson says people used whatever they could to build costumes since everyone in a small community knew what your clothing looked like. 

“So you made it out of things that you had to hand. Sail cloths for making masks, scallop bags were used, pillow cases were used, doilies were used.”

Most wouldn’t let a fur-clad stranger into their homes for treats and a drink these days, let alone be able to  guess which one of their neighbours is hiding under the ox horns, but if you’re so lucky to get a visit from a belsnickler this year, know you’re part of a long-standing Lunenburg tradition.Belsnickeling Back in Pop Culture


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