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Companions of Saint Nicholas


Companions of Saint Nicholas

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Krampus (2003 Perchtenlauf in Woelfnitz, Austria)
Krampus (2003 Perchtenlauf in Woelfnitz, Austria)

The Companions of Saint Nicholas (or Father Christmas) are a group of closely related figures who accompany St. Nicholas in many European traditions. The tradition is particularly strong amongst the Germanic peoples, with some regional expression in America (largely from European ethnic groups).

The most recognized companion, especially outside of Europe, is Knecht Ruprecht, which translates as Farmhand Ruprecht or Servant Ruprecht. Other companions include Krampus (Austria, Bavaria), Klaubauf (Bavaria), Bartel (Styria), Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Belsnickel (Pennsylvania), Schmutzli (Switzerland), Rumpelklas, Bellzebub, Hans Muff, Drapp or Buzebergt (Augsburg), and Père Fouettard (Northern France). These servants are often associated with, but are distinct from Saint Nicholas' helpers in the Netherlands and Flanders (called Zwarte Piet or Zwarte Peter, meaning Black Pete(r) in English).



Often the subject of winter poems and tales, the Companions travel with St. Nicholas or his various equivalents (Father Christmas, Santa Claus), carrying with them a rod (sometimes a stick, bundle of switches or a whip, and in modern times often a broom) and a sack. They are sometimes dressed in black rags, bearing a black face and unruly black hair. In many contemporary portrayals the companions look like dark, sinister, or rustic versions of Nicholas himself, with a similar costume but with a darker color scheme.

Some of the companions take on more monstrous forms. Krampus and Klaubauf are variously depicted as horned, shaggy, bestial, or demonic. In many depictions the Krampus looks like popular images of the Devil, complete with red skin, cloven hooves, and short horns.

It is unclear whether the various companions of St. Nicholas are all expressions of a single tradition (likely Knecht Ruprecht), or a conflation of multiple traditions. Various texts, especially those outside the tradition, often treat the companions as variations on a single Knecht Ruprecht tradition.


Knecht Ruprecht is commonly cited as a servant and helper, and is sometimes associated with Saint Rupert. According to some stories, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild foundling whom St. Nicholas raises 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 chimneys.

The companion of the French St. Nicholas, Pere Fouettard, is said to be the butcher of three children. St. Nicholas discovered the murder and resurrected the three children. He also shamed Pere Fouettard, who, in repentance, became a servant of St. Nicholas.


In some of the Ruprecht traditions the children would be summoned to the door to perform tricks, such as a dance or singing a song to impress upon Santa and Ruprecht that they were indeed good children. Those who performed badly would be beaten soundly by Servant Ruprecht, and those who performed well were given a gift or some treats. Those who performed badly enough or had committed other misdeeds throughout the year were put into Ruprecht's sack and taken away, variously to Ruprecht’s home in the Black Forest, or to be tossed into a river. In other versions the children must be asleep, and would either awake to find their shoes filled with sweets, coal, or in some cases a stick. Over time, other customs developed: parents giving kids who misbehaved a stick instead of treats and saying that it was a warning from Nikolaus that "unless you improve by Christmas day, Nikolaus' black servant Ruprecht will come and beat you with the stick and you won't get any Christmas gifts." Often there would be variations idiosyncratic to individual families.

In parts of Austria, Krampusse, who local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (typically children of poor families), roamed the streets and sledding hills during the festival. They wore black rags and masks, dragging chains behind them, and occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusumzüge (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past.

In parts of the United States in the 19th century, "Pelznickel" traditions were maintained for a time among immigrants at least as far west as the US state of Indiana. In this branch of the tradition, the father or other older male relative was often "busy working outside" or had to see to some matter elsewhere in the house when Pelznickel arrived. Today, remnants of this tradition remain, known as the Belsnickel, especially in Pennsylvania.

Historical accounts

In some regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behavior and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten them with rod-beatings.

Modern perspective

Christmas Eve (Heiliger Abend, "Holy Evening") thus became known as the time when children were best behaved, and the tales of Ruprecht gave a balance to the winter festivals which might seem disquieting to some, but which were not especially grim or atypical of customs of times past. The story is still popular throughout the German-speaking world.

Recently, some effort has been made to spark a KrampusNacht tradition in San Francisco [1]. The originators embrace the mischievous interpretation of Krampus, including some hedonistic and antisocial aspects inherent in the tradition.


Traditionally, Knecht Ruprecht would sometimes be portrayed as being African, like Zwarte Piet in the Benelux. However, over time this caused controversy and today he is usually portrayed as Caucasian, and the black on his face is explained as soot collected as he descends into chimneys.


"Do you have the Sack with you?"
I spoke: "the Sack, that is here;
because apples, nut and almond core
eat pious children gladly."
"Do you have the rod also with you?"
I spoke: "the rod, it is here;
but for the children, only the bad,
those it meets them right, upon their part."
(translated excerpt of 'Farmhand Ruprecht' by Theodor Storm)

The Krampus was also featured on the television cartoon series The Venture Bros. In a short Christmas episode, the Krampus is accidentally released from a book of ancient occult magic and wreaks havoc on Dr. Venture. The demon is soothed by a small nativity scene set. At the end of the episode this is all revealed to be a hallucination by Dr. Venture brought on by a head injury.

In the arcade game CarnEvil, the boss for the "Rickety Town" level is named Krampus. He resembles a horned, clawed, demonic Santa Claus clad in green, and attacks by hurling flaming coals.

External links


Müller, Felix / Müller, Ulrich: Percht und Krampus, Kramperl und Schiach-Perchten. In: Müller, Ulrich / Wunderlich, Werner (Hrsg.): Mittelalter-Mythen 2. Dämonen-Monster-Fabelwesen. St. Gallen 1999, S. 449 - 460

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Christmas Guide, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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