When you think about it, a strange old man who breaks into homes in the dead of night while knocking back glasses of fortified wine should be treated with a lot more trepidation than we customarily do.
Nevertheless, we can all agree Santa Claus is a lovely, lovely chap. This is more than can be said for some of his Christmas co-stars who turn up in various cultural traditions to strike fear into the hearts of children. This lot certainly gives a new meaning to the words, ‘You better watch out, you better not cry’.
1. Knecht Ruprecht
A shadowy figure from German folklore, Knecht Ruprecht’s name translates as ‘Farmhand’ or ‘Servant Robert’. This may not sound particularly ominous, but his appearance more than makes up for the rather innocuous moniker.
Garbed in a black or dark brown robe with a pointed hood and clutching a long staff, this bearded character looks a bit like a dour, joyless Santa Claus, and functions in much the same way.
Either accompanying Saint Nicholas or wandering around alone, he interrogates children on their behaviour, sometimes literally demanding that they say their prayers. If they can’t recite the words properly, they get hit with the staff or with a bag of ashes, and perhaps ‘gifted’ with coal, sticks and stones.
Fun fact: in the German-dubbed version of The Simpsons, the family’s dog, Santa’s Little Helper, is named Knecht Ruprecht.
Behold, the single best reason you could have for doing everything it takes to stay off the naughty list. A snarling, long-tongued, goat-demon abomination which haunts the lore of countries as wide-ranging as Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy, Krampus is the ultimate anti-Santa. He’s an out-and-out monster who stuffs naughty children in a basket and steals them away, perhaps to eat, or perhaps to take straight to Hell.
The sheer bad-assery of Krampus, the terrifying bad cop to Saint Nicholas’ good cop, made him a cult figure in pop culture before there even was a pop culture. He was being featured on festive greetings cards back in the 19th century, either terrorising children or being saucy with the ladies.
He also starred in his very own Hollywood horror film in 2015, which drew more attention to the traditional Krampusnacht festival celebrated in European countries every 5th December. This sees hordes of revellers don monstrous horned masks, carry torches, cause merry havoc in the streets, and generally provide an anarchic antidote to the saccharine sweetness of the festive season.
His name may make him sound like a delicious pastry you might find in a Viennese café, but Belsnickel is yet another sinister Santa sidekick from German lore. A ragged, skulking figure clad in dirty furs who carries sticks to beat bad children with, Belsnickel is thought to derive from the older legend of Knecht Ruprecht – although, unlike his forebear, Belsnickel also hands out cakes, nuts and other goodies to nice children.
In other words, he combines the figures of Saint Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht in one versatile personage. What’s more, Belsnickel managed to migrate across the Atlantic to the New World with European migrants who settled in regions including Pennsylvania and Indiana. Here, the fabled figure was reputed to knock creepily on windows and either dispense treats or put that stick to work.
Immigrants also brought a Krampusnacht-like tradition of dressing up as Belsnickels for street parades. Accounts of gaudy, Halloween-like performances were written by 19th-century Pennsylvanian journalists, while one shopkeeper wrote in his diary how these Belsnickels were ‘horrid frightful looking objects’ who were ‘prowling around this evening frightening the women and children with their uncouth appearance’, wearing a ‘false face, a shaggy head of two, or rather wig falling profusely over the shoulders and finished by a most patriarchal beard of whatsoever foreign material that could possibly be pressed into such service.’
4. Père Fouettard
Not be outdone by their Germanic neighbours when it comes to making Christmas a far more terrifying time for everybody, the French have contributed their own figure wrapped in dark robes and bringing festive fear: Père Fouettard, or ‘Father Whipper’.
You know the drill by now: he’s the yin to Santa’s yang, handing out vigorous thrashings to naughty children while the nice ones get presents from the jolly man in the red suit. In one folkloric tradition, Père Fouettard also comes complete with a grisly origin story.
It’s said that, back in the medieval era, an evil innkeeper (or butcher) captured three young men (or perhaps schoolboys), robbed them and chopped them up into pieces. Saint Nicholas then turned up, resurrected the three lads, and forced the killer to repent by becoming his Christmas companion.
There’s an alternative, less colourful origin story that dates back to the Siege of Metz, which took place during a conflict known as the Italian War of 1551-59. Here, citizens resisting the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V created an effigy of the despised monarch. Set on fire and dragged through the streets, the charred and bedraggled effigy then somehow became conflated with a Knecht Ruprecht-like myth, resulting in Père Fouettard who has haunted generations of French children.
Like Belsnickel, Père Fouettard also made it to America, albeit in the early 20th century, and given two equally un-Christmassy sounding names: ‘Father Flog’ and ‘Spanky’.