St. Nicholas traditions vary from place to place. This is most evident when looking at the characters who accompany him on his gift-giving rounds. Many of these customs are rooted in the Middle Ages, which had a strong fascination with the tension between good and evil. St. Nicholas, as a benevolent patron, represents the good. But he sometimes comes with others who symbolize evil.* These sometimes devil-like figures can be very frightening. However, they are usually, but not always, shown as being under St. Nicholas’ control—an affirmation that evil is not to have the last word.
In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives on a large white horse, often called Schimmel or Amerigo since 1990 (when that was the actual horse’s name). Sinterklaas also rides the horse around the countryside visiting schools and homes. Sometimes a white horse is also with St. Nicholas in Belgium (known as Slecht-weer-vandaag), Germany and Poland.
In France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, St. Nicholas leads a donkey laden with baskets full of treats and toys for children.
may be the saint’s helpers in Belgium, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and Austria. Sometimes they keep the record of children’s behavior in St. Nicholas’ large book; they may carry the book as St. Nicholas delivers gifts. In Czech and Slovak tradition, the angel is there to protect children from the devil.
is a frightening devil-like figure found with St. Nicholas in Austria, southern Germany, and some other Eastern European areas. He is dressed in fur with horns and a long red tongue. Krampus, also known as Perchten or Tuifl, is sometimes in chains to show he is under the saint’s control and would not be able to harm people. In some places there are very frightening Krampus visits and runs that include hitting passersby and onlookers, including children, with sticks, completely terrorizing children. Though some say, “Krampus is the worst thing in Austria,” he is very popular. Krampus: An Austrian Christmas tradition that can sting
In Czech and Slovak traditions, a shaggy furred devil with horns, tail, and a long red tongue comes along with Saint Nicholas. He has a staff to threaten punishment. However, he is usually chained and an angel is there to protect the children.
or Knecht Ruprecht is St. Nicholas’ most familiar attendant in Germany. He is a servant and helper whose face is sooty from going down chimneys leaving children’s treats. He carries the sack of presents and a rod for disobedient children. “Just wait until Ruprecht comes” is still a common threat in German homes. Originally a farm hand, Ruprecht is known as Hanstrapp or Rupelz in the French region of Alsace. In Germany there are many different characters: Krampus in Southern Germany, Pelzebock or Pelznickel in the North-West, Hans Muff in Rhineland, Bartel or the Wild Bear in Silesia, Gumphinkel with a bear in Hesse, Buttenmandl in Bavaria, or Black Pit close to the Dutch border. In the Palatinate both Nicholas and his attendant may be known as Stappklos, the plodder and grumbler.
or Black Peter was established in the Netherlands as the Sinterklaas helper in the 1845 book Sinterklaas en Zijn Knecht. He rides over the rooftops with Sinterklaas, listens down chimneys to check children’s behavior, and delivers gifts. Even though some ask if he is an anachronism in today’s world, the Piets are enormously popular; the Dutch see them as more fun-loving and mischievous than the more stately bishop. Besides, the Saint asks children questions and gives fruit while it is the Piets who hand out treats and candy. Piets are also found in Flanders, Belgium. The Evolution of Zwarte Piet
is found in France and Luxembourg, where he’s known as Housécker. He is the evil butcher who was forever condemned to follow St. Nicolas as a punishment for luring the little lost children into his shop. His name doesn’t translate well, but means “Mr. Bogeyman,” “spanking,” or “switches.”
is nearly all brown: dressed in brown, with brown hair and beard, and a face darkened with lard and soot. He is St. Nicholas’ helper in Switzerland. He carries a switch and sack, but no longer uses them. Children used to be told that Schmutzli would beat naughty children with the switch and carry them off in the sack to gobble them up in the woods. Today there is very little talk of beatings and kidnappings.
* St. Nicholas Center joins with the St. Nicholas Society, taking a position that does not condone nor wish to perpetuate in any way customs that include characters with a dark side, such as the horrific Austrian Krampus, as we encourages the St Nicholas tradition and its revival in our time. We abhor the imagery of these characters and hope that St. Nicholas will be accompanied by necessary helpers needed for practical reasons, but that the helpers have no significance in the overall celebration. The Dutch Zwarte Piet has become over time a more benign figure, but he, too, presents serious difficulties. It would be wise, in our thinking, to do away with the black-face and simply call them jesters, or just Piets, making it clear all can be St. Nicholas’ helpers. St Nicholas is a symbol of good and good alone. He does not need, and should not have, violent and frightening sidekicks for comparison. Support the good St. Nicholas!