But I am willing to bet that you don’t know about Santa’s little secret. And I’m not talking about elves, either. No, I’m talking about the darker side of the holiday. The less festive. The scary secret that no one likes to talk about, or if they do it’s in hushed tones long after the kids have gone to bed. That’s right. Santa has a dark side, ladies and gentlemen, and it ain’t pretty.
We all know that the good girls and boys get lots of presents from good ol’ St. Nick on Christmas Day, but what happens to the bad ones? Well, I’ll tell you. They get snatched up or smacked with a rod by the darker side of Christmas. You may call them Krampus or Belsnickel or Le Père Fouettard…but I call it comeuppance!
These dark companions travel with St. Nick (aka, Father Christmas, Santa Claus) and carry a rod or a stick and a bag. They’re often dressed in rags and have horrible, scary faces or they can be dark, sinister versions of Santa himself. Regardless of what they look like, their purpose is to punish and discipline the kids who have been bad throughout the year.
The most famous of these companions is Krampus. The story of Krampus dates back to pre-Christian Germanic traditions, and is often found in the areas of Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Switzerland, and Pennsylvania (I know, right? But there’s a huge Germanic population there, that’s why.) Typically, Krampus carries chains and birch branches that he uses to swat at kids. Sometimes – and here’s the dark part – he carries a bag or a washtub on his back to cart off bad kids to drown, eat or transport to h-e-double-hockey-sticks. The name Krampus comes from the Old German word for ‘claw,’ and you better believe he has them! He’s been described as looking like a demon with long horns and goat-like features. Sometimes he has razor sharp teeth and a long, forked tongue. No matter how you slice it, Krampus is scary.
Then you have good old Belsnickel. He can be found running around the northwestern parts of Germany at Christmas time with his good friend Sinterklaus. In fact, Belsnickel shares many of the same characteristics as Krampus but isn’t as scary. But, compared to Krampus, he seems like a nice guy! He’ll even deliver socks or shoes full of candy to children who have behaved, but if you’ve been bad, well, Belsnickel will give you a bunch of coal or a switch. Sometimes, he’ll even let the bad kids sing a song or tell a poem in order to change his mind. At least he has a nicer side, unlike this next “friend” of Santa.
Le Père Fouettard (The Whipping Father) is the worst of the worst. Known throughout Europe, but mostly prevalent throughout France, Le Père Fouettard puts Krampus to shame. This “friend” of Santa is known to bring a whip with him on all of Santa’s visits, and ruthlessly spanks all of the naughty kids who have misbehaved. The story about his origins is gruesome. He was an Inn Keeper (or sometimes a butcher) who captured 3 wealthy children on their way to boarding school. Because he was greedy, he robbed then killed the children, chopped them up and put them in a stew. St. Nicholas discovered them, resurrected the kids, and forced Le Père Fouettard to become his assistant as punishment for his crimes. He’s already not a nice guy and now he’s forced to spend all of his time with the happiest, nicest man in history? As you can imagine, this makes Le Père Fouettard even more mean, so he takes it out on the bad kids at the holidays. If you see a man with a scary, pointy face dressed in dark scraggly robes with a long beard carrying a whip or a bunch of switch-sticks in a bundle on his back, then you better run the other way because Le Père Fouettard is after you! (Interesting aside, there are rumors that the man on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV is Le Père Fouettard!)
All joking aside, these stories have been passed down in many variations throughout history as a way to make sure those young girls and boys would mind their parents. Getting kids to behave is hard work, and it’s our job as parents to use horrific imagery to frighten them into good behavior right? Maybe not. All I know is that when I’m setting out my plate of cookies and glass of milk for merry ol’ St. Nick, I’m taking one look over my shoulder to make sure one of his darker companions isn’t lurking in the shadows waiting to eat me, beat me or whip me for misbehaving!
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