Christmas companions: Santa’s litte helpers in European myth and literature

‘HE’S making a list/He’s checking it twice/He’s gonna find out/Who’s naughty and nice” – across thousands of supermarkets, bars, lifts and radio stations the words of John Coots and Haven Gillespie’s 1934 Christmas hit song will be delighting and aggravating shoppers in equal measure.

But the line “so be good for goodness’ sake” harks back to older folk traditions.

Nowadays, a few households (mine as a small boy certainly) might chastise a child with the threat that if you misbehaved, you would receive nothing but lumps of coal. The idea of a rather more judgmental Santa has evaporated as the commercialisation of Christmas thunders on apace. In some ways, the sadistic Robo-Santa in the Futurama series captures more of the Europe-wide mythology of Santa’s bad sidekick.

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I first heard about the Krampus from an American sculptor at the Wigtown Book Festival. A few Google searches for images revealed a rather startling series of pictures: Saint Nicholas in a motorbike sidecar with the Krampus – depicted like the devil of Christian legend, with red skin, a goatee beard, cloven feet, horns and a long tongue; the Krampus, its arms chained, pulling the ears of a child or bundling one into a sack.

In Austria, while Father Christmas gave out gifts to good children, the Krampus would give bad children coal, or whip them with birch branches, or abduct them in a sack, to be eaten later.

The practice took different names across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire: he is the Gumphinckel in Silesia, the Schmutzli in Switzerland or the Pelzebock in southern Germany. Although all of them appear demonic, there are regional variations – such as a wash-tub on his back in which to drown bad children.

The Austrian government tried to suppress the idea of the Krampus throughout the 20th century, both during the Nazi period and afterwards (Time magazine reported a campaign in 1953 where the government distributed postcards – in imitation of the postcards, Krampuskarten that used to be sent out on 5 December – stating “Krampus is a Bad Man”). But the Krampus is not the only bizarre companion to the jovial Santa Claus, nor is he the only one that governments have tried to prohibit.

One stereotype that clearly is an embarrassment today is the Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, in the Netherlands and Belgium. Black Peter is usually represented as a man in blackface dressed in page’s clothing. The tradition seems to have evolved from depictions of St Nicholas as having a Moorish or African servant in some religious paintings.

Black Peter is less monstrous than the Krampus; and usually distributes sweeties to children. The golliwog style appearance of Black Peter has led many groups to suggest it might not be the most sensitive of representations, while supporters of the practice, rather disingenuously, claim Black Peter is supposed to be a Spanish moor, and that the tradition stretches back to the resistance of the Netherlands to the Hapsburg invasion in the 16th century.

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Older versions of the story claim Black Peter will take naughty children to Spain, which is apparently where Sinterklaas lives outside of Christmas. Given the recent controversy and legal ruling over the racist elements in Tintin in the Congo, Black Peter may have to change sooner rather than later.

Knecht Ruprecht is another Yuletide companion, with a similar brief to punish as well as reward. Literally “Rupert the Farmhand”, he accompanies St Nicholas on 6 December in Germany, and is himself assisted by men with ash-covered faces dressed as old women.

His role is to test the children’s religious observance – usually by asking them to pray – and while he will give gingerbread or nuts to those that can, he is allowed to beat those who cannot with a sack full of ashes. The Grimm Brothers associated him with Robin Goodfellow and pre-Christian winter spirits. Among the variations are that he limps, was found abandoned as a child by St Nicholas, and is a chimney-sweep.

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The Knecht Ruprecht story has obvious similarities to Père Fouettard, whose name means “the Whipping Father”. His appearance is almost identical to Knecht Ruprecht, but his remit more punitive.

Also known as Hans Trapp, and briefly introduced into American Christmas mythology as Father Flog, the earliest account dates back to the 12th century, where the character was an inn-keeper who lured some pious schoolchildren into his home, drugged them, cut their throats and stewed their corpses. St Nicholas resurrected the boys – a panel depicting this can be seen in the National Gallery of Scotland – and turned the inn-keeper into Père Fouettard either as punishment, or after he had repented, curiously enough. Père Fouettard also hands out spankings, coal and birch-branches.

The idea of a Mrs Claus has been around since 1849 – in the story A Christmas Legend by James Rees, where her given-name is revealed to be Diane – but before that it seems as if the jolly old chap had a few other female accomplices.

La Befana is a sort of Italian Santa Claus, delivering presents to the virtuous and coal or beatings to the naughty, just before Epiphany on 6 January. She is normally shown as a witch (complete with birch-branch broomstick on which she rides, tidies the houses of the good and wallops the wicked) and the legend of her origin has her as a woman who refused a night’s stay to the Three Magi on their journey to Bethlehem. One charming variant of the contemporary Befana story is that each child gets a piece of coal, which is actually a piece of candy dyed black, since no child has been good all year round.

In Iceland, there is the Grýla, a pagan goddess who became associated with Christmas around the 17th century. She too was a dispenser of justice to the wicked, usually enforced by the Yule Lads. The Yule Lads look identical to our Father Christmas, but are far less benevolent. There are currently 13 Yule Lads – with names like Sausage-Swiper, Doorway-Sniffer and Door-Slammer – who slip a potato into a bad child’s shoe.

They also have a large cat, who eats children. The Yule Cat has affinities with the Badalisc, a goat-like Germanic creature who is tamed at the Epiphany after a year of annoying the community. The Badalisc is led into the village by a young man, an old man, and an old woman, towards a young woman who is there as lure to its lust. A hunchback knocks it out, and it delivers a series of roars which are “interpreted” by another character as a list of all the misdemeanours of the community. It is then given pride of place at a feast, and released. The idea of reindeers dragging Santa’s sleigh may well be derived from these stories of midwinter animals of uncommon sagacity.

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It’s rather a pity that most of these traditions are now confined to very local areas. Santa Claus is rather saccharine and a little indiscriminate. Perhaps not for children, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the Krampus or the Grýla or Père Fouettard deliver a public humiliation, with moderate violence, to our public figures who haven’t behaved themselves this year?

I’m sure that seeing them trounced just after the Queen’s Speech would have the whole country raising a glass.