The Christmas season is upon us, and with it comes lots of traditions including the December 25th visit by none other than the big guy himself--Santa Claus. Now, there’s probably no need for me to tell you who Santa is, but it’s important to know a little bit about the ‘jolly old elf’ before we move onto other more unsavory Christmas legends.
St. Nicholas vs Santa Claus
Santa Claus evolved from St. Nicholas who was an actual person; a 4th-Century Greek Christian bishop from Lycia on the southern coast of Turkey. It’s said that Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor.
The name Santa Claus comes from St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname, Sinterklaas. Like the game of telephone, pass a name on long enough and it will end up sounding like something else. In this case, over time, Sinterklaas became known as Santa Claus.
During the middle ages, a tradition sprang up whereby children were bestowed with gifts from St. Nicholas, not on Christmas but on the evening before the date of St. Nicholas’ death, December 6. The practice of giving children gifts at Christmas was started by Martin Luther (1483-1546), the monk who was a seminal figure in the Protestant reformation. By the sixteenth-century, the custom of giving gifts to children on the feast of St. Nicholas was very popular, but Luther was interested in placing the focus on Christ instead of the veneration of saints, so the date was moved to December 25 to coincide with Christmas.
Now, a brief word on why Christmas is celebrated on December 25. During the first three centuries of Christianity, Christ’s birth wasn’t celebrated at all. The first official mention of Christmas as a holiday celebrating Jesus’ birth appears in a Roman calendar from 336 AD. The church chose the date for Christmas to coincide with existing pagan festivals honoring the Roman god of agriculture and the Persian god of light. Declaring December 25 as a Christian holiday was a way to force Rome’s pagan subjects to accept Christianity as the empire’s official religion.
The familiar image of Santa filling childrens’ stockings with toys originated from a series of woodcuts distributed by a member of the New York Historical Society in 1810. But of course, the image of the portly ‘jolly old elf’ in the red suit became fixed in our minds from the 1822 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” also known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”.
Long before the modern, jolly old man we know today as Santa, there was the German Christmas Devil known as Krampus. The tradition of Krampus dates back to the 12th century. In the days leading up to the Feast of St. Nicholas, children would begin to hear rumors and whispers of the coming of an evil, black-fur covered creature. He had a mangled, maniacal face with bloodshot eyes and a long, red, snake-like tongue dangling from his open mouth. Giant horns curled up from his head, and his body was a mixture of man, goat, and demon. His job was to weed out the good children from the bad. As you can imagine, young children would have been absolutely terrified as Krampusnacht--Krampus Night--quickly approached.
While Santa is known for leaving a lump of coal in the Christmas stockings of naughty children, the Krampus used much more sinister means to keep children in line. He carried a bundle of sticks which he would brutally swat naughty children with. But the punishment didn’t end there. The legend goes that Krampus would enter the town swinging long chains around to capture the bad children. Once caught, a child would be put in a large basket or sack that Krampus carried on his back, and he would bring all of the bad children either to the woods, or down to his home in the underworld.
Traditionally, young men would dress up as the Krampus during the first week of December, particularly on the evening of December 5, and roam the village frightening children with rusty chains and bells. Sometimes accompanying St. Nicholas and sometimes on his own (1), Krampus would visit homes and businesses throughout the town. Whereas the person playing the part of St. Nicholas would give out candy and toys to the children, the young man playing the part of Krampus would attempt to whip and capture children. Although it was probably understood to be all in good fun, the not-so-subtle warning to behave was surely ingrained in young childrens’ minds all year long.
The Krampus seems to have originated from the pagan ‘Horned God’ worshiped by witches and other pagan religions, and the lashing of bad children with birch switches may be tied to the initiation rites performed by some witches covens.
Today, Krampus has his own celebration on the day before the Feast of St. Nicholas. In Germany’s Alpine region, every evening on December 5 elegantly dressed St. Nicks pair up with monstrously outfitted Krampuses and make the rounds of homes and businesses, offering gifts and playful threats. (3) As the Krampus walks along, the rattling of his chains and the jangling of cowbells warn of his coming. He dashes through the streets chasing children and adults alike, poking them with sticks as if to say, ‘You’ve been naughty this year.’
Although the Krampus is the most famous Christmas demon, in southwestern Germany, children know of a Christmas character called Belsnickel--a cantankerous, fur-clad bringer of gifts. Unlike the purely evil Krampus, Belsnickel’s character is a combination of sinister and generous.
Like most malevolent Yuletide characters, Belsnickel has his own particular style of dress and recognizable features. He is usually portrayed as a ragged, disheveled man dress in furs, and is sometimes seen wearing a mask with a long tongue. In other areas of Germany he can be found wearing a long, black or brown coat or robe held together at the waist with a rope. On his head is either a fur cap or bear skin hat decorated with bells. He carries a switch in his hand that he uses to beat naughty children; but his pockets are filled with cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.
As people migrated from Germany to the US, In the early 1800’s Belsnickel’s fame spread to the Pennsylvania Dutch. There he was known as a character who visited homes a few weeks before Christmas to check up on the behavior of the children. His coming was usually frightening for children because he always seemed to know exactly which of them misbehaved. “He would rap on the door or window with his stick and the children would have to answer a question for him, or sing some type of song. In exchange he would toss candies onto the floor. If the children jumped too quick for the treats, they may end up getting struck with Belsnickel's switch.” (4)
Belsnickling is the traditional running of groups of young men dressed in masks and fantastic costumes on the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas. It’s a good-natured, boisterousness event where the young men, dressed in skins and furs, run through the village streets rattling chains and bells.
Le Père Fouettard
Another evil Christmas character, Le Père Fouettard, hails from France; and of all the holiday boogiemen, his backstory is perhaps the most gruesome.
The most popular story of Le Pere Fouettard--more ‘affectionately’ known as Father Whipper--was first told in 1150. In it, three boys on their way to enroll in a religious boarding school are kidnapped by Le Pere Fouettard who is a butcher. He and his wife drug the boys and slit their throats, then cut them into pieces and stew them in a barrel. In a Sweeney-Todd-like twist, St. Nicholas happens to stop by and is offered the best cuts of meat--the boys. He discovers the crime and resurrects the children and sends them back to their parents. Seeing an opportunity for the butcher to repent his sins, the butcher either willingly or by force became St. Nicholas’ servant. As the two walk about the town in the days leading up to the Feast of St. Nicholas, St. Nick rewards the good children with candy and toys, while Father Whipper punishes the bad ones with his whip.
Another one of St. Nick’s ‘bad cop’ helpers is Knecht Ruprecht, the name Ruprecht being a common name for the devil in Germany. He is first mentioned in written sources in the 17th century. His appearance is similar to that of Father Whipper in that he is depicted as a man with a long beard dressed in furs with little bells on his clothes. He sometimes carries a long staff, and a bag of ashes. Ruprecht sometimes walks with a limp, and his black clothes and dirty face are attributed to the soot he collects as he goes down chimneys.
Ironically, even though his name is associated with the devil, his job seems to be to find out if children know their prayers. If they do, they receive gifts from St. Nicholas. If they don’t, Ruprecht beats the children with his bag of ashes. This is an interesting contrast to the Catholic tradition of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. To wear ashes on one’s head during Ash Wednesday signifies purification and sorrow for sins. But if you are seen covered with ashes from Knecht Ruprect, it is a sign that you are in need of further religious study.
Although he seems tame enough, there is a darker side to some of the Ruprecht traditions. Sometimes children would be summoned by Ruprecht to dance or singing a song. The good performers were rewarded by St. Nicholas; the bad performers would be severely beaten by Ruprecht. However, those who performed REALLY badly were put into Ruprecht's sack and taken away to his home in the Black Forest to be eaten, or to be tossed into a river. Think of it sort of like a diabolical, 17th century version of American Idol.
The only female on our list of Christmas horrors is Frau Perchta--also known as The Belly Slitter. She is best known as a figure from Germanic and Austrian folklore, but versions of her gruesome holiday antics can be found all over Europe. Frau Perchta is generally depicted as a crone dressed in rags with a long, beaked, iron nose. Sometimes she carries a cane, but almost always she carries a long, sharp knife that she keeps hidden beneath her skirts. (4a) Her character most likely evolved from Berchta, the Germanic goddess of abundance who was demonized by the Catholic church and referred to as a witch.
Frau Perchta is said to fly through the night sky accompanied by demonic Krampus-looking creatures, elves, and unbaptized babies. If you hear the sound of thunder and the roaring of wind on the last three Thursdays before Christmas, it just might be Frau Perchta flying through the night with her creepy entourage.
This ugly, witch-like hag is known to reward the good and generous, and to punish the greedy and dishonest. The majority of her victims are those who work on feast days, particularly Epiphany Sunday which is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after January 1. For some reason, she takes a special interest in spinners--those who make thread or yarn by spinning. Those who don’t rest during holy days, and especially those who spin when they shouldn’t, are punished by having their bellies slit open with a knife, their intestines pulled out, and the empty cavity filled with rocks or straw.
Ironically, Frau Perchta also punishes the lazy. So, you shouldn’t work on feast days, but God forbid you slack off any other time of the year. And Frau Perchta reserves special punishment for dishonest children--she scrapes their tongues with broken glass. But have no fear! If you are a good, hard-working soul she might reward you with a silver coin. So, just to clarify, if you failed to meet your spinning quota for the year or you worked on her feast day, you got disemboweled and stuffed full of rocks. If you worked hard and did what you were supposed to do you got … like a dime.(5) Sounds fair to me!
This last Christmas evil-doer is based on an actual person named Hans Van Tratha, a 15th century French knight. He was said to stand about six-and-a-half feet tall, and he lived in a lavish castle called ‘Berwartstein’ which was given to him by the Elector (ruler) of an area bordering Germany and France.
Hans’ bad reputation grew from a feud he had with his neighbor Henry, the Abbot of Benedictine Monks at Weissenburg Abbey. Hans said that as owner of the castle the Abbey, which was on his property, belong to him, and he demanded that it and all its belonging be turned over to him.
The feud became so bad that Henry turned to the Pope for help. The Pope summoned Hans to Rome to be questioned about his loyalty to the church, but he refused and was subsequently excommunicated from the church. After this, the king and the emperor pronounced an imperial ban on Van Trotha. But in spite of this banishment, he went on to become a respected knight in France, and he died of natural causes at castle Berwartstein. Two years after his death, for some reason the Emperor and the Pope had a change of heart and all of the sanctions were lifted.
Of course, Hans Van Tratha’s bad-boy reputation lead to many legends which somehow morphed into the Christmas character Hans Trapp. Although he is known to children as the “Black Knight”, Hans Trapp is often depicted simply as a man with a white beard who wears a pointed hat. Of course, like many of our ne’er-do-well Christmas characters, he carries a rod with him to hit children with if they don’t sing and pray.
But Hans Trapp wouldn’t be on this list if he was just another child punisher. Indeed, the legends that grew up around him and his evil doings at Christmas time are truly gruesome. The most popular legend is that he became very wealthy through acts of magic and through making a pact with demons, and that he worshiped Satan. When the Vatican heard of his cruelty and his involvement with the occult, he was arrested and brought before the Pope. He was excommunicated for Satanism and upon returning to his home in France discovered that everything he owned had been taken from him. Now totally destitute, the villagers of his hometown shunned and banished him to the woods in neighboring Germany.
Totally enraged at those who took everything away from him, he devoted his life to practicing sorcery and other dark arts. After years of living alone in the forest, he went insane and began to crave the taste of human flesh, so he came up with a plan. He would disguise himself as a scarecrow by stuffing his clothes with straw and sticks and wait in the fields for his unsuspecting prey to come by. Day after day he waited in the fields for the perfect victim. Then one day, a young boy on his way home took a short-cut through the fields and was violently attacked by Hans Trapp. He stabbed the boy with a sharpened stick and dragged his body back to his shack in the woods. There he cut the child’s body into pieces and roasted them over his fire. But just as he was about to take his first bite of the child’s flesh, God struck him down with lightning and he died.
To this day, parents of the North-Eastern region of France warn their children that every Christmas Hans Trapp’s spirit would come back dressed as a hooded scarecrow to enact his revenge by abducting naughty children into the forest where they would never be seen again. (6)
I hope you’ve enjoyed these harrowing Christmas legends. If tradition goes hand-in-hand with the threat of punishment, then it’s no wonder these creepy holiday traditions have lived on for centuries. So watch out. Santa is right around the corner, which means that Krampus, Belsnickel, Le Père Fouettard, Knecht Ruprecht, Frau Perchta, and Hans Trapp aren’t far behind. And if you haven’t been good this year, each one is just waiting to dole out their own special brand of punishment.