Being expat

St Nicholas and his helpers Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Père Fouettard and Zwarte Piet

St Nicholas is celebrated in many countries of Europe, mainly in German speaking countries and throughout the territory of the Holy Roman Empire, and is usually accompained by helpers.

This dark or threatening companion of St Nicholas is called Krampus in Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Friuli (North Eastern Italy), Hungary (here he is spelled Krampusz); Klabauf in Bavaria, Austria; Pelzebock or Bullerklas in Northern Germany or Knecht Ruprecht (from Old High German hruot, ”fame“, ”shiny“). In the Czech Republic, the helper is called ?ert (Devil) and And?l (Angel). In Luxemburg he is called Houseker. Rubbels is his name in German-speaking Lorraine and Hans Trapp in Alsace, and Le Père Fouettard in Wallonia, Northern and Eastern France. – In German speaking countries there are innumerable names of this feared figure: Ascheklas, Bartel, Bullerklas, Bullkater, Busebrecht, Butz, Butzebercht, Dollochs, Düsseli, Einspeiber, Erbsbär, Hans Muff, Hans Trapp, Kehraus, Klaubauf, Klausenpicker, Klombsack, Krampus, Leutfresser, Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Pietermann, Pulterklas, Ruklas, Rupsack, Schmutzli, schwarz Käsperchen, Semper, Spitzbartl, Zink Knatsch, Zink Muff, Zwarter Piet etc.


Some of these figures have the ressemblance of a red (or black) devil with cloven hooves and goatish horns: like Krampus (which derives from the Old High German krampho “claw, hook, cramp” (9./10. century)).

Krampus!These figures most probably originates from the tradition of the Perchten. In the alpine regions of Bavaria, Austria and Southern Tirol, these figures are the “ugly Perchten” (Schiachperchten) who have “fangs, tusks and horse tails which are used to drive out demons and ghosts. Men dressed as the ugly Perchten during the 16th century and went from house to house driving out bad spirits.” In some regions of Austria, Bavaria, Southern Tirol and Switzerland, those figures appear in Hordes during the winter (usually to exorcise the winter, later on in February/March), whereas Krampus accompains St Nicholas on the 6th of December.

Uh, d'r Schmutzli.Some others, like Knecht Ruprecht or Schmutzli etc.,  seem more like a rustic version of Saint Nicholas himself. They look very sinister and are dressed in black rags, have a black face and unruly black hair. – Knecht Ruprecht appeared for the first time in a German play in 1668.

These companions come with twigs or whips, rods, a stick or a broom and a sack. They carry a sack of ashes for the misbehaving childern and sometimes they would threaten to abduct disobedient children and put them in the sac. – It was actually a pretty effective method parents used to make their children behave by frightening them that St Nicholas’ companion would take them away in his sack if they’ve been bad.

Le Père FouettardLe Père Fouettard

The French Père Fouettard, the “Wipping Father” was said to bring the whip with him to spank all of the naughty children who misbehaved.

The most popular story about Père Fouettard relates to the year 1150. In this version, Père Fouettard was an inn-keeper/ butcher. It was said that he kidnapped and murdered three children, who were lost and could not find their way home. A somewhat reformed version claims that, the three children, all boys, were passing by the inn-keeper’s house while they were on their way to a religious boarding school. On realizing that the kids were rich the inn-keeper and his wife, kidnapped the three children and murdered them. Several types of torture, all ghastly, are known to have been inflicted on the children by the inn-keeper and his wife, who were set on robbing them. One grisly version tells that, the cruel inn-keeper, and his wife, lured the children, drugged them by offering wine, slit their throats, chopped them into pieces and cooked them in a stew. Another account states that, the children were chopped, salted and stowed away in a salting tub, to be eaten later. (wikipedia)

It is said that St Nicholas, after discovering those crimes, miraculously resurrected the children and returned them to their families. He then forced the inn-keeper to “redress for his crimes” and he had to repent for his sins, becoming Le Père Fouettard. He vowed to follow St Nicholas as his partner forever. – Since then, Père Fouettard accompanies St Nicholas on the 6th of December on his visits to the homes of children. As Père Fouettard, the “Wipping Father”, he whips the undisciplined children, while St Nicholas offers gifts and treats to the obedient ones.

From fearce to tender

In more recent times the fear-bearing creature of Knecht Ruprecht and some of the other helpers mentioned above have been increasingly softened.

In the German speaking countries, the very popular poem by Theodor Storm (* 1817 † 1888) depicts Knecht Ruprecht  as a ”faithful servant“ whose answer in response to the question of the Christ-child (Christkind) shows just how much he prefers handing out apples, nuts and almonds instead of hitting their rears:

Von drauß’ vom Walde komm ich her;
Ich muß euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Allüberall auf den Tannenspitzen
Sah ich goldene Lichtlein sitzen;
Und droben aus dem Himmelstor
Sah mit großen Augen das Christkind hervor,
Und wie ich so strolcht durch den finsteren Tann,
Da rief’s mich mit heller Stimme an.
„Knecht Rupprecht”, rief es, „alter Gesell,
Hebe die Beine und spute dich schnell!Die Kerzen fangen zu brennen an,
Das Himmelstor ist aufgetan,
Alt’ und Junge sollen nun
Von der Jagd des Lebens einmal ruhn;
Und morgen flieg ich hinab zur Erden,
Denn es soll wieder Weihnachten werden!”

Ich sprach: „O lieber Herre Christ,
Meine Reise fast zu Ende ist;
Ich soll nur noch in diese Stadt,
Wo’s eitel gute Kinder hat.”
„Hast denn das Säcklein auch bei Dir?”
Ich sprach: „Das Säcklein, das ist hier;
Denn Äpfel, Nuss und Mandelkern
Fressen fromme Kinder gern.”
„Hast denn die Rute auch bei Dir?”
Ich sprach: „Die Rute, die ist hier;
Doch für die Kinder nur, die schlechten,
Die trifft sie auf den Teil, den rechten.”

Christkindlein sprach: „So ist es recht;
So geh mit Gott, mein treuer Knecht!”
Von drauß’ vom Walde komm ich her;
Ich muß euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Nun sprecht, wie ich’s hierinnen find!
Sind’s gute Kind, sind’s böse Kind?

(1) I came here from the forest / I tell you, it is a very holy night! / All over the tips of the firs / I saw bright flashes of golden light; / And from above, the gates of heaven / I saw with open eyes the Christ-child / and as I wander through the dark forest / I hear a light voice calling me. / ”Knecht Ruprecht“ it called, ”Old man / Lift your legs and hurry! Fast! / (2) The candles alight / the gates of heaven open wide / old and young / shall rest from the hunt of life / and tomorrow I shall fly to earth / as it shall be Christmas again!“ / (3) I said: ”O dear master, Christ / My trip is almost at an end; / It is only this one town / where the children are good“. / ”Do you have your sack with your?“ / I said: ”The sack, it is here; / apples, nuts and almonds / solemn children do enjoy“. / ”Do you also have your cane?“ / I said: ”The cane, it is here. / But only for the bad children, / to hit their right rear“. (4) The Christ-child spoke: ”That is good; / So go with god my faithful servant!“ / I came here from the forest / I tell you, it is a very holy night! / Speak now how I find it here / Are the children good or bad? (©Sutter)

Also in The Netherlands and Belgium, the servant Zwarte Piet was previously a more demonic character, then a Moorish partner responsible for organizing the gifts for the children. Only after 1845, when the primary school-teacher Jan Schenkman writes the book Sint Nicolaas en zijn Knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”), a Spanish servant is introduced into the St Nicholas narrative. The servant is described as a page boy or young man, and is depicted as a dark person wearing clothes associated with Moors. In 1891, in the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas, the servant is called Pieter (for the first time) and many other names followed until 1920. “In the early 20th century the Civilized Standard Celebration for children, with Zwarte Piet as the standard personal servant of the saint, spread throughout the country.”

During the 20th century, the character of Zwarte Piet changed into a real friend of children. – He still carries a bag, but in the bag are sweets, which he throws around for all children. Also the number of Pieten multiplied and female Piets were included. This paradigm shift offered the possibility of creating several different Zwarte Piet characters. “During the televised yearly event, when Sinterklaas arrives by boat, he is often assisted by dozens of Piets, for example there’s a Hoofdpiet (Head Piet) who carries the book of Sinterklaas, a Rijmpiet (Rhyme Piet) and so on.”

During the last two centuries, Zwarte Piet changed from an “enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor” to the likeness of a Moor, a servant of St Nicholas in the 19th century Netherlands. This new Zwarte Piet also changed the attitude of the Sinterklaas character: he became more severe towards bad children himself and did worry many teachers and priests “due to the depiction of a holy man in this light”. – Today, both characters are much softer. Since immigration increased from the former colonised countries, the “Zwarte Piet became a much more respected assistant of Saint Nicholas, inattentive but playful”. – Due to the recent debates and protests about the future of the Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands, this all might change very soon. How is the “Zwarte Piet” or “Piet” going to look like? Will the future Pieten be “just” helpers? How will their dresses look like? Will there be different characters of helpers or only one? – Piet has changed so much during these last two centuries, maybe it’s time to move on. But does moving on really mean to completely abolish and reject something that Dutch children (and many adults!) cherish and look forward during this time of the year? What are options that meet the needs of people who want to maintain the Zwarte Pieten and those who want them to “leave”? Maybe a colourful coexistence of past figures and new ones? How would the new ones look like?

I just hope that they will find a compromise that permits children to still sing the traditional songs without feeling judged by celebrating St Nicholas and to wear those colourful clothes while attending the intocht and the weeks following the arrival of Sinterklaas.

English: Two children dressed up as 'zwarte pi...

English: Two children dressed up as ‘zwarte pieten’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

25 replies »

  1. Oh man you have really helped me right now. My kids are growing up in South Africa and I did not remember the little poems anymore we had to recite as children. I am soo thankful to have found them here. It’s stuff like that which is making it so much more fun for my kids to be at home in different worlds …
    We are definitely going to teach them to say “Draussen vom Walde da komme ich her” for the 6th of December!!!!

  2. Hello Ute, what an interesting thing to write about! I didn’t know about all the different names of St. Nicholas’ helpers, not even about the Hungarian one. I always learn something reading your posts. A big hug from Budapest 🙂

  3. I didn’t know all this, but my Dutch school teacher friend told me about this last week. Ich bin eben mit Nikolaus aufgewachsen und es gab was a 6.Dezember. Meine Kinder sind gross doch lieben immer noch deutsche Kleinigkeiten vom Lidl. Das Gedicht kenne ich auch doch nur noch die ersten 2 Zeilen, schade. Meine Mutter koennte es vielleicht noch ganz. Sie ist gut mit Schiller und all den anderen.
    Alles Liebe Ute ?

    • I guess you saw some Sinterklaas decorations in Amsterdam yesterday? He will have his “intocht” in a few weeks and children are already looking forward to hiss arrival. – Ja, das Gedicht versuche ich auch immer wieder zu üben, mit der Zeit vergisst man die Zeilen und die ersten sind ja auch die bekanntesten. Schade, ja. Meine Eltern können auch viele Gedichte und Lieder noch vollständig auswending (die Glocke ist auch noch so ein Beispiel… aber heute lernt man das nicht mehr). – Ganz liebe Grüße zurück, Ute 😉

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. What you say about the reported origins of le pere fouettard makes him sound even more sinister than the name alone. Here in the UK, I don’t think that we really have a sort of ‘anti-Santa’ figure. That said, if kids haven’t behaved then they supposedly (according to tradition) get a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. I think it’s a bit confusing, but the Santa Claus or ‘Weihnachtsmann’/’Kerstman’ etc who comes on Christmas doesn’t have helpers in the cultures and traditions I’ve mentioned. It’s only St Nicholas who’s celebrated on the 5th or 6th December who has helpers. -But it’s interesting that there’s still coal for the misbehaving children at Christmas in the UK. We don’t have that on Christmas. Maybe the UK took this from the other celebration of those countries earlier in December? And the stockings on Christmas: they might also be related to those that children hang up on St Nicholas (others do line up shoes next to the chimney). -This shows how confusing these celebrations can be. And also the names: St Nikolaus/Nicolas and Santa Claus… (it might be worth another post).

  5. Ute! My friends and I are researching Krampus and Zwarte Piet traditions for a panel at the American Folklore Society annual meeting next year. Thanks so much for your blog post! You should come present too!

    • Oh that’s great, Kim! I’m happy I could help a bit with my post. What exactly are you looking for? That would be great if I could make it to the meeting. Please tell me more about it.

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