Saint Nicholas’ companions are all closely related, as they all come the Germanic speaking territories of the former Holy Roman Empire. These characters act as a foil to Saint Nicholas and his role as benevolent gift giver, as they typically threaten to thrash, beat, or abduct those on Saint Nicholas’ naughty list. This is the story of Zwarte Piet, Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Belsnickel, and Le Pere Fouettard.
Zwarte Piet (plural Zwarte Pieten) translates as Black Pete. Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas and is usually portrayed by a man in blackface and a black curly wig, while dressed like a 17th century page boy. Zwarte Piet is said to be a Moor from Spain (the Moors from North Africa ruled most of Spain from 711 CE until the fall of Granada in 1492). Typically, Zwarte Piet is shown carrying a large sack full of candy and gifts which he distributes to the good children on Sinterklaas behalf, but he is also shown with a birch rod or a chimney sweep’s broom made from willow branches which he uses to beat those on Sinterklaas’ naughty list. Some legends have it that Zwarte Piet will also threaten to put the bad children into a sack and carry them back to Spain for the purpose of enslavement. Historically, the Moors, in fact, had raided the European coasts, as far north as Iceland, to abduct the local people and put them into slavery.
Zwarte Piet’s popularity has only grown over the years. Not content with only one Zwarte Piet, now Sinterklaas is in command of a whole army of Zwarte Pieten. Now he has a Zwarte Piet for every occasion. There the head Piet, a navigation Piet (Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet both arrive from Spain to the Netherlands on a steamboat), a packing Piet (to pack all the gifts), an acrobat Piet (to climb up the roofs and down the chimneys), and many others. Today Zwarte Piet has become controversial and is considered by some to be racist. In order to whitewash the blackface, so to speak, some are now claiming that Zwarte Piet’s face is really blackened with soot, as he does have to climb through chimneys to deliver gifts. Strangely enough, in a 2013 survey, 92% of Dutch did not perceive Zwarte Piet as being racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% were opposed to altering the character’s appearance, citing the importance of tradition. In regards to tradition, the Zwarte Piet character is a relatively new invention when compared to Sinterklaas, as Zwarte Piet only dates back to the early 19th century. I should also be noted, that just because something is a tradition, it doesn’t mean it is always worth saving.
Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand or Servant Rupert) is a companion of Saint Nicholas and first appears in this capacity in German folklore in the 17th century. Knecht Ruprecht originally had no connection with Christmas time and he is thought to date back to the pre-Christian pagan era as a spirit who helped out with the chores around the farm and around the house. With the introduction of Christianity, such spirits were then transformed into devils. Ruprecht is a common name for the devil in Germany. According to some stories, Knecht Ruprecht began as a farmhand, in others he is a wild child whom Saint Nicholas adopts and raises as his own. Ruprecht sometimes walks with a limp because of a childhood injury. In appearance, Knecht Ruprecht typically carries a long staff and a bag of ashes. He also wears little bells on his clothing. Sometime he rides on a white horse and is accompanied by fairies or men with blackened faces dressed as old women.
According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether or not they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, they receive a beating with his bag of ashes. Knecht Ruprech shares the tradition of approaching strangers unusual questions or challenges with the Belsnickel, and origin of the tradition is thought to date back to when Odin, in disguise, would perform similar acts around Yule time. In the German version of the television show “The Simpsons,” the family dog is named Knecht Ruprecht instead of Santa’s Little Helper.
Krampus, which translates as “claw,” is perhaps the most evil of Saint Nicholas’ companions. Krampus is an Alpine tradition (parts of Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia) dating back to pre-Christian pagan culture, but wasn’t enlisted as a companion of Saint Nicholas until the 17th century. Krampus’s main duty in assisting Saint Nicholas was punishing the bad children. Unlike some of the ambiguous companions Saint Nicholas, who are mostly human, Krampus is pure devil and his appearance and behavior reflects this.
In appearance, Krampus is usually covered in black or brown fur and has the cloven hooves and horns of the goat. Usually his tongue is shown as lolling out of his mouth. Krampus carries chains, thought to symbolize the binding of the devil by the Christian Church. Sometimes these chains are accompanies by bells of various sizes. Krampus also carries a “ruten,” or a bundle of birch branches, with which he beats children and a sack to carry away bad children to an icy creek to drown, to eat, or to transport to Hell.
Historically, Alpine towns would have a parade where all the young men would dress as Krampus, become drunk, and run amok. Such festivities were known as Krampuslauf, which is German for “Krampus run.” Europeans have been exchanging greeting cards with featuring Krampus since the 1800’s. The cards often show Krampus looming menacingly over children or pursuing a buxom woman. Over time, however, the representation of Krampus on the cards has become has changed, from a more frightening Krampus to a tamer and cute and cuddly Krampus. In a sense he was demoted from spawn of Satan murderer to mischievous prankster.
Nonetheless, in the 20th century, the Austrian government began to discourage the practice of celebrating Krampus. In the 1950’s the government distributed pamphlets titled “Krampus is an Evil Man.” Towards the end of the century, however, there has been a popular resurgence of Krampus celebrations, which continues to this day. There is a public debate in Austria about Krampus is appropriate for children. Recently, Krampus has made an appearance in North American popular culture as part of a growing movement of “anti-Christmas” celebrations.
The Belsnickel is a Pennsylvania Deutsch tradition which has its origins in Germanic folklore. Belsnickel is a fur clad Christmas gift giver who shows up in Pennsylvania Deutsche communities a couple of weeks before Christmas. His name translates as “Rough Nicholas” or “Wallop Nicholas” and this reflects the dual nature of his character. The Belsnickel is Saint Nicholas and his evil companions rolled into one figure. When he rolls into town he at first appears as ragged and mean, wearing tattered old clothes and furs, and carrying a switch to beat the bad children. Sometimes he wears a mask with a long tongue lolling out, reminiscent of Krampus. During his two week stay, the Belsnickel confronts the children in the community and questions them to make sure that they are behaving properly. He raps on windows and doors with a stick to alert them to his presence. Sometimes he commands them to sing him a song. In exchange the Belsnickel will toss out candy onto the floor. If the children jump too quick for the treats he may swat at them with his Belsnickel’s switch.
The strange behavior of the Belsnickel is thought to have its origin in Odin’s appearance as a wanderer in the community during the days leading up to Yule. Like the Belsnickel, Odin appeared in disguise, weathered and covered in fur. When they approached strangers, both Odin and the Belsnickel would pose them a riddle. If they answered correctly, they would give them a reward, if incorrectly, they would dole out punishment from a switch. Sometimes Odin and Belsnickel would give those people who gave a wrong answer a chance to redeem themselves, such giving them a physical challenge, such as wrestling with others who gave a wrong answer, or were ordered to perform a taxing chore, or a skill, such as singing a song. If the challenges were successfully met, then Odin and the Belsnickel would clear them to celebrate and reap the rewards of Yuletide. Odin and Belsnickel would then change over to their benevolent nature and distribute gifts to members of the community.
Le Père Fouettard
In parts of France and Belgium there is a character known as La Pere Fouettard. In French the name means “Father Whipper.” Le Pere Fouettard is a companion of Saint Nicholas and joins him on his rounds to deliver gifts during Saint Nicholas Eve on December 5th, dispensing lumps of coal and floggings to the naughty children while Saint Nicholas delivers the gifts to the nice. Le Pere Fouettard’s has two origin stories. In one story it seems that Le Pere Fouettard was the evil innkeeper (or butcher) who slit the throats of the three children, dismembers them, and puts them into a barrel in order to sell the meat as ham during a bad famine. Saint Nicholas discovers the crime and resurrects the children. Afterwards, Le Pere Fouettard either repents and becomes Saint Nicholas’ partner, or is forced to become his assistant as punishment for his crimes.
The other origin story concerns the siege of the French town of Metz in 1552. During this siege the town’s people built an effigy of King Charles Quint, dragged it through the streets, and burned it. Coinciding with this, a group of tanners constructed a figure out of hide with a whip to scare away children. The liberation of Metz occurred around Saint Nicholas day, and somehow the burnt effigy of the King and the tanner’s grotesque figure merged into one being and produced La Pere Fouettard, who instantly became Saint Nicholas evil whipping companion.
In the 1930’s, Le Pere Fouettard made an appearance in the United States under the translated name Father Flogger or Spanky. In America, however, he had a female accomplice named Mother Flog, and they nothing to do with Christmas. They just enjoyed doling out specific punishments for specific childhood crimes, such as a liar having their tongue cut out.