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The Père Fouettard (French pronunciation: [pɛʁ fwetaʁ]) (French for Father Whipper) is a character who accompanies St. Nicholas in his rounds during St. Nicholas' Day (6 December) dispensing lumps of coal and/or floggings to the naughty children while St. Nick gives gifts to the well behaved. He is known mainly in the far north and eastern regions of France and in the south of Belgium, although similar characters exist all over Europe (see Companions of Saint Nicholas). This "Whipping Father" was said to bring a whip with him to spank all of the naughty kids who misbehaved.
The most popular story about the origin of Le Père Fouettard was first told in the year 1150. An innkeeper (or in other versions a butcher) captures three boys who appear to be wealthy and on their way to enroll in a religious boarding school. Along with his wife, he kills the children in order to rob them. One gruesome version tells that they drug the children, slit their throats, cut them into pieces, and stew them in a barrel. St. Nicholas discovers the crime and resurrects the children. After this, Le Père Fouettard repents and becomes St. Nick's partner. A slightly altered version of this story claims that St. Nicholas forced Le Père Fouettard to become his assistant as a punishment for his crimes.
Another story states that during the Siege of Metz (a city in Eastern France) in 1552, an effigy of king Charles Quint was burned and dragged through the city. Meanwhile, an association of tanners created a grotesque character (also a tanner) armed with a whip and bound in chains that punished children. After Metz was liberated, the charred effigy of Charles Quint and the character created by the tanners somehow assimilated into what is now known as Le Père Fouettard. Events surrounding the city's liberation and the burning of the effigy coincided with the passage of St. Nicholas, hence Le Père Fouettard became his "bad cop" counterpart.
In the 1930s, Le Père Fouettard appeared in the United States under the translated name Father Flog or Spanky. Although almost identical to the original French personification, Father Flog had nothing to do with Christmas and also had a female accomplice named Mother Flog. The two doled out specific punishments for specific childhood crimes (e.g. cutting out the tongue for lying).
The most common depiction of Le Père Fouettard would be of a man with a sinister face dressed in dark robes with scraggly unkempt hair and a long beard. He is armed with either a whip, a large stick, or with bundles of switches. Some incarnations of the character have him wearing a wicker back pack in which children can be placed and carried away. Sometimes he merely carries a large bundle of sticks on his back (some speculate that the photograph on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV is Le Père Fouettard). Often, his face is darkened to varying degrees. Some say it is because of his being born of a burned effigy, others say that it is from the soot in the chimneys that he goes down with St. Nicholas. In other representations, Le Père Fouettard is identical to the Dutch character Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). Further renderings of the character show him as being nearly identical to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, but wearing a black suit.
Père Fouettard in popular culture
- Jacques Dutronc's song La Fille du père Noël (Santa Claus' daughter) is about Père Fouettard's son having a crush for Santa Claus' daughter.
- Another French pop star, Alain DeLorme, mentioned him in the song "Venez Venez St. Nicolas"
- There is a restaurant named Le Père Fouettard at 9 Rue Pierre Lescot, in Paris which features "Classic Parisian Fare".
- Robert Schumann composed a piano piece in 1848 most commonly known as Knecht Ruprecht (a similar character, see Companions of Saint Nicholas), but in some cases the piece is called Le Père Fouettard.
- Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, a line of hand-blended perfume oils, created a limited-edition Yule scent in 2008 named Le Père Fouettard consisting of "Whip leather, coal dust, gaufrette, and black licorice."