Deitsch: die Geilskescht (GUYLS-kehsht)
The inedible horse-chestnut is found widely throughout the Deitscherei and has medical uses reported among the Deitsch. Lick and Brendle (Plant Names and Plant Lore Among the Pennsylvania Germans, p. 256) state that the horse-chestnuts are used as a remedy for piles. The nuts were grated and then added to lard to make a salve.
This practice is actually reflected in modern herbal medical uses for horse-chestnuts. Although the bark. leaves, and fruit capsules are potentially toxic (Kuhn, Merrily and David Winston. Herbal therapy & supplements, p. 268. Philadelphia: LWW, 2008), the seed is of low toxicity. Horse-chestnuts are effective tools against varicose veins, hemorrhoids, frostbite, and venous ulcers. The leaves and flowers can be used to make a lotion for hemorrhoids and varicose veins, and a decoction of the leaves can also be used to combat whooping cough (Source: Chevallier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of herbal medicine, p. 58. New York: DK, 2000).
So we can see here that the Deitsch medical use, while perhaps not elegant, is consistent with modern herbal medical uses. The most common use, though, is not medicinal but is, instead, part of a folk custom that is most relevant to this time of year.
Anytime prior to the Yule season, typically between December 6 and December 21, a shadowy figure called Der Belsnickel appears at homes throughout the Deitscherei. While agents of Christianity have, over the centuries, attempted to portray Belsnickel (whose name translates to "pelt Nicholas" or "Nicholas in furs"), the roots of this character pre-date Christianity.
In various regions through Southern and Southwestern Germany, Belsnickel is known by various names, including variations of "Belznickel" and "Krampus." While the Krampus has evolved into a rather demonic figure in modern portrayals, Belsnickel, as he appears in the Deitscherei, carries with him something that is perhaps closer to the real entity whom he reflects: the Teutonic god, Wudan (also called Wodan, Wotan, Woden, etc.).
Wudan is a complex, and often unpredictable deity. Belsnickel is His shady Seeker aspect, who wanders Mannheim (this earthly realm) looking for wisdom. His Wish-Granter aspect appears later on as "Santa Claus," but it is within his Seeker aspect that horse-chestnuts play a role.
Belsnickel carries with him a bag that contains goodies and not-so-goodies. Among the items therein are horse-chestnuts. When Belsnickel pays a visit to a home, he presents the residents with arcane riddles. In the modern day, these riddles are simplified and directed towards children. In previous eras, the riddles were more complex and were directed at everyone. Anyone who could present an acceptable answer was given a reward. All those who answered incorrectly or refrained from answering were then presented with the horse-chestnuts.
A pile of horse-chestnuts was laid out. There was always one horse-chestnut less than there were competing individuals. With the crack of a switch, each person had to try to grab a horse-chestnut while Belsnickel swatted at hands and horse-chestnuts with the switch. Those who won a horse-chestnut were then given a reward. The one person who had no horse-chestnut was then given a thwack of the switch.
What was the purpose of this exercise? It is consistent with Wudan's general disposition. First He seeks and rewards wisdom and cunning. Then he respects and rewards those who are adept at battle. Then he punishes ignorance and teaches a lesson to those who need it. While much of this ritual is all in good fun these days, it is a reflection of the need to develop our intelligence and our battle skills, with the former being primary.
In some areas in the Deitscherei even today, Belsnickeling is the original Deitsch tricks-or-treats. Parades of characters in costumes reflect the Wild Hunt of souls that begins at Allelieweziel (October 31) and runs until Walpurgisnacht (April 30). In the Urglaawe view, these dates are related to the goddess Holle leaving Her duties in this realm and pursuing the souls of the recently departed. Holle turns up in American secular Christmas lore as "Mrs. Claus."
In days of yore here in the Deitscherei, horse chestnuts were scattered on the streets along with treats as the parades of Belsnickelers roamed the towns and the countryside. We are very fortunate to see the re-emergence of these traditions in events like the Krampuslauf in Philadelphia, which brings these old Teutonic traditions to life.
The horse-chestnut, therefore, is believed to be sacred to Wudan. This belief may also be the source of the "superstition" (using the term loosely) that, if you wrap a dollar bill around a horse-chestnut and carry it with you, you will be granted money.
Along the lines of carrying superstitions, keeping horse-chestnuts in your possession also is believed to relieve rheumatism and chills.
This little nut that we see so regularly on our streets has a remarkable presence in the medical and folk lore of the Deitsch.