You might think that the monsters had vanished with Halloween. However, there are still some monstrous — and other strange — creatures to be found in the Advent season.
Many are associated with St. Nicholas of Myra, whose feast day we celebrate Dec. 6. Nicholas, — known as “Nicholas the Wonderworker” in the Eastern Orthodox churches — is a patron saint of children. There are various stories of how this bishop-saint rescued children from pirates and prostitution rings.
Oranges, candy and stockings are often part of St. Nicholas celebrations. This comes from the story of a poor merchant with three daughters. He lacked money to dower his daughters for marriage, so he planned to sell them into prostitution.
But then Nicholas came at night to throw three bags of gold down the merchant’s chimney to save the girls. It is said that the gold landed in stockings drying by the fire. The bags of gold reminded people of oranges. This St. Nicholas story merged with legends surrounding Santa Claus, with a few changes added via the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where he is known as Sinterklaas. Some of those changes came from Germanic, Austrian and Scandanavian countries and included companions who travel with St. Nicholas.
Since this creature’s name comes from a German word meaning “claw” (krampen) it’s easy to see why the Krampus is scary. While the Krampus most often appears as a companion of St. Nicholas, he actually derives from an earlier Norse legend. In this, he is the son of Hel, the god of the underworld.
The Krampus is half-goat, half-demon in appearance, with long, shaggy hair, fangs and a lolling tongue. He often carries a bell to announce his coming. With St. Nicholas, the Krampus also wears chains, to show that he is under the control of the saint. The Krampus’ purpose is to remind children to be good. To reinforce this, he sometimes carries a birch switch. If children aren’t good, they might even be carried off by the Krampus. In some places, the night of Dec. 5 is Krampusnacht. It is celebrated in ways resembling Halloween, with many Krampus figures leading carousing parades.
Knech Reprecht is another scary companion of St. Nicholas. He also carries a birch switch. Knecht Ruprecht is more commonly found in Germany and may also carry a sack in which to carry off naughty children. Since “Ruprecht” is a common German name for the devil, one can understand why Knecht Ruprecht is a dark figure. He isn’t quite as scary as the Krampus and is sometimes even portrayed as a helper or servant of St. Nicholas.
Knecht Ruprecht’s clothes and face are covered with soot because he travels down chimneys to leave treats for children. When he is a servant of St. Nicholas, his job is to quiz children on their prayers and catechism. Those who know the correct answers get treats. Children who don’t get the answer correct get threatened with the switch. Some say Knecht Ruprecht was an orphan himself and was found and raised by St. Nicholas. Sometimes Knecht Ruprecht limps because of a childhood injury.
Belsnickle comes to the legends via southern Germany, where his name means “fur-Nicholas.” He is a kind of St. Nicholas with messy, furry clothes and a huge hat. He carries a sack full of fruit and nuts to share with children. We know about Belsnickle in the United States because his story was brought here by the Pennsylvania Dutch who came from Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. A similar character is in Switzerland is called “Schmutzli.”
Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) traces his origins to the Netherlands in the 19th century. He is a companion of Sinterklaas and climbs on rooftops to listen down chimneys to report children’s behavior back to the saint. Zwarte Piet wears Renaissance-period Spanish-style clothing and is said to have been a Moor. Moors were Muslims who lived in Spain, Portugal and Malta during the Middle Ages. Zwarte Piet is more fun-loving than the other companion/servants of Sinterklaas. While Sinterklaas quizzes children and hands out healthy treats, Zwarte Piet hands out sweets. In Wisconsin, St. Nicholas was a very popular in communities with Dutch heritage — one local priest remembers that “Black Pete was big in Kimberly” during his own childhood.
Since people portraying Zwarte Piet have traditionally worn “blackface,” there has been some controversy about the character. However, he remains very popular Advent character. Some holiday parades even have several Zwarte Piets traveling with Nicholas — all of them handing out treats.
Another popular companion of St. Nicholas is his horse, who is white or pale gray in color. The horse is sometimes called “Schimmel,” which may be a name, but which also means “white horse” in German. Since 1990, the horse has been called “Amerigo” in the Netherlands. This is because the police horse used to carry St. Nicholas in the traditional parade that year was named “Amerigo.”
Legend says the white horse can fly and carries St. Nicholas over the rooftops to bring treats to children. Many children leave boxes of hay or carrots out for Schimmel, just as children in the United States leave sugar for Santa’s reindeer.
So when you remember St. Nicholas, oranges and candy this Dec. 6, you might also want to remember white horses, shaggy demons and the various other companions who help St. Nicholas find out whether you’ve been naughty or nice.
Sources: stnicholascenter.org; holidaysandobservances.net; germangirlinamerica.com; lutheranmuseum.com; germany-insider-facts.com; smithsonian.com; smithsonianmag.com; catholicculture.org; german-way.com; and new.nationalgeographic.com