For Germans from Russia, a Christmas Eve knock could bring ‘good’ or ‘evil’ to children hoping for gifts
The Germans from Russia brought distinctive Christmas customs to North Dakota when they immigrated in the 1890s and early 1900s. Some have faded away, but many traditional foods remain part of holiday celebrations.
FARGO — A knock on the door on Christmas Eve could stir apprehension among children who lived in the Germans from Russia communities in south-central North Dakota.
The knock, which came after dark at the Gross home, announced the arrival of a frightful-looking man dressed in fur, typically a sheepskin coat, and wearing a leather covering over his face.
The man was called the "Belznickl," a crotchety gift-bringer who would ask if the children had been good. At the Gross home near Napoleon, the man portraying the Belznickl carried chains and crawled on all fours.
“So it was like a big animal,” said Brother Placid Gross, a monk at Assumption Abbey in Richardton. “It was probably to scare the children,” and therefore inspire good behavior worthy of gifts.
“It was very, very scary for most children,” said Gross, a folklorist on the culture of the Germans from Russia.
Soon after the Belznickl’s visit, a more benevolent knock came at the door, this time from a person dressed in a costume of flowing ribbons and representing the Kristkindl, the Christ child.
“The Kristkindl was a very beautiful thing,” and provided a dramatic contrast to the Belznickl, Gross said. “I suppose like good and evil.”
The old traditions came to North Dakota with the immigrants who lived in Russia for a time before coming to the United States in the 1890s or early 1900s.
The Kristkindl costume used around Napoleon, in fact, was brought over from Russia, Gross said. In the Gross home, the candles on the Christmas tree in the days before rural electrification were lighted only while the Kristkindl visited.
Many of the holiday traditions carried over from Germany and Russia have faded significantly in the decades following World War II, said Gross, who is 86.
By the mid-1950s, if not sooner, the influence of Santa Claus prevailed, Gross said.
“It gradually petered out,” he said. “People didn’t do it.”
As now, Christmas was a time of feasting. The Gross family, which included 13 children, gathered for a goose dinner. His father played the organ, and family members sang Christmas carols.
Henrietta Gall Fiechtner, who grew up on a farm near Wishek, had to do chores, including milking cows, before Christmas celebrations could begin. Children had to memorize poems and stories about Christmas for a program.
When Fiechtner was young, all the Christmas carols were sung in German. “We had a lot of older people who didn’t know English,” she said. “The older people talked German all the time.”
Santa Claus was just beginning to become part of Christmas celebrations when Fiechtner, who is 82, was young.
“Some families had a Santa Claus come,” she said. “We did not do that.”
Baked goods with a German-Russian flavor have endured more than customs, such as visits from the Belznickl and Kristkindl.
Verda Tschritter, of West Fargo, who grew up on a farm near Linton, is an avid baker. Every holiday season, she spends hours in her kitchen baking German desserts and dishes including pfeffernusse cookies, kuchen, knoephla soup and borscht.
When growing up, the Christmas dinner was split into shifts, with the adults sitting down first to a dinner of turkey and goose. Later, when that meal was finished, her grandmother and aunts, who served the other adults, sat down with the teenagers and children to eat.
“There was always plenty to eat,” Tschritter said.
Baking and cooking traditional German-Russian foods is a way of keeping the culture alive for Tschritter, who writes a food column for her hometown paper, the Emmons County Record. Over the years, many variations of common recipes have evolved.
“I make this so the younger generation knows the food culture,” she said. “If it’s made right, it’s really good food. Food is a very important part of the culture.”