Companions of Saint Nicholas
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The companions of Saint Nicholas are a group of closely related figures who accompany St. Nicholas in German-speaking Europe and more widely throughout the territories formerly in the Holy Roman Empire. These characters act as a foil to the benevolent Christmas gift-bringer, threatening to thrash or abduct disobedient children. Jacob Grimm (Deutsche Mythologie) associated this character with the pre-Christian house spirit (kobold, elf) which could be benevolent or malicious, but whose mischiveous side was emphasized after Christianization. The association of the Christmas gift-bringer with elves has parallels in English and Scandinavian folklore, and is ultimately and remotely connected to the modern Christmas elf in American folklore.
Names for the "dark" or threatening companion figure include: Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, Krampus in Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Friuli, Hungary (spelled Krampusz); Klaubauf in Bavaria, Austria; Bartel in Styria; Pelzebock; Befana; Pelznickel; Belzeniggl; Belsnickel in Pennsylvania; Schmutzli in Switzerland; Rumpelklas; Bellzebub; Hans Muff; Drapp; Buzebergt in Augsburg and Little Babushka in Russia The corresponding figure in the Netherlands and Flanders is called Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, and in Swiss folklore Schmutzli, (schmutz meaning dirt). In the Czech Republic, St. Nicholas or Svatý Mikuláš is accompanied by the Čert (Devil) and Anděl (Angel). In France, St. Nicholas' companion is called "Rubbels" in German-speaking Lorraine and Hanstrapp (in Alsace, East of France) and Le Père Fouettard (Wallonia, Northern and Eastern France).
Often the subject of winter poems and tales, the Companions travel with St. Nicholas carrying with them a rod (sometimes a stick and in modern times often a broom) and a sack. They are sometimes dressed in black rags, bearing a black face and unruly black hair. In many contemporary portrayals the companions look like dark, sinister, or rustic versions of Nicholas himself, with a similar costume but with a darker color scheme.
Krampus is a terrifying figure found in parts of Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia, most probably originating in the Pre-Christian Alpine traditions. Local tradition typically portrays these figures as children of poor families, roaming the streets and sledding hills during the holiday festival. The Krampus wore black rags and masks, dragging chains behind them, and occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusumzüge (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past.
Over 1200 "Krampus" gather in Schladming, Styria from all over Austria wearing goat-hair costumes and carved masks, carrying bundles of sticks used as switches and swinging cowbells to warn of their approach. They are typically intoxicated males in their teens and early twenties. They roam the streets and hit people with their switches. It is not considered[who?] wise for young women to go out on this night, since they are popular targets.
In many parts of Croatia, Krampus is described as a devil wearing a cloth sack around his waist and chains around his neck, ankles, and wrists. As a part of a tradition, when a child receives a gift from St. Nicolas he is given a golden branch to represent his good deeds throughout the year; however, if the child has misbehaved, Krampus will take the gifts for himself and leave only a silver branch to represent the child's bad acts. Children are commonly scared into sleeping during the time St. Nicolas brings gifts by being told that if they are awake, Krampus will think they have been bad and will take them away in his sack.
In Hungary, Krampus (or Krampusz) is often portrayed as mischievous rather than evil devil. He wears a black suit and has a long red tongue, a tail, and little red horns that are funny rather than frightening. The Krampusz wields a Virgács, which is a bunch of golden coloured twigs bound together. Hungarian parents often frighten children with getting a Virgács instead of presents, if they do not behave. By the end of November, you can buy all kinds of Virgács on the streets, usually painted gold, bound by a red ribbon. Getting a Virgács is rather more fun than frightening, and is usually given to all children, along with presents to make them behave.
Belsnickel is a companion of Saint Nicholas in the Palatinate (Pfalz), northwestern Germany. Belsnickel is a man wearing fur which covers his entire body, and he sometimes wears a mask with a long tongue. He is a rather scary creature who visits children at Christmas time and delivers socks or shoes full of candy, but if the children were not good, they will find coal and/or switches in their stockings instead.
In parts of the United States in the 19th century, "Pelznickel" traditions were maintained for a time among immigrants at least as far west as the US state of Indiana. In this branch of the tradition, the father or other older male relative was often "busy working outside" or had to see to some matter elsewhere in the house when Pelznickel arrived. Today, remnants of this tradition remain, known as the Belsnickel, especially in Pennsylvania.
A first-hand 19th century account of the "Beltznickle" tradition in Allegany County, Maryland, can be found in Brown's Miscellaneous Writings, a collection of essays by Jacob Brown (born 1824). Writing of a period around 1830, Brown says, "we did not hear of" Santa Claus. Instead, the tradition called for a visit by a different character altogether:
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 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.
On the South Shore of Nova Scotia, Canada, a Christmas tradition known as Belsnickling occurs, where, similar to mummering, people go from house to house within the communities dressed in multiple layers of clothing and with scarves around their faces to conceal their identity. These people are then given food and drinks (usually rum or eggnog) until their identities are guessed, and then they're off to the next house.
Zwarte Piet (Black Pete)
In Belgium and the Netherlands, children are told that Zwarte Piet leaves gifts in the children’s shoes. Presents are said to be distributed by Saint Nicholas' aide Zwarte Piet; who enters the house through the chimney, which also explains his black face and hands, but not his colorful attire. Blackfaced, red-lipped Zwarte Piet dolls are displayed in store windows alongside with brightly packaged holiday merchandise.
In the folklore of Germany, Knecht Ruprecht, which translates as Farmhand Rupert or Servant Rupert, is a companion of Saint Nicholas. Tradition holds that he appeared in homes on Christmas Eve, and was a man with a long beard, wearing fur or covered in pea-straw. Knecht Ruprecht sometimes carrying a long staff and a bag of ashes, and wore little bells on his clothes.
It is unclear whether the various companions of St. Nicholas are all expressions of a single tradition concerning Knecht Ruprecht (since various texts, especially those outside the tradition, often treat the companions as variations of Knecht Ruprecht), or most likely a conflation of multiple traditions.
Ruprecht was a common name for the devil in Germany, and Grimm states that “Robin fellow is the same home-sprite whom we in Germany call Knecht Ruprecht and exhibit to children at Christmas...” Knecht Ruprecht first appears in written sources in the 17th century, as a figure in a Nuremberg Christmas procession.
According to Alexander Tille, Knecht Ruprecht represented an archetypal manservant, "and has exactly as much individuality of social rank and as little personal individuality as the Junker Hanns and the Bauer Michel, the characters representative of country nobility and peasantry respectively.” Tille also states that Knecht Ruprecht originally had no connection with Christmastime.
According to some stories, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild foundling whom St. Nicholas raises from childhood. Ruprecht sometimes walks with a limp, because of a childhood injury. Often, his black clothes and dirty face are attributed to the soot he collects as he goes down chimneys.
Mr. Bingle is a snowman assistant to Santa Claus originating as a mascot of the Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans, created and designed by Emile Alline, an employee of Maison Blanche, in 1947. The character was later marketed by Dillard's and remains part of the pop-culture of the Greater New Orleans area after the Dillard's had purchased Maison Blanche.
In some of the Ruprecht traditions, the children would be summoned to the door to perform tricks, such as a dance or singing a song to impress upon Santa and Ruprecht that they were indeed good children. Those who performed badly would be beaten soundly by Servant Ruprecht, and those who performed well were given a gift or some treats. Those who performed badly enough or had committed other misdeeds throughout the year were put into Ruprecht's sack and taken away, variously to Ruprecht’s home in the Black Forest to be consumed later, or to be tossed into a river. In other versions the children must be asleep, and would awake to find their shoes filled with either sweets, coal, or in some cases a stick. Over time, other customs developed: parents giving kids who misbehaved a stick instead of treats and saying that it was a warning from Nikolaus that "unless you improve by Christmas day, Nikolaus' black servant Ruprecht will come and beat you with the stick and you won't get any Christmas gifts." Often there would be variations idiosyncratic to individual families.
- Müller, Felix / Müller, Ulrich: Percht und Krampus, Kramperl und Schiach-Perchten. In: Müller, Ulrich / Wunderlich, Werner (Hrsg.): Mittelalter-Mythen 2. Dämonen-Monster-Fabelwesen. St. Gallen 1999, pages 449–460.
- Laity, K. A.: When Little Joe the Krampus Met. Wombat's World Publishing, 2003.
- Santa Claus
- Christmas elf
- Santa Claus's reindeer
- Paganism in the Eastern Alps
- Mr. Bingle
- Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology (trans. Stallybrass): "Their pranks, their roughness, act as a foil to the gracious higher being from whom the gifts proceed ... how to explain the Swiss Schmutzli I do not righly know, perhaps simply from his smutty sooty aspect? Instead of Grampus there is also in Styria a Bärthel (pointing to Bertha, or Bartholomew?) Schmutzbartel and Klaubauf, who rattles, rackets and throws nuts."
- "Christmas Eve Pre-Christian Traditions". Retrieved 15 Dec 2010.
- Jacob Brown, Brown's Miscellaneous Writings, Printed by J.J. Miller (Cumberland, Maryland 1896), page 41.
- Benjamin Thorpe, Northern mythology: comprising the principal popular traditions and superstitions of Scandinavia, north Germany, and the Netherlands (E. Lumley, 1852), 146.
- Phyllis Siefker, Santa Claus, last of the wild men: the origins and evolution of Saint Nicholas, spanning 50,000 years (McFarland, 1997), 82.
- Alexander Tille, Yule and Christmas: their place in the Germanic year (D. Nutt, 1899), 116.
- "Das Schwarze Netz: Rupert von Salzburg". Sungaya. 2009. Retrieved December 20, 2009.[dead link]
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- Felix und Ulrich Müller – Percht und Krampus, Kramperl und Schiach-Perchten: Scientific text on the tradition of Krampus in the region of Salzburg – includes a lively description of the fascination of being a Krampus – text written in 1997 and published in 1999