Sinterklaas

Saint Nicholas' Companions by Chris Hall

With tongue lolling out, Krampus thirsts for the blood of bad children.

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, "Black Pete," is a Dutchman in Black-face.

Zwarte Piet, "Black Pete," is a Dutchman in Black-face.

Zwarte Piet

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.  

Saint Nicholas arrives with Knecht Ruprecht.

Knecht Ruprecht

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.  

Several Krampus Devils with a Saint Nicholas and a Knecht Ruprecht.

Krampus 

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 likes to pose riddles.  Answer wrong and you get a beating.

Belsnickel 

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.  


Four of Santa's Contemporaries by Chris Hall

Ever wonder how Santa Claus delivers all those presents to everyone around the world?  He doesn't, he has brothers and sisters throughout the world who help him. Santa Claus isn't the only holiday gift giver this season.  Here is the history of Santa Claus’ other siblings, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Christkindl, and La Befana, the Christmas Witch .

Sinterklaas has Odin's beard but wears St. Nicholas' Bishop Clothing.

Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas is Saint Nicholas’ incarnation in the Netherlands and Belgium.  He really isn’t that much different from the Saint Nicholas as he wears Saint Nicholas’ bishop outfit and is celebrated on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th.  Sinterklaas delivers gifts on the night before, December 5th.  What makes Sinterklaas different is that, like Odin, he wears a long white beard, rides a flying horse, and delivers his gifts by rooftop chimney.  In the Netherlands the horse is named Amerigo, in Belgium the horse is named Slecht Weer Vandaag, meaning "Bad Weather Today."  Sinterklaas is known to carry a large book with a list of all the children who have been naughty or nice.  The American Santa Claus is a direct descendent of Sinterklaas.  Santa Claus is the anglicized name of Sinterklaas, and was invented by Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam, now known as New York City.  

Unlike Santa Claus, who arrives in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer from the North Pole, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from his home in Spain.  Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, so this is why he arrives by boat.  As to why Sinterklaas lives in Spain, some have suggested that the gold balls that are Saint Nicholas’ attributes, while meant to symbolize the three bags of gold, which he gave to the three poor girls as a dowry, are commonly misidentified as being three oranges, and oranges come from Spain.  It should also be noted that Saint Nicholas has been buried in Bari since the 11th century.  Bari is now in southern Italy, but from the 15th to 18th century, Bari was part of the Kingdom of Spain.  

During the Middle Ages, Sinterklaas festivities began to rival Carnival for its drunken excesses. The Protestant Reformation thought Sinterklaas was too reminiscent of the Catholic Saint Nicholas, so Sinterklaas went into hiding.  The role of gift giver was transferred to Christkindl, the Christ Child, and gifts were exchanged on Christmas, on December 25th, not on Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th.  Christkindl was never really popular with the people, and Sinterklaas soon return, but in a more secular form, in the 19th century.  Sinterklaas also returned with a Moor servant, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who helps Sinterklaas out with distributing gifts, but who also punishes the bad children.  Often accompanying the gifts are humorous and sarcastic poems from Sinterklaas, teasing the recipient for well-known bad habits and character deficiencies.   

Image from an anonymous pamphlet showing Father Christmas on trial.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas is the traditional British name for a figure associated with Christmas, a forerunner of Santa Claus.  He is known by different names in different countries, (France, Canada, Ireland, Brazil, Hispanic South America, Portugal, Spain, Armenia, India, Andorra, Romania, Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria all have a Father Christmas figure).  Father Christmas lives at the North Pole, and like Odin, delivers gifts via chimney.  Some have argued that Father Christmas was born sometime after Henry VIII left the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England in the 16th century, but there are clear indications that he was around in the 15th century.  At this time Father Christmas was not a gift giver, but was an instigator of celebration and good cheer for adults on the news of Christ’s birth.  He was a party man and Christmas celebrations rivaled Carnival in their excesses.

 By the mid 17th century and the rise of Puritanism, Father Christmas became a controversial figure.  Royalists supported Father Christmas celebrations, while Puritans wanted to ban them.  The English colonies founded by Puritans in America prohibited the celebration of Christmas.  When the Puritans came to power in 1644 one of the first things Oliver Cromwell did was to enact legislation to ban all Christmas merry making.  Father Christmas was sent packing.  Fortunately for Father Christmas, his exile was short lived, and with the return of the Charles the II, a chastened Father Christmas returned as well.  By the 18th century, Father Christmas was no longer the lord of excess, but became a social progressive, lecturing stingy business owners for their greed and championing the poor.  Charles Dickens used Father Christmas (in disguise as the Ghost of Christmas Present) to scold Scrooge for his miserly ways.  By this time Father Christmas had assumed the role of gift giver.  During the 20th century, Father Christmas was banned in the Eastern Bloc by cheerless communists because of his religious past.  But if the failed Puritan attempt proved anything, it was that you can’t keep good cheer down.  Father Christmas has since returned there, too.

Christkindl and Father Christmas tag teaming up the gift delivery.

Christkindl

Christkindl, or the Christkind, is the traditional gift giver in parts of Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Switzerland, Slovakia, Hungary, France, parts of Poland, parts of Hispanic America, some areas in Brazil, and in the Acadiana region of Louisiana.  Christkindl is translates as the Christ Child.  Christkindl is literally Jesus as a child delivering gifts to children.  Christkindl was introduced by Martin Luther as a replacement for Saint Nicholas during the gift giving festivities during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries.  To prevent any confusion, the gift giving day was moved from Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th, to Christmas Day on December 25th.  Oddly enough, while Christkindl never really became too popular with Protestants, beginning in the 19th century he was adopted more readily in Catholic parts of the world.

Today the Christkind is often depicted as a sprite-like child with blond hair and angelic wings, and the role is often portrayed by a young woman.  Since the 1990’s however, Christkindl has faced increasing competition from Santa Claus, as Santa Claus is not above appearing in advertisements and commercials, while Christkindl usually shies away from such vulgarity.  Kris Kringle is the American pronunciation of Christkindl.  Somehow through time, Kris Kringle (the Christ Child) has become conflated with the bearded, jolly, and decidedly grown-up Santa Claus.   

La Befana, the Christmas Witch.

La Befana

La Befana, or the Christmas Witch, is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5th), but such is her popularity that she often makes appearances around Christmas time as well.  Italians are lucky in that they get gifts from Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or the Christkind, and La Befana.  Befana is thought to descendant from the Sabine/Roman goddess Strenia, who was the gift giving figure in Roman culture on New Years Eve.  Strenia’s and La Befana’s gifts were figs, dates, and honey, though today her gifts are mostly candies and small toys.  La Befana was not popular with some of the early Christians as her celebrations were often noisy, riotous, and licentious affairs.   

According to legend, Befana was approached by the Biblical Magi (Three Wise Men, or Three Kings) on their way to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus.  They asked Befana for directions, and while she did not know the way, she provided them with shelter for the night.  The Magi invited her to join them on their journey, but she declined, saying she had a lot of housework to attend to.  Later, Befana changed her mind and began her own search, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.  She never finds the manger in Bethlehem, and her search continues to this day.  Along the way she leaves good children toys and candy and bad children a lump of coal, an onion, or garlic, or in some poorer regions, such as rural Sicily, simply a stick.  

In another legend, La Befana has a child whom she greatly loves.  The child dies and the resulting grief maddens her.  Upon hearing the news of Jesus’ birth, she set out to see him as she is under the delusion that Jesus is her son reborn.  She met Jesus and presented him with gifts.  Jesus was delighted and in return gave her a gift.  She would now be the mother to all the children of Italy.  So now La Befana flies all over Italy on her broom to deliver gifts to the children on the eve of Epiphany.  Being a good housekeeper, sometimes she will sweep the floor of a house before she leaves.  To some people this is symbolic of sweeping away the problems of the old year to make room for the optimism of the New Year.  The children of the families who she visits will typically leave a small glass of wine and some snacks out for her, but dare not try to catch her in while she is in the house, as La Befana is said to beat with her broom any children who happen to see her.  Like Santa Claus, Odin, and others, La Befana enters the house through the chimney, so she is depicted as being perpetually covered in soot.