Santa’s Little Helpers…

At Yule, the old year dissolves back into the chaos and darkness from which it emerged as the world is reborn and a new cycle begins. There was a sense that Yule was a time for settling moral accounts: bad behaviour in the previous year would be punished and good behaviour rewarded.  Yule was the time when the souls of the dead were collected, or returned in ghostly companies accompanying the Winter Hag or Wild Hunter. The Hag Goddess rode out to punish or reward and humans had to lay a table of food and drink for her in the open air.  In southern Germany, she was preceded by her muffled servant, variously called Rupper, Ruprecht, Hersche, Harsche or Hescheklas. Modern gift-giving spirits have their origin in much older Pagan legends. Some of Santa’s characteristics are undoubtedly borrowed from Norse and Germanic lore. The god Odin rode on a white eight legged horse called Sleipnir and delivered either gifts or punishments at the winter solstice. Like Santa, Odin had a long white beard, and a sheaf of grain was left in the fields for his horse. Today’s Christmas celebrations still retain an element of punishment and reward, whereby children are told that of they are good, Father Christmas will bring them presents. Less common is the injunction that naughty children will be deprived of their goodies or left pieces of coal instead. In the past bad children were promised severe punishment and whipping by the Winter Spirits, and adults were just as likely to reap penalties ranging from bad luck to dismemberment and death.

In Europe, Saint Nicholas and other gift-giving spirits had (and in some places still have) a variety of helpers that bear no resemblance to the cute elves of the American Santa. These are ragged, sinister spirits, sometimes horned, often hairy with blackened or hideous faces, which carry rods to punish naughty children and evil doers, even dragging some away to hell. They go by a variety of names in various regions and include Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle, Zwarte Piets, Furry Nicholas, Rough Nicholas and Klapperbock. They are often identified with demons or the devil himself. Santa’s helpers often carry brooms and come down the chimney. Chimney sweeps often carry broom, an attribute of St. Nicholas. Chimney sweeps are a lucky charm for the New Year in Germany and elsewhere. (In folklore, various spirits are said to live behind the hearth, or to come down the chimney.)

In Germany and Austria, the god Woden was transformed into the Schrimmerlreiter (‘White Horse Rider’). In the Ruppin district a man dresses up in white with ribbons, carries a large pouch, and is called Christmann or Christpuppe. He is accompanied by a Schimmelreiter and by other men dressed as women with blackened faces called Feien. The procession goes from house to house. The Christpuppe makes the children repeat some verse of Scripture or a hymn; if they know it well, he rewards them with gingerbreads from his wallet; if not, he beats them with a bundle filled with ashes. Then both he and the Schimmelreiter dance and pass on. Only when they are gone are the Feien allowed to enter; they jump wildly about and frighten the children.[1]

Knecht Ruprecht is a prominent figure in the German Christmas. His name means ‘Farmhand Rupert’ or ‘Servant Rupert’, though older mythologists interpreted it as meaning “shining with glory” from hruodperaht, and identified its owner with the god Woden. Tradition holds that he appeared in homes on Christmas Eve, and was a man with a long beard, wearing fur or covered in pea-straw. He sometimes carried a long staff and a bag of ashes, and wore little bells on his clothes. Often, his black clothes and dirty face are attributed to the soot he collects as he goes down chimneys. On Christmas Eve in the north he went about clad in skins or straw and examined children; if they could say their prayers perfectly he rewarded them with apples, nuts and gingerbread; if not, he punished them. 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 St Nicholas and Ruprecht that they were indeed good children. 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 to be consumed later, or to be tossed into a river.

Belsnickel (‘Fur Nicholas’) is a companion of Saint Nicholas in north-western Germany. He is played by a man wearing fur which covers his entire body, and he sometimes wears a mask with a long tongue. If the children were not good, he would leave coal or switches in their stockings.

To the medieval Dutch, Black Peter was another name for the devil. Somewhere along the way, he was subdued by St. Nicholas and forced to be his servant. Although portrayed as the slave helper of Saint Nicholas, the two are, in many villages, blended into one character. In Belgium and the Netherlands, children are told that Zwarte Piet leaves gifts in the children’s shoes or punishes naughty children. He enters the house through the chimney, which explains his black face and hands. Black-faced, red-lipped Zwarte Piet dolls are displayed in shop windows.

Saint Nicholas’s most frightening companion can be found in parts of Austria Slovenia and Croatia. Krampus is a terrifying figure, most probably originating in the Pre-Christian Alpine traditions. Local tradition typically portrays these figures as children of poor families, roaming the streets and sledding hills during the holiday festival. They wore black rags and masks, dragging chains behind them, occasionally hurling them towards children in their way.

These Krampusumzüge (Krampus Runs) still exist.  In Schladming, a town in Styria, over twelve hundred Krampus gather from all over Austria wearing goat-hair costumes and carved masks, carrying bundles of sticks used as switches, and swinging cowbells. Proceedings can get very rowdy, as they are usually young men who often get very drunk. They hit passersby with their switches and young women often avoid the areas they roam in.

In many parts of Croatia, Krampus is described as a devil, wearing chains around his neck, ankles and wrists, and wearing a cloth sack around his waist. As a part of a tradition, good children receive a golden branch from St. Nicolas, while if the child has misbehaved, Krampus will take the gifts for himself and leave only a silver branch to represent the child’s bad acts. Children are told they must be asleep when St Nicholas comes or the Krampus will think they are bad and steal their presents. 

In Hungary, the Krampusz is often portrayed as mischievous devil, wearing a black suit, with a long red tongue, a tail and little red horns that are funny rather than frightening. The Krampusz wields a Virgács, a bunch of gold coloured twigs bound together. Hungarian parents often frighten children with getting a Virgács instead of presents if they do not behave. Virgács are sold on the streets.

Santa’s hairy little helpers (and hence Santa himself) may be traced back to the wildman or woodwose characters that pop up in practically every mythology. [2] A huge number of nature spirits across the world are described as or partly or completely covered in hair and they are often horned with something of the animal about them, and are probably related to the classical Pan and Faunus.[3] They are sometimes mischievous and sometimes vicious, capable of bestowing enormous bounty or terrible punishment. The wildman or woodwose was a common character at various festivities in mediaeval England from May Day to Yule. At Midsummer pageants and parades the frightening and comical woodwoses were commonly dressed in ivy and carried oak clubs. At the Scottish court at Yuletide, the Abbot of Unreason was attended by men dressed in “branches of pine, yew, oak, fern, boxwood, or flowering heath”. [4] Henry VIII held Yuletide festivities in 1515 with a play in which eight wild men, in green moss and with ugly weapons, fought eight knights.

The beast-man still survives in folk customs. The wildman is known in various regions as Chläus, Div, Djadek, Jass, Kinderfresser (‘child eater’), Klapperbok, Old Scratch, Thomasniklo and Schrat. Over the ages, the brutal wildman figure evolved into a character more like a clown or fool. [5] In Switzerland there are hair covered revellers called Chlaus, the beast-masked Narren leap through Black Forest villages; the blackened, goat-bearded berika romp in Georgia and the Perchta runners re-enact a death and resurrection ritual on the fields of Austria. Today, the Saami still await a Yuletide visit from a giant horned and hairy wildman called Stallo (‘metal man’). He rides in a sleigh seeking mischief, and if drink is not left out for him, he might suck the brains and blood from a child’s skull to quench his thirst. On Christmas Eve he searches for children to stuff into his sack and take away. In Sweden, the Jultomten is akin to the forest wildman. He is stout, bearded and dressed in furs. He cares for animals and has powers over the elements. According to legend, Jultomten lived deep in the forest long before he showed himself to humans.

For Christians, the Wildman was a dangerous and despised figure, a rebellious force that threatened the values of orderly society; he represented untamed Nature as opposed to Christian civilisation. He dwelt in the dark forests and wild woods which were still haunted by all the ancient forces of the Old Gods. He is raw nature, the shamanistic feral god of beasts and vegetation whose annual death and resurrection must be acknowledged.

© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010

[1] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, T. Fisher Unwin, 1912

[2] Phyllis Siefker, Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men, McFarland & Company, 1996

[3] Anna Franklin, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Vega, London, 2002

[4] Thomas K. Hervey, The Book of Christmas, The Folklore Society, 1888

[5] Jeffrey Vallance, Lapp of the Gods


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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