“A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together” – Garrison Keillor
Santa Claus is coming to town, so watch your back. You better not shout. You better not cry. You better not pout and I’m telling you why. Jolly Saint Nicholas travels with muscle. If you’ve been good this year, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Santa will do you a favor in the form of glorious set of Christmas presents (although he may one day come to you and ask for a favor in return). If you’ve been naughty, many traditional Christmas mythologies eschew the mild “coal in the stocking” punishment and hold that while you won’t wind up sleeping with the fishes, you will most likely wake up with a horse’s head in your bed, or on the wrong end of a beating from one of many of Saint Nick’s hired thugs. And these aren’t the happy-go-lucky, un-unionized elves that toil tirelessly making toys in sweatshop conditions with a smile on their face and a spring in their step. These are bad dudes (monsters, hit men, wayward souls, and security professionals) that delight in busting kneecaps and opening up a can of Yuletide “whoop-ass”. As the Christmas season is in full swing, I find myself wondering if I’ve been naughty or nice, and consequently considering whether I need to enter the witness protection program. Upon reflection, I’ve realized the God and Santa Claus have a similar problem that they are both regarded as lovable and loving creatures, not the kind of guys to tempt humans with evil or administer a smackdown to incorrigible brats. Such behavior lacks a certain plausible deniability. Where God has his Devil to blame for the bad things that happen in the universe, depending on who you ask, Santa has his Père Fouettard, Belsnickel, Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, and Hans Trapp, and if you’ve been naughty, the hurt is coming. Santa Claus prefers not to get his hands dirty.
Père Fouettard (French for “Father Whipper”) is an unsavory character that tags along with Saint Nicholas in Northeast France and Belgium. He started his career as a homicidal innkeeper, killing a few young lads with the intention of serving up a cannibalistic feast. Saint Nicholas, being all saintly brought the young ones back to life, and as punishment for his crimes, compelled Père Fouettard to travel with him as an assistant. This of course begs the question of why a nice guy like Santa would even consider such an arrangement. After all, Père Fouettard was a murderer and potential cannibal, which seems like an odd sidekick for a guy delivering toys to tots. Obviously, people don’t like to talk about the various offices at the North Pole, but it is clear that there is a special operations and enforcement directorate, where less reputable fellows with particular sets of skills are employed. Santa Claus brings the gifts to the nice boys and girls.And if you’ve been naughty, Père Fouettard brings the pain.
In Lorraine, where la Saint Nicolas is very important, representatives of the saint, dressed in bishop’s regalia, walk through the streets followed by le Pere Fouettard, with a bundle of switches. Then comes a cart containing a salt barrel and figures of three young lads. According to legend the saint miraculously resuscitated three boys after an avaricious inn keeper murdered them and put their bodies in a keg of brine, intending to serve the flesh to hungry customers. On Saint Nicholas’ Eve children place their shoes near the fireplace and retire with a prayer that the saint will remember them. Saint Nicolas, mon bon patron, Envoyez-moi quelqu’chose de bon, is an old French rhyme. The good things children anticipate are sweets and candies; the bad they fear, especially if they have been naughty during the year, are whippings from le Pere Fouettard, Saint Nicholas’ companion. He is a stern disciplinarian, and he remembers how children have behaved during the past twelve months. As a reminder of his watchfulness, small ribbon-tied bunches of birch twigs accompany even the gifts Saint Nicholas leaves for good boys and girls (Spicer, 1958, p49-50).
Beltznickle (from German, “to wallop”) doesn’t accompany Santa, rather visits in Santa’s place in a tattered, dirty fur coat, with a mean look and a stick to beat bad children, making appearances in Southwest Germany, Baden-Württemberg, Pennsylvania Dutch communities, and Newfoundland. Beltznickle makes a preliminary check on children to see if they’ve been bad or good, leaving candies for the good ones, and administering beatings to those who’ve been bad all year, or display signs of being too greedy.
In these times with their far back numbers, we did not hear of that mystical personage now known as Santa Claus, but he or she was sure to visit every household where young children were on Christmas eve. But there was more reality about him than now. He was known as Kriskinkle. Beltznickle and sometimes as the Xmas woman. Children then not only saw the mysterious person, but felt him. Or rather his stripes upon their backs with his switch. The annual visitor would make his appearance some hours after dark, thoroughly disguised, especially the face, which would sometimes be covered with a hideously ugly phiz—generally wore a female garb—hence the name Christmas woman—sometimes it would be a veritable woman but with masculine force and action. He or she would be equipped with an ample sack about the shoulders ﬁlled with cakes, nuts and fruits, and a long hazel switch which was supposed to have some kind of a charm in it as well as a sting. One hand would scatter the goodies upon the ﬂoor, and then the scramble would begin by the delighted children, and the other hand would ply the switch upon the backs of the excited youngsters—who would not show a wince, but had it been parental discipline there would have been screams to reach a long distance (Brown, 1896, p41).
Alpine traditions hold that Krampus is basically a demonic creature, and became popular in Austria, southern Bavaria, South Tyrol, northern Friuli, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia as a foil to Santa Claus. Santa brings gifts. Krampus brings a sack with which to carry bad children away to his lair. Folklore scholars believe he is a direct reference to pre-Christian “horned” gods, but came to be directly associated (sometimes even travelling with) Saint Nicholas.
The function of St. Nicholas, it will have been observed, is a double one, to bring pleasing rewards to good children, but also to bring fear to children whose conduct has been bad. A Swiss dialect dictionary published in I 806, deﬁnes “Samiklaus” as a “gift such as parents make to their children through a disguised person named Samiklaus (corrupted from St. Nicholas) in order to give them pleasure and encourage them to duty and obedience or to frighten them through the strangely frightful make-up of the bogey man who accompanies the Samiklaus. ” As a means of exciting fear in the ill-behaved children, the friendly bishop was often accompanied on his rounds by a children’s bugaboo, a frightful ﬁgure with horns, black face, ﬁery eyes, and long red tongue, variously called Klaubauf, Krampus, Rumpanz, and the like (McKnight, 1917, p14-15).
Knecht Ruprecht (German for “Farmhand Rupert”) was a big figure in countries formerly associated with the Holy Roman Empire, and is primarily concerned with whether children know their prayers, and those that are found wanting are beaten with the bag of ashes that he carries. He is in some weird kind of indentured servitude to Santa and is tasked with providing strange and useless gifts to children in lieu of the cool stuff that Saint Nicholas would usually leave behind.
Knecht Ruprecht, to whom allusion has already been made, is a prominent figure in the German Christmas. On Christmas Eve in the north he goes about clad in skins or straw and examines children; if they can say their prayers perfectly he rewards them with apples, nuts and gingerbreads; if not, he punishes them. In the Mittelmark, as we have seen, a personage corresponding to him is sometimes called “the holy Christ”; in Mecklenburg he is “ru Klas” (rough Nicholas—note his identification with the saint); in Brunswick, Hanover, and Holstein “Klas,” “Klawes,” “Klas Bur” and “Bullerklas” ; and in Silesia “Joseph.” Sometimes he wears bells and carries a long staff with a bag of ashes at the end—hence the name “Aschenklas” occasionally given to him. An ingenious theory connects this aspect of him with the polaznik of the Slavs, who on Christmas Day in Crivoscian farms goes to the hearth, takes up the ashes of the Yule log and dashes them against the cauldron-hook above so that sparks fly. As for the name “Ruprecht” the older mythologists interpreted it as meaning “shining with glory,” hruodperaht, and identified its owner with the god Woden (Miles, 1913, p231).
Originally, Hans Trapp was a rich, powerful and heartless Satan-worshipping miser from the Alsace region of France in the 15th Century A.D. He was excommunicated by the Catholic Church, forced into exile, and slowly went mad. In his insanity, he kidnapped a child for a tasty meal, but was prevented from gorging on human flesh and doomed to accompany Santa Claus in the form of a scarecrow, and handle the punishment of misbehaving children.
In the province of Alsace “Hans Trapp” is the avenger, and an “Angel” the good giver of gifts. As the clock strikes twelve, the “Angel,” who wears a flowing white robe and a golden-haired wig, appears with Hans Trapp, who has on a suit of black, has a long shaggy beard, and is armed with a rod. The children stand in breathless expectation, and those who have been naughty are desired to come forward. But it is needless to say none respond, and then the “Angel,” turning to the Christmas-tree, dispenses the toys, after which the two take their departure (Rackham, 1871, p52).
You are never quite sure where you stand with Santa Claus. After all, he follows some pretty arcane protocols regarding niceness and naughtiness, and in this modern age one needs to be on their toes. Take the Christmas season as a time to consider your naughtiness/niceness ratio, and whether perhaps it is in your best interest to turn State’s evidence, thereby avoiding, at least for another year, a visit from one of Santa’s hatchet men. Santa has good reason to be jolly, since he maintains his image as a cheerful fat guy and friend to all, while his menacing cronies handle the rough stuff, or perhaps he’s just in good humor because, as George Carlin observed, “he knows where all the bad girls live”.
Brown, Jacob, 1824-. Brown’s Miscellaneous Writings Upon a Great Variety of Subjects: Prepared And Written From 1880 to 1895. Cumberland, Md.: J. J. Miller, 1896.
Miles, Clement A. Christmas In Ritual And Tradition, Christian And Pagan. London [etc.]: T. F. Unwin., 1913.
McKnight, George Harley, 1871-1951. St. Nicholas: His Legend And His Role In the Christmas Celebration And Other Popular Customs. New York: Putnam, 1917.
Rackham, Arthur, 1867-1939, A. L. 1872-1964 Haydon, and Janice Dohm. Little Folks. London: Cassell and Co., 1871.
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1958.