Here in the U.S. Santa has his jolly elves helping bring gifts to good little children. With a ‘ho-ho-ho’ mall Santas dole out candy canes and sweet treats, asking kids what they truly want for Christmas. There’s threat of a lump of coal, but no one mean enough on Mr. Claus’s American staff to carry this out. Well, except for my mother, who one year put a lump of coal in my brother’s stocking for a good laugh. His real gift was hidden elsewhere after we all got the lesson.
In Germanic speaking Europe, however, Santa or St. Nicholas’ helpers have a more sinsister side. And, the more remote you go, particularly into the Austrian and Bavarian Alps, the hairier, woolier, and wilder this helper gets. This helper has centuries old pagan roots and was paired with the Christian St. Nicholas, when the Catholic church chose the pagan Winter Solstice as the time we celebrate the birth of Christ. Unable to eradicate the pagan mythology of these solstice and winter deities, the Church compromised with pagan converts and tried to make these gift givers a bit less demonic and more human. Then, when Martin Luther, who was saint-phobic, tried to eradicate St. Nick as a gift bringer, to be replaced with the Kristkindl or Christ Child in the form of a blond haired maiden, he only enhanced the popularity of Santa’s evil twins in Germanic Europe. This gender-bending version of the Christ Child as gift giver is still practiced in parts of Germany and in Alsace-Lorrain.
The Kristkindl or Christ Child as depicted in the Alsace region.
The darker legends of St. Nicholas’s helpers popped up, varying a bit region to region. Knecht Ruprecht is probably the most well known of these helpers in Germany. The word knecht means “worker” usually referring to a farmhand. He’s a scraggly, hooded character who accompanies St. Nicholas. But there’s also Hans Trapp in Alsace-Lorrain; Schmutzli in Switzerland; Swarte Piet, the 15th century Moorish servant in the Netherlands, Pere Foutard and Rupelz in French Speaking areas of Switzerland and Alsace, Pezlnickel (also Pelzmartin, Graale, and Buzegrale) in Swabia and Northwest Germany, Bullerklas in Hanover, Braunschweig, and Holstein; Bartel or Wild Bear in Silesia, Hans Muff in the Rhineland, Klapperbock in Westphalia, Bur and Bullerclas in East Friesland, and Gumphinkel and his bear in Hesse. And each region has it’s own special treat that’s passed out for being good. For the most part, these gift givers are tattered old men with blackened faces in cloaks who punish bad children. Each, though over the centuries has been tamed quite a bit and is less imposing. For example, Swarte Piet in the Netherlands has morphed from a ghoulish Moor servant to more of a comical jester who does acrobatics and stunts, rather than cause trouble. He has also gotten a lot of attention in recent years for the perceived racism of his black faced, domicile charater.
Pere Foutard in Alsace/Switzerland Knecht Ruprecht in Germany
Hans Trapp as portrayed in the Alsace region.
In northernmost Mecklenburg, for example at the Christmas Market at Rostock, St. Nick is accompanied by Märchenrtante, or Fairy Godmother, which seems to be a variant of the Russian Kolyada, a maiden in white cape who now accompanies Russian Father Frost or Ded Moroz, who wears a blue robe instead of red. Kolyada is based on a Slavic pagan goddess of the sun who brings joy and fertility, and traditionally rode on a sleigh led by a white stallion.
Weihnachtsmann (Santa) and Marchentante (Fairy Godmother) arriving by ship at Rostock, Germany’s Christmasmarket.
The Jultomten or Christmas gnomes in Denmark and Norway filter into some regions of Northern Germany on the Baltic as gift bringers. And, the Joulpooki, or Christmas goat, of Finland as a gift bringer also gets into some regions of Northern Germany and Silesia as the Julebock or Christmas Goat.
The personified Joulpooki, it’s straw version, and the Jultomten of Scandinavia.
But the Alpine Germanics have held strong to the extreme ying/yang of their pagan ancestry. They were too remote for the Catholic clergy to stop their pagan Winter traditions. For them it’s important to remind their children the lessons of being good, and that there are not so good consequences to doing the wrong thing. For them Krampus, a hairy, horned devilish creature does this very well. He carries chains and a switch to discipline children, and in some cases takes them back to hell with him in his rucksack or even devours them on the spot, as legend warns.
Krampus can vary in looks from a furry, evil sasquatch to a red-skinned horned devil with goat feet. 1920s Postcards from Germany favored the devilish look of Krampus. In either form, he is meant to terrify and bring home the lesson of obedience.
Krampus travels with or without St. Nickolaus in a large group of hellraisers, in a parade called the Krampuslauf. Other more comic regional folk characters also accompany Krampus in these parades. Sometimes up to 400 horned, hairy demonic creatures parade through the old streets of Austria as Krampuses. These events are so popular in the remote villages around Salzburg, and Western Austria, particulary in the Ponzau region, that he even has a type of bread in his honor. It’s called Krampuszöpf or twisted Krampus bread. The zöpf or züpfe is a type of Swiss, Austrian or German bread made from white flour, milk, eggs, butter, and yeast. Zöpf literally translates as braid. The dough is twisted and brushed with egg yolk to give it a golden color. A variant of the zöpf in Swabia is called Hefekranz or Hefezpöf and is sweater than a zöpf. The Krampuszöpf are shaped into horned, hoofed beasts, twisted at the center and given dark raisin or prune eyes, and a red fruit leather snake like tongue. They show up in bakery windows in the towns that produce these elaborate Krampuslaufen or parades in the Alpine towns.
Various forms of Krampuszopf in Austria and Germany.
There are also figgy prune Krampus men called Zwetschgen menschen or Quetzchemänchen (prune people) sold at these Krampus festivals.
The Krampuslaufen typically take place between St. Nick’s Day on December 6, and Ephiphany on January 5. There are different demonic deities called Perchten that often accompany the Krampus and vary from region to region. There are two main categories of these otherworldly folk-spirits. Schönperchten or beautiful perchten, bring good luck and a good harvest or luck in the New Year, while the schlachtperchen or ugly perchten are supposed to ward off evil spirits. These perchten are said to roam the earth during the 12 nights between Christmas and New Year. This belief is popular in northern Mecklenburg Germany too, where Scandinavian mythology mixes with Germanic. But there are not elaborate processions there – only a devious helper of Santa called Ruklaus or rough Nicholas.
Groups from the Perchtenlaufen in Austria.
Perchten are the female form of the Krampus evil deity, but in modern days the lines between Krampus and Perchten are blurred. Frau Perchta was a half-woman, half-goddess who appears at the end of the old year, accompanied by various evil figures. She watched over the people and protected them against bad demons, but also doled out punishment. This pagan tradition is based on the Scandinavian legend of the Wild Hunt of Odin. In other forms of the myth Perchta is also known as Hulda or Freya, Odin’s wife. Perchten were the name given to the evil creatures accompanying her. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Catholic Church tried to ban these heathenish customs, unsuccessfully.
In the Rauris Valley southwest of Salzburg, there are Schnabelperchten, who look like giant bird women, with 2 foot long beaks and headscarves and dresses. Their loud “qua-qua” lets the villagers know they are coming. Usually coming in groups, they check the cleanliness of the farmhouse, and are said to cut open the stomach of a lazy farm woman and stuff it with the mess they find. That’s why there’s always one in the group carrying a large set of scissors. They also carry wicker baskets filled with gifts that they distribute to clean houses.
The Austrian town of Bad Mittendorf, southeast of Salzburg opens its Perchentlauf with creatures called Schabmaenner or sweeper-men, dressed like large brooms, sweeping the way for St. Nicholas.
In the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden, straw bundled monsters called Buttmändl or bundled men, accompany St. Nicholas, and his helper Nikoloweibl. This helper is a girl dressed in the folk costume of the area who carries a basket for gifts.
St. Nick and Nikoloweibl and the Buttmandl in Bavaria.
Goldegg, a little town in the Pongau region due south of Salzburg, has a Krampus/Perchten parade with several folk figures. In addition to the Schlachtperchten (Krampuses) there are Frau Percht and her witches, the Hassergoaβ (a large goat figure), Hans Wurst, a jester like figure with large pointed cap, a large group of Schönperchten (men in folk dress and masks and huge symbolic headdresses with their folk attired women), Zapfenmandl (a Knecht Ruprecht wooly man covered in pine cones) and Werchmandl (a Knecht Ruprecht man covered in fur), Kaminkehrer, a man in white cap and blackend face, who brings good luck, Baer und Baerentrieber (bear and his tamer, similar to the Silesian Bartel), Schneidermandl (a tailor charicature), Puppenweibl (a man in drag representing a dollmaker), Korbelweibl (a charicature of a man and his wife), Nightwatchmen, and finally the three Wise Men.
In the Pinzgau region southwest of Salzburg, a specific type of Schönperchten called the Tresterer, are part of the Krampus/Perchten-laufen. They wear bright red and yellow body suits with golden crowns with over 20 rooster feathers. They travel in groups from farmhouse to farmhouse, dancing a folk dance to reawaken the earth and fields for a good harvest. With them in this procession are of course the Schlachtperchten and a host of other folk characters. There are Schwegler or flutists who play the folk music to which the Tresterer dance, the goat person and his handler, the Lapp and Lappin, similar to the Korbelweibl of Goldegg, the Huhnerpercht (a raven billed perchten), Krapfenschnappers (large wolf like perchten) and the the Zapfen and Werchmandl.
Tresterer group in Austria.
In the region of Salzkammergut east of Salzburg, the Perchten procession is joined by Gloeckler, men dressed in folk attire with large lit semi-circular oversized headdresses that look like walking Mardi Gras floats.
The Schonperchten called Gloekler on parade in Austria.
Krampus has hit the U.S. in recent years. Los Angeles has a Krampuslauf around St. Nicholas Day. Cincinnati has started a Krampuslauf group a few years ago, and there’s a Krampus movie coming out during the holiday period. As popular as Krampus is in Europe, I doubt we’ll see his popularity hit the shopping malls in the U.S.