On the evening of December 5th, children all over Germany leave their cleaned shoes outside the door for St Nicholas to fill with treats. While St Nicholas may be the same, St. Nicholas’s Companions change depending where you are in Germany. Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, Schwarzer Peter… even Mutter Hulla! Here is a brief explanation of each of the companions as I could find them.
Until recently, I was familiar with stories of Knecht Ruprecht and Schwarzer Peter. Recently, Krampus has been venturing out of his Alpine home to become a more common figure in December. The newest, to me anyway, it Mutter Hulla/ Frau Holla. I had heard the Grimm’s Fairy Tale.. but it turns out her story goes much deeper.
I hope you find these stories as interesting as I did!
For more information about St Nicholas, click HERE–>Who Is St Nicholas?
St Nicholas’s Companions
The scariest of all of St Nicholas’s companions… and the one making the biggest popularity surge world-wide, is Krampus. This scary horned creature is found mostly in Austria, and Alpine Germany, but thanks to Krampus-Runs, Krampus Parties and Hollywood, his influence is spreading. The Krampus legend comes out of Pagan tradition, and is related to Norse legends.
Krampus travels with St Nicholas, but also alone, wearing a cowbell to warn people of his approach, and chains to suggest that he is bound with the devil. Most images show him holding a bag and some birch branches… these are meant for “bad” children, who will be given the switch, or carried off to the Underworld.
Since the 1800’s people have been using Krampus as sort of an anti-Christmas spirit, maybe to balance out the sweetness and light of the season. Krampus Cards are sent… and on Dec. 5 th, Krampusnacht, big parties are held with Bonfires to celebrate Krampus.
Knecht Ruprecht is more common across Germany than Krampus. While written stories linking him to St Nicholas first appeared in the 17th century, tales of Knecht Ruprecht go back to the Middle Ages. (Oddly, Ruprecht is another word for Devil.) Stories about him vary. Some think he was a wild foundling raised by St Nicholas to be a manservant. Other stories, described in “Deutsche Mythologie” (German Folklore), Jakob Grimm claim his origin is that of a House Sprite or House Elf, who keeps balance. Either way, he wears a black or brown robe with a hood, and often has small bells at his waist to announce his arrival. His face is dirty from the soot he collects as he goes down chimneys (wondering if this was “borrowed” by the American Santa Claus”?) Some say he carries a bag of coal and walks with a long staff because of a limp from a childhood injury.
Knecht Ruprecht was a figure German parents would invoke to keep their kids in line (such a German thing!). He supposedly traveled with St Nicholas, and would quiz children to see if they knew their prayers and bible verses. If the children performed, they were rewarded with apples, gingerbread and other sweets. If they didn’t, the children would be given lumps of coal, beaten or switched, or worse, taken away in Knecht Ruprecht’s sack to be thrown in an icy river or EATEN!
According to Wikipedia, other names for Knecht Ruprecht are- Hans Ruprecht, Rumpknecht, and in Mecklenburg, was called Rû Clås (Rough Nicholas). In the Altmark and in East Friesland, he was known as Bûr and Bullerclås.
Schwarzer Peter/ Zwarter Piet
Schwarzer Peter is how I was introduced to this St Nicholas companion. More commonly found in the Netherlands and Luxemburg, he is no stranger to kids from North Rhine Westphalia. Traditionally, Peter is a black Moor from Spain. (As a brief background… the Moors were a group of Muslims from North Africa who in 711 AD moved north and conquered the Iberian Peninsula, which became modern day Spain and Portugal).
Piet or Peter is dressed in Renaissance Spanish clothes, and acts as a page to St Nicholas. He is in charge of passing out sweets and goodies. Like St Nicholas’s other companions, he is also in charge of carrying away the bad children…
Today, there is serious controversy surrounding Zwarter Piet. Actors portrayed him generally wore black-face makeup with bright red lipstick. Because of the racist implications, in many communities the blackface has been replaced by soot.
Still, he is not seen as an evil or scary companion, if anything, he is more of a kindly helper to St Nicholas. In Holland he leads parades, and visits children in schools and hospitals.
Belsnickel or Pelznickel (and sometimes Kriskrinkel) comes from the Palatinate region of Southwestern Germany along the Rhine, the Saarland, and the Odenwald area of Baden-Württemberg. In the United States he is a common figure in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. This companion of St Nicholas, is more of a combination of St Nicholas and his companion Knecht Ruprecht covered in Fur. (Nickel for Nicholas, Pelz for Fur).
He dresses in furs and dirty torn clothing. Often he wears a mask with a long tongue. In his hand, he carries a switch (like Knecht Ruprecht) but his pockets are full of sweets for children. He tends to travel alone delivering gifts or punishment as needed. However, in Austria, Krampus may be with him.
Frau Holle / Frau Hulda / Mutter Hulla
Stories of Frau Holle or Frau Hulda tied up with St Nicholas are new to me, but they seem come from a time of Paganism. She is also known as “Old Mother Frost”, Budelfrau, Bercheel, Buzebergt, Perchte, Pudelmutter, and perhaps of “Berchta”, Odin’s wife (Frigg) and the “old corn woman. She is also known both as the Dark Grandmother and White Lady. Stories of Frau Holle go back to the beginning of story telling….and to the old Norse Myths (which is why this image shows her with the crown of candles)
In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, her tale typical, those who work hard are rewarded, and the lazy are punished. In Hessen they say she makes it snow when she shakes out her feather beds…
But how is she associated with St Nicholas? One story is that the Pudelmutter goes house to house throwing nuts, apples and special treats into the homes where children are good. Other stories says she flies from house to house on the night of Jan.5 to Jan. 6th (the 12th day of Christmas) putting treats in the stockings of children who have been good, and coal to those who have been bad.
In the German speaking part of Switzerland, St Nicholas is accompanied by a dark faced figure named Schmutzli (dirty?), who carries a broom of twigs used to punish children who misbehaved. The Schmutzli figure represents the evil spirits of darkness from pre-Christian pagan times. Winter festivals with lanterns, fire and noise were thought to drive him away. Later he evolved to balance the sweetness of St Nicholas. In modern Switzerland, he even joins St Nicholas in parades, and helps to hand out treats
St Nicholas and His Companions Add Up to the Modern Santa Claus
One thing I notice over and over, is how bits and pieces of St Nicholas’s companions stories have stuck to today’s notion of Santa Claus. Bringing gifts to those children who are good, coal to those who are bad, coming down the chimney like Schwarzer Piet, or how Knecht Ruprecht is also considered to be an Elf. Then look at Frau Holle, and how she leaves things in stockings. It’s as if all of these legends came together into one fat Jolly guy in a red suit.
Whichever you believe in, whoever you think is following St Nicholas around, don’t forget to clean your shoes and put them out in front of the door on the night of Dec. 5th.. and maybe in the morning you will find something sweet…
Want to Learn More about St Nicholas and His Many Companions
Folk-Lore of the Pennsylvania GermansThe Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric DevilGods and Myths of Northern EuropeMyths and Legends of All Nations; Famous Stories from the Greek, German, English, Spanish, Scandinavian, Danish, French, Russian, Bohemian, Italian anCobweb Christmas: The Tradition of TinselChristmas in Germany: A Cultural HistoryKnecht RuprechtKnecht Ruprechts Arbeitsstube – MiniThe True Story of St. Nicholas
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