St. Nicks Creepy Sidekicks
When most Americans think of Christmas, we picture a fat, jolly Santa Claus with his trademark reindeer-powered sleigh and sack of toys. We all know that he spends the year in the North Pole with his elves; small friendly creatures who delight in making toys for children. St. Nick also travels around with his part- goat part-demon pal on December 5, dealing out rewards and punishments to children. Wait! What?
Yes, you read that right. Santa’s helpers are not limited to delightful elves. Sometimes he needs a partner to play bad cop to the naughty children. The most recognizable form this creepy helper takes is that of Krampus. Usually depicted as a hairy man with hooved feet and a snarling goats head, Krampus delights in scaring the bejesus out of children.
Krampus has gained worldwide popularity in recent years, but initially, he hailed from the German-speaking countries of Europe. According to National Geographic, the origins of Krampus go back to pre-Christian times. In some traditions, he is the son of Hel, the Nordic goddess of the underworld. Krampus isn’t just a dusty relic, he’s still part of a living tradition that is carried on in Austria, Germany and elsewhere.
Salzberg, Austria is known for their Krampus Run. Every year on Krampusnacht ( Dec. 5) locals dress in furs and wear terrifying, hand-carved masks complete with horns. They hang cowbells on their costumes so that they ring with every step. The noise from the bells is supposed to chase away the spirits of winter. They also carry sticks and whips and don’t hesitate to use them on onlookers.
In the Alpine tradition, Krampus came after drunks and layabouts as well as naughty children. In earlier versions of the Krampus run, local men got drunk to attract Krampus’ attention and then ran in the streets, attempting to get ahead of the person dressed as Krampus.
So what does a naughty child have to fear on Krampusnacht? Well, there’s a possibility that he’ll just be given a sound beating with a birch rod. Of course, it’s also possible that Krampus will stuff him in his sack and carry him to the underworld to be tormented for a year. Or he might just get eaten. Sounds like some good incentive to be nice.
Krampus is the most recognizable creepy Christmas character, but he’s not the only one. Many regions of Europe have their own version of the anti-Santa Clause. Here are five more of Santa’s creepy doppelgangers to scare your kids with this year:
In Eastern Europe and parts of the Alps, Frau Perchta comes after naughty children at Christmas time. A shapeshifter who can appear as a beautiful maiden or an old crone, Frau Perchta is sometimes thought of as the female Krampus. She punishes the wicked by cutting their insides out and replacing them with rocks or straw. If you’ve been good, she will leave you a coin on the first night of the Feast of Epiphany.
In Salzberg and other Alpine areas, Krampus is accompanied by Perchton. These creatures are associated with the legend of Frau Perchta and look similar to Krampus with their hairy, humanoid bodies and animal heads, but they don’t go after children. The Perchton simply accompany Krampus on his march through the streets, ringing bells to drive away the dark winter spirits.
Frau Perchta’s legend has evolved over time and isn’t specifically associated with naughty children anymore. Now she is seen as being a basically benevolent creature who punishes those who steal or commit other wicked acts.
Grýla and the Yule Lads
Icelandic children have long lived in fear of Grýla and her Yule Lads. Legend has it that Grýla is a terrible child eating giantess, who comes out of the mountains in the winter looking for tasty children. In some versions of the story her sons, the mischievous Yule Lads will also eat naughty children. In the 17th century, the Icelandic government felt that fear of Grýla had gotten out of hand and banned the use of her legend as a parenting tool. Now the yule lads are mainly known for mischievous pranks.
Le Père Fouettard
The award for the most spine-chilling backstory goes to Le Père Fouettard, the “father whipper.” He travels with St. Nicholas around France and Belgium on St. Nicholas Day. His origin story dates back to at least the 12th century. Fouettard was an innkeeper who murdered three boys who were traveling to a religious order. He then chopped up their bodies and either pickled them or stewed them depending on the version you’re reading. When St. Nicholas found out what had happened he miraculously brought the boys back to life.
As atonement for his sins, the murderous innkeeper was sentenced to travel with St. Nicholas on his rounds on Dec.6 each year. Despite his Grimm brothers-esque backstory, the worst Le Père Fouettard will do to naughty children is give them a few lashings with his whip. Perhaps St. Nick keeps a close eye on him.
In Germany’s Rhineland Belsnickel travels with St. Nicholas checking on who’s been naughty and nice. Belsnickel is usually described as a dirty old man dressed in ragged furs and carrying a switch. Children who haven’t been minding their parents get a beating with his switch, but he gives out sweets to well-behaved kids.
In the early 18th century the tradition of Belsnickel was brought to the United States by German immigrants. To this day many kids in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland are on their best behavior during the weeks leading up to Christmas because they know that Belsnickel is checking up on them and will report back to Santa.
Another German companion of St. Nicholas, Knecht Ruprecht usually appears wearing a long dark colored robe and carrying a stick and a bag of ashes. Ruprecht is after something a bit more specific than good behavior. He asks children if they pray, and in some versions of the story, he even quizzes them on their Catechism. Kids who give the wrong answers get a wack with his stick or his bag of ashes.
Iceland seems to be chock full of child eating Christmas creatures. Jólakötturinn takes the form of a large, terrifying cat. Like Knecht Ruprecht, this cat also has a specific set of demands. He’s looking for kids who have not finished their chores and therefore not received clothing as a reward for their hard work.
Clothing is often gifted in Iceland at Christmas time due to this legend. Some scholars think that this story may have been meant to encourage well-off children to be generous to their poor peers during Christmas time. Giving clothing to the poor takes on a whole new meaning if you are also saving them from being eaten by a giant cat!