You better not pout; I'm telling you why...Krampus, Zwarte Piet, Pere Fouettard, and La Befana are coming to town!
Christmas in America is filled with sugar and spice and all things nice. Just look at the Elf on a Shelf; it's so cute and so American! The European Christmas has a more noirish flair; filled with characters that are not so loveable and kind. It happens that these noirish figures mostly come from Catholic backgrounds. Catholics have so many Saints; is it surprising that they also have a hefty amount of evil characters to go with the good?
After learning about Krampus, I started researching more of Santa's European companions. Although none are as scary as Krampus with his red tongue and horns, there are many who are just as disturbing.
Having two young children of my own and teaching seven and eight year olds, I have mixed feelings about these evil characters. Sometimes I think a little scare to entice "being good" might be a plus but I certainly don't want my children having nightmares! I think it's better to keep images of Sugar Plums (not demons) dancing in their heads!
In Austria: Krampus (meaning "claw" in German) is a scary horned creature with a red forked tongue; he is weighed down by heavy chains and goat fur. Krampus accompanies Saint Nicholas carrying a switch to punish bad children. The tradition in Austria is the children eat the little devil up in pastry form so he won't come to visit them! Krampus carries a wooden stick or switches and threatens children who misbehave. St. Nicholas never lets Krampus harm anyone because he is so kind but Krampus makes it his business to scare the living daylights out of children. On the Feast of St. Nicholas (December sixth), Saint Nicholas and Krumpus visit children to ask for lists of their good and bad deeds. The nice ones get treats like toys and candy; naughty ones get switches with a tree branch from Krampus. My friend from Austria said her parents never asked Krampus to come to their house and all her mom and dad had to say was, "Do you hear those heavy bells ringing and chains rattling?" That was all it took!
Also in Austria is a character named Sylvester who wears a grotesque mask, beard, and a mistletoe wreath lurks in a dark corner until a woman foolishly walks into the shadows and to her surprise she is seized and roughly kissed. All Catholic "Saints" are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint's memory. December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day - hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester's memory.
In Germany: Belsnickel (similar to Krampus but not as grotesque) is a mountain man covered head to toe with fur who accompanies Saint Nicholas as the main disciplinarian. He is feared for his scary looks and leaves coal for bad children and candy for the good.
Also in Germany: Knecht Ruprecht, which translates as Farmhand devil or Servant devil, is a companion of Saint Nicholas. Tradition holds that he appeared in homes on Christmas Eve, and was a man with a long beard, wearing fur. Knecht Ruprecht sometimes carries a long staff and a bag of ashes, and wears little bells on his clothes.
According to some stories, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild castaway raised by St. Nicholas from childhood. Ruprecht sometimes walks with a limp, because of a childhood injury. Often, his black clothes and dirty face are attributed to the soot he collects as he goes down a chimney.
In the Netherlands : Zwarte Piet accompanies Sinterklaas and threatens children with switches and receiving lumps of coal, he helps Sinterklaas hand out presents on the fifth of December in Holland (St. Nicholas' eve, his feast day) by a steamboat from Spain, where he lives throughout the year. Accompanying Sinterklaas on the steamboat every year is Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas's Moorish servant helper, who partners with him on the holiday gift-giving mission. Sinterklaas doesn't actually deliver any of the presents instead it's Zwarte Piet going roof to roof delivering to the children of Holland because Sinterklaas is too old and feeble for such exertion. Zwarte Piet and his friends were former chimney sweeps and have familiarity being up on rooftops and entering houses in uncustomary ways.
In Scandinavia: Nisse an Elf or gnome like creature who protects the farm In Scandinavian folklore, has an active interest in the farm by doing chores like grooming horses, carrying bales of hay, and other farm-related tasks. These chores were usually done much more efficiently and effectively than by their human counterparts. However, the Nisse is known to be temperamental and mischievous. If the household was not careful to keep its Nisse satisfied and unforgotten (usually in the form of a single bowl of porridge with butter in it left out on Christmas Eve) the Nisse could turn against its masters and bring bad fortune to the farm.
In France: Pere Fouettard (The Whipping Father) an evil butcher who committed murder carries around switches to threaten children and is feared by children. He carries rusty chains and switches. On December 6, Pere Noel roams through France with his small donkey laden with gifts and treats, and each good boy and girl receives a present. The bad girls and boys, however, receive a visit from Père Fouettard, who lashes them with his whip. Isn't it just très French to have a butcher in Christmas legend? I wonder if Pere Fouettard prepares a crown roast for Christmas dinner.
In Italy: La Befana was just an common old woman, cleaning her house and going about her business, when the Magi (the three wise men of gold, frankincense and myrrh) showed up at her door asking for directions to the Christ child. She didn't know, but gave them refuge in her home overnight. They found the experience so pleasing that they invited her to come along on their journey the next day; but she declined because she was too busy with her cleaning and didn't want to waste time. Later that night, she regretted the decision, and set off to find them with no luck. Since then, every year on January 6th, La Befana is said to be searching for the Christ child, and flies around on her broom leaving toys and candy in the stockings of good little children (and lumps of coal or ashes in the bad.) As an added bonus, before she leaves the house, La Befana sweeps your floors so you wake up on the morning of Epiphany with a sparkling home. But beware! If you see her during the night she'll give you a thump with her broom. La Befana may be ugly and old but the children adore her; I'd love for her to clean my house!
The good news is, no matter what country or culture, Santa is always viewed as a merry old man. I prefer the orientation toward kindness and positivity that we seem to favor in America. It seems a lot more consistent with the "Ho! Ho! Ho!" mentality to reward children for good behavior than to punish them for "being bad."