The holidays are a time best spent with friends and family, celebrating it however your faith or traditions dictate. It is a time of warmth, relaxation, and love. For Christmas, it means waiting on jolly old Santa Claus to bring presents for all of the good boys and girls around the world, spreading joy and Christmas cheer when they wake up to a tree surrounded by gifts just for them. Santa, his helpers and his reindeer, have become an image of pure happiness.
But this was not - and still is not - always the case. Early folklore of Saint Nicholas had him a lot crueler towards children who had misbehaved, with punishments as severe as abduction and death awaiting those who did not listen to their parents. As folklore started to be absorbed into religion, the various Christian Churches realized that a holy man (a saint no less) should not be seen as good and evil, so the Companions of Saint Nicholas began to emerge. These figures were juxtaposed to Saint Nicholas, being every bit as rotten as he is good.
Also known as Black Peter, this Companion from Dutch folklore is actually one of many, Zwarte Pieten meaning many Black Peters. The Zwarte Pieten will descend upon a down in the weeks leading up to the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Originally, Saint Nicholas - known as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands - was more of a bogeyman figure, but these traits were passed on to the Zwarte Pieten. Thus, Sinterklaas would reward good children, while a Zwarte Piet will steal bad children, stuffing them into burlap sacks and taking them away.
The origins of the Zwarte Pieten vary. Originally they were thought to be extensions of old Germanic traditions of the WIld Hunt. Supposedly representations of the black ravens of Odin (or Wodan), Huginn and Muninn, these birds would accompany the god on his Hunt. They would perch on roofs and listen to the humans inside, reporting back on good and bad behaviour.
Other origins claim that the Black Peters are actually devils that Saint Nicholas has managed to enslave, forced to do his bidding. Their black skin tone is thus the result of hellfire. This version became more popular as churches grew in power. If a saint could enslave demons, think about what the church as a whole could do.
The most popular modern day origin story of the Zwarte Pieten claims that they are liberated black slaves from Spain, where Saint Nicholas is said to reside for the rest of the year. Supposedly representations of Moors, who were enslaved in Spain when the SInterklaas and Zwarte Piet tradition was growing, these Black Peters were named literally after their skin colour. Others - a much smaller group - claim that they are black because they were chimney sweeps before SInterklaas rescued them, thus being covered in soot. However the Moors origin story is widely accepted today.
This has led to a bit of controversy over the last decade or so. Those who dress up as Zwarte Piet will use blackface makeup, however more than 90% of those in the Netherlands do not see it as a racist act, but one of tradition.
Originating in Germany, along the border of the Rhine, Belsnickel is technically a Companion of Saint Nicholas, but wanders on his/her own. Belsnickel wears thick furs, carries a sack full of sweets, nuts, and cakes, and also carries around a hazlewood switch. Occasionally, Belsnickel is said to wear the mask of a long-tongued monster. Belsnickel has been referenced as both an old man and a very masculine woman, however the former is much more popular.
Belsnickel is more akin to the older representation of Saint Nicholas, the rewarder and the punisher. He would wander the countryside around Christmastime, coming to the homes of children. Those children who exhibited good behaviour would be rewarded with the contents of the burlap sack. Those who misbehaved and were naughty received lashes on the back from the wooden switch, which reportedly had a metal sting in it. Other times, however, Belsnickel would act strangely: he would toss sweets on the ground and watch the excited children scramble for them, lashing their backs as they gathered candy. Unlike parental discipline, however, these particular lashes would cause no pain.
A more commonplace companion than Belsnickel, Knecht Ruprecht also hails from German folklore and shares many attributes with the more solitary Companion. Ruprecht is an immediate associate of Saint Nicholas, adopting the role of manservant more than peer. He appears as an older man who carries a staff and a bag of ashes, and has pockets filled with nuts, fruit, and cakes. Depending on the variation of the tale, he might walk with a limp, have bells on his robe, ride a white horse, or be accompanied by fairies.
Knecht Ruprecht is believed to have predated the tale of Saint Nicholas. Prior to Christmastime celebrations and lore in Germany, Ruprecht was a common name for the Devil. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Knecht Ruprecht is the cruel counterpart to Saint Nicholas. As the saint became more gentle and rewarding, he was balanced by the evil Ruprecht.
Knecht Ruprecht would not judge children based on behaviour, however; he would simply ask them if they could pray. If they were capable of praying, Ruprecht would reward them with the delicious contents of his pockets (that is as weird to type as it is to say out loud). If they could not, however, their punishment would range from getting a lump of coal or a switch for your parents to beat you with, all the way up to the Companion stuffing children into a sack and tossing them into a freezing river to drown.
Sometimes Knecht Ruprecht and Belsnickel were not enough to punish the naughty children - or to act as warnings so parents could have a break. To further reinforce the severity of misbehaving, these two Companions were sometimes accompanied by the final and most terrifying of them all: Krampus.
After being the subject of a fairly well-received Hollywood film (and some not-so-well-received indie ones), Krampus is probably the most well-known of the Companions outside of the Netherlands and Germany. Krampus is a true monster, appearing as a half-demon, half-goat creature complete with horns, hooves, fangs, and a long, lolling tongue. It shows up the day before the Feast of Saint Nicholas with the holy man himself, though wanders with the other Companions in the weeks preceding the Feast.
Krampus, like most Companions, has origins that predate Christianity. In Wiccan beliefs, Krampus is said to be a physical representation of the Horned God. A balance to the purity and goodness of the Triple Goddess, the Horned God is a representation of everything evil and dark in the world. It is easy to see how such an ideal was transferred to balance Saint Nicholas’s own soft side. Furthermore, Kampus is usually portrayed as carrying chains, links of iron that have been scorched with hellfire. These are symbolic of Saint Nicholas enslaving the demons to do his bidding.
The fact that such bidding is the most severe punishment of all of the Companions makes you wonder what Santa was really thinking. Saint Nicholas, as per usual, will focus on the well-behaved children, while the misbehaving children will be wishing for the lashes of Belsnickel or the coal of Knacht Ruprecht. Krampus has been more fond of abducting children in burlap sacks. It would then decide what it would do to the child, choosing from its favourites of drowning them, dragging them to Hell, or simply eating them. Nowadays, tradition states that Krampus gives out coal like the other Companions, but its terrifying visage and presence in popular culture serves as a constant reminder to just how brutal this demonic Companion was.
So next time you are huddled up with your family on Christmas Eve, sipping hot chocolate and watching A Christmas Story, don’t get too comfortable. Those footsteps on the roof might not be reindeer. That jolly, bearded man might not be ol’ Saint Nick. And coal might be the least of your worries if you have misbehaved