There are variations of the story in which Belsnickel would arrive before Christmas to scare children into being good, but the “more terrifying” story (according to my informant) is when if you were bad, Belsnickel would come between Christmas and Epiphany and take your presents. Belsnickel has patchy fur, tattered clothing and a black hat and claws.
The informant’s parents used to threaten him with Belsnickel’s wrath if he were behaving badly. His father told him that Belsnickel’s origins were German because his mother used to threaten him with the story. Compared to everything else the informant’s family practiced as proud Polish-Americans, anything that wasn’t distinctly Polish was delineated as so by his parents.
The informant shared this with me in conversation.
In this particular case, the fact that the informant’s parents went out of their way to distinguish the “national heritage” of this particular folklore figure is interesting. Even though many cultures share overlapping facets of folklore, the strong national distinctions many people feel actually do make their way into the spreading of stories and figures.