A German Christmas servant (and pseudo-precursor to Santa), his name comes from the two German words "Pelz" (fur) and "Nichol" (Nicholas), meaning "St. Nicholas dressed in fur".  The Belsnickel has been variously described as thin or portly, and as a man or woman. His only truly consistent trait appears to be his commitment to justice over holiday good will.

As was the trend in many European countries in the middle ages, Germany had both happy and angry gift givers. The Belsnickel was the angry counterpart of the Christ Kindl (which, after years of mispronunciation by Americans, eventually became  Kriss Kringle – another name synonymous with Santa Claus), a tiny child representing the Christ Child.  As the less cheerful of the pair, the Belsnickel’s job was mainly to leave switches for children who were naughty – but he would also leave small toys, mittens, or fruit for good children he came across. He is one of the first Christmas characters to separate the "good children" from the "bad children" – a trait our current day Santa Claus continued to some degree with his infamous list.

Unlike Santa Claus, who brings gifts in the middle of the night, the Belsnickel made his appearance just before bedtime, announcing himself by pounding on the door or rapping at the window. Carrying a bag of various treats in one hand and a switch in the other, he punished or rewarded children depending on their behavior. Children were sometimes given a chance to redeem themselves by reciting a poem or singing a song.

In the US, the name Belsnickel became synonymous with a sinister clown-like character of the Pennsylvania Dutch, who played tricks on people and scared young children. In more southern states of America, Belsnickel was said to kidnap bad children and carry them away to who knows where. Children's imaginations called up fates worse than anything the adults might suggest.

With the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's poem, "A visit from St. Nicholas," the popularity of Belsnickel and Christ Kindl dwindled as the more popular modern day image of Santa Claus began to take shape. The Belsnickel lingered for a bit, but soon fell into obscurity, revived only occasionally to wreak some Christmas havoc...
Sources:
http://www.kindredkringles.com/legends.htm
http://www.ety.com/HRP/walshcomments/belsnickel.htm

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