It’s already December 5th again. Everyone knows that I’m obsessed with holidays and St. Nicholas Day is one of my favorites. Most people have heard David Sedaris‘ story about Santa Claus vs. St. Nicholas and maybe some of us know that he was a Greek bishop in present-day Turkey who became the patron saint of children by resurrecting their little corpses and paying off debts of the living to keep them out of child sex slavery.
I know people still exchange gifts at least in parts of the Middle West. Fewer of us still stuff our shoes with carrots and hay for his white horse Amerigo (or in some places a donkey) with the expectation that tomorrow we’ll find our initials in chocolate, chocolate coins or marzipan. Of course, if we’ve been bad there might be some salt or a bundle of sticks to get switched with.
In different parts of the world he’s accompanied by different comrades.
Probably most well known is Zwarte Piet who is his companion in Flanders and the Netherlands. Originally Zwarte Piet was a nickname for the Devil and, after arriving from Spain, he threatened to stuff bad kids into his sack and take them back with him. In the 19th century, in typically misguided proto-Political Correctness, he was re-cast as a Moorish servant in blackface wearing colorful clothing from the Renaissance. Satan is too offensive, Moorish slavery is still unfortunately commonplace, so I guess it’s not as tasteless. If you look up Sinterklaas on YouTube you will be shocked by the prevalence of blackface, which no one there seems to find remotely controversial. All the comments are in Dutch and I guess you don’t see a lot of black people in Holland unless Urban Dance Squad is still around.
Also well-known is Knecht Ruprecht — his companion in parts of Germany. By some accounts he was a farmhand who suffered an accident which accounts for his limp. By others he was a foundling raised by St. Nicholas. If you’re bad, he’ll take you back to his home in the Black Forest or just toss your body into a river. Sometimes he rides with the Christchild himself.
My favorite, perhaps, is Père Fouettard, who is known in Wallonie and Lorraine. Père Fouettard butchered three children which St. Nicholas resurrected. Now he is taken along in chains but still allowed to switch the naughty.
The Krampus (or Krampusz) are demons that roam around with bells and chains, drunkenly and indiscriminately attacking onlookers. If you look for Krampus on youtube you’ll find plenty of evidence of this from parades in Bavaria, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, and Croatia.
In Switzerland we have Schmutzli. His name means “little schmutzy one” and his m.o. includes the expected child abuse, beat-downs and kidnapping. Unlike some of St. Nicholas’ other homies, he also is said to eat bad children.
In Luxembourg we have Houseker, a creepy figure who wears a monk’s habit and carries the requisite bundle of switches.
The first I heard of St. Nicholas’s companions was Belzenickl (or Pelz Nichol, Belschnikel, Belsnichols &c). He’s a drunken woodsmen clad in furs (sometimes a skunk fur cap) known primarily among the Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) who, if you were good, might throw nuts, cakes and treats across the carpet. If you were bad (you guessed it) — switching. His name means Nicholas in Furs (or something like that) and he looks a lot like St. Nicholas, only wearing furs and carrying switches instead of gifts.
So, keep your eyes peeled and let me know who was riding with St. Nicholas in your neck of the woods.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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