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7 Versions of Santa Claus: Saintly and Dark

Updated on December 26, 2016

The Good Santa and His Evil Sidekick

Austrian St Nicholas and Krampus c. 1900
Austrian St Nicholas and Krampus c. 1900 | Source

The modern Santa Claus is a jolly and kind fellow with a long, white beard and red cloak who rides around in a magic sleigh going down chimneys to give children presents in their stockings.

However, many countries have their own, or several, Santa-like figures, some of them are saintly, but others have a darker streak. Often, the more kindly Santa-like figures are accompanied by darker, meaner sidekicks.

Here is a summary of 8 of the figures who have contributed to the modern Santa Claus legend. Some of them are saintly and kind, while others scary and dark...

1. St. Nicholas

The Real Saint

Saintly Good Deeds by St. Nicholas

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A fifteenth century depiction of St Nicholas surreptiously providing a dowry to one of the three daughters.A 16th century altarpiece with illustrations of the some of the miracles St Nicholas is said to have performed in the side panels. The top left depicts the three daughters St Nicholas is said to have provided a dowry for.A painting of St Nicholas giving to the poor
A fifteenth century depiction of St Nicholas surreptiously providing a dowry to one of the three daughters.
A fifteenth century depiction of St Nicholas surreptiously providing a dowry to one of the three daughters. | Source
A 16th century altarpiece with illustrations of the some of the miracles St Nicholas is said to have performed in the side panels. The top left depicts the three daughters St Nicholas is said to have provided a dowry for.
A 16th century altarpiece with illustrations of the some of the miracles St Nicholas is said to have performed in the side panels. The top left depicts the three daughters St Nicholas is said to have provided a dowry for. | Source
A painting of St Nicholas giving to the poor
A painting of St Nicholas giving to the poor | Source

St Nicholas was a real person who inspired Santa Claus. The real St Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, which is in modern day Turkey. He was born around 280 and died around 343 although the exact dates are uncertain.

There are many myths and stories about the good deeds that Nicholas did but the most famous is the story that led to the tradition of hanging up stockings.

In Nicholas's home town there were a very poor family. The father had three daughters, but he could not afford to pay for their dowries which meant that they would stay unmarried. At the time poor women who remained unmarried would most likely face starvation and distress. Nicholas wanted to help so as each daughter became old enough to marry he dropped a bag of gold at the window by cover of night. (According to some he dropped it down the chimney where it fell into a stocking or a shoe).

There is historical evidence which suggests that this really happened. Not down to the detail of whether he really dropped coins down the chimney...but there is strong evidence that he really did save 3 poor daughters.


2. Sinterklaas and Black Peter

Saint Nicholas with a Dark Companion

Sinterklaas and Black Peter

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam in 1846Taking away the naughty childrenGroup of Dutch children with Sinterklaas and Black PeterSinterklaas parade in 2014 in Veghel, North Brabant, Netherlands
Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam in 1846
Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam in 1846
Source
Taking away the naughty children
Taking away the naughty children | Source
Group of Dutch children with Sinterklaas and Black Peter
Group of Dutch children with Sinterklaas and Black Peter | Source
Sinterklaas parade in 2014 in Veghel, North Brabant, Netherlands
Sinterklaas parade in 2014 in Veghel, North Brabant, Netherlands | Source

In the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, parts of France and Germany) the prominent figure is Sinterklaas (which means St Nicholas). On the evening of the 5th December children put our their stockings and Sinterklaas brings them gifts.

Sinterklaas is an old man with long white beard, and often wears a long red robe. He dresses differently than the standard Santa, he tends to be taller and a bit more dignified. His typical uniform is based on that of a bishop. He usually wears a mitre and carries a long bishop's staff. A mitre is the traditional, ceremonial head-dress of bishops.

Clearly the figure is inspired by the saint who became extremely popular in the middle ages. However there are some parts of the Sinterklaas tradition which seem to have little to do with our saint. These are more pagan than Christian in roots.

Transport

Sinterklaas usually arrives at towns in the Netherlands by boat in mid November to start the festivities leading up to the 6 December. (he supposedly comes from Spain, this appears to be due to the mistaken belief he was buried there - his relics are in fact in Italy). Sinterklaas's main mode of transport whilst on land is a white or grey horse. In the early hours of the 6 November he is said to ride over rooftops on his horse dropping off presents.

Black Peter

Sinterklaas is accompanied by his servant Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) or sometimes several Black Peters. Together Black Peter and Sinterklaas keep tabs on children and whether they are good. Good children will get a present or candy from Sinterklaas but bad children will be punished by Black Peter.

There are various different versions of the scary things that Black Peter will do to bad children... these are some of them:

  • Take them away in a sack back to Spain (in some of the oldest versions)
  • Beat them with a birch rod or broomstick
  • Only leave them a lump of coal in their stocking (a tamer more recent version)

Black Peter was a name for the devil in the middle ages, and as we shall see this is similar to many other of St Nicholas's companions. In recent times the way Black Peter is depicted is very controversial, Black Peter is depicted as a servant of St Nicholas and this has connotations with the slavery of black people. Although some say the reason Black Peter is black is because he gets covered in soot from coming down the chimneys dropping off lumps of coal for the children.

3. Christkind

The Christchild

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Christkind and Hans Trapp (a typical bogeyman figure)The Christkind as depicted in the famous German 1845 children's book Der StruwwelpeterKnecht Rupert and the ChristkindOpening of Nuremberg Christkindel Market in 2009
Christkind and Hans Trapp (a typical bogeyman figure)
Christkind and Hans Trapp (a typical bogeyman figure) | Source
The Christkind as depicted in the famous German 1845 children's book Der Struwwelpeter
The Christkind as depicted in the famous German 1845 children's book Der Struwwelpeter | Source
Source
Knecht Rupert and the Christkind
Knecht Rupert and the Christkind | Source
Opening of Nuremberg Christkindel Market in 2009
Opening of Nuremberg Christkindel Market in 2009 | Source

In many countries in Europe (parts of Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Hungary, Slovakia and Switzerland) presents on Christmas Eve are delivered not by a elderly man with long white beard, but by the Christkind (which in English means literally Christ child).

This was a tradition started by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation. Luther did not want to encourage the celebration of St Nicholas on the 6th of December (or saints in general) so he promoted the alternative idea that the Christkind would bring presents on Christmas eve.

The Christkind is sometimes a baby cherub, but slightly confusingly often the role of the Christkind is played by a young or teenage girl with angel wings. In modern times the Christkind is the primary gift giver on Christmas Eve in many Catholic parts of Europe (St Nicholas comes too on the 6th) but in Protestant parts like North Germany he has been replaced by the Weinachtsmann (literally Christmas Man) who more closely represents the modern Father Christmas or Santa Claus.

4. Belznickel

And other Bogeyman like characters

A scary darker Christmas visitor in the South West of Germany and amongst German speaking communities in the United States was Belznickel. Also known as Belschnickel, Belznickle, Belznickel, Pelznikel, Pelznickel, the name literally translates as "Walloping Nicky" i.e. he is a Nicholas that thumps! Because of this some say he is a version of St Nicholas, but he isn't exactly. Whilst Nicholas is the name of the saint, there are also examples of the name Nicholas being used for the devil...

Belznickel is crotchety, grumpy and very scary, particularly for children who have been bad. At his most fearsome he would appear at the door, dressed in tatty furs with a long white beard, rattling chains and branches of birch against the window until let in. Once he entered the house he would enter the house and would be able to sense which children had been bad. Bad children would be hit with a switch (in some versions, sometimes it would just be a threat!) and made to perform a song or dance, and promise to be good. Belznickel would reward the children with gifts of candies, fruit and cookies.

Thus Belnickel could serve the role of both Santa Claus and Black Peter at the same time. In some cases he comes on St Nicholas's Day, but in others he came a few weeks in advance of the Christkind on Christmas Eve.

Other Similar Bogeymen

There are many other bogeyman across Europe, including Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Ruprecht), Hans Trapp, Beelzebub (based on a name for a demon), and Père Fouettard (whipping father in France). They all act in a similar manner.

Belsnickel and Knecht Ruprecht

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A modern day Belsnickel in 2012Knecht Ruprecht in 1863The Illustrator Thomas Nast was born in Germany, but emigrated to the USA. His depiction of Santa Claus is said to have been heavily based on Pelsnickel from his homeland.
A modern day Belsnickel in 2012
A modern day Belsnickel in 2012 | Source
Knecht Ruprecht in 1863
Knecht Ruprecht in 1863 | Source
The Illustrator Thomas Nast was born in Germany, but emigrated to the USA. His depiction of Santa Claus is said to have been heavily based on Pelsnickel from his homeland.
The Illustrator Thomas Nast was born in Germany, but emigrated to the USA. His depiction of Santa Claus is said to have been heavily based on Pelsnickel from his homeland. | Source

5. Krampus

The most fearsome of the Bogeymen

The Krampus, looks-wise is undoubtedly the most fearsome sidekick of St Nicholas. The depictions of the Krampus most closely represent a classic furry horned demon, although he is also said to be half goat.

On 5 December throughout Austria and in some parts of the United States you can see the Krampuslauf (Krampus procession). Children and adults line the streets to watch many Krampuses run past... Yes the Krampus comes in packs...

Like the other Bogeymen the Krampus is also rumoured to steal children and put them in bags, and historically he often carried a birch switch to beat unruly children!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
3 modern Krampus masksRunning Krampuses2006 Krampus in Klagenfurt Austria1900 illustration of Krampus stuffing some naughty children in his bag
3 modern Krampus masks
3 modern Krampus masks | Source
Running Krampuses
Running Krampuses | Source
2006 Krampus in Klagenfurt Austria
2006 Krampus in Klagenfurt Austria | Source
1900 illustration of Krampus stuffing some naughty children in his bag
1900 illustration of Krampus stuffing some naughty children in his bag | Source

Ded Moroz

Grandfather Frost

Click thumbnail to view full-size
2004 in BelarusLuhansk in Ukraine 2012A Russian postcard depicting Ded MorazPostcard of Ded MorozSlovenia in 1959Slovenia in 1961Christmas Party 1992
2004 in Belarus
2004 in Belarus | Source
Luhansk in Ukraine 2012
Luhansk in Ukraine 2012 | Source
A Russian postcard depicting Ded Moraz
A Russian postcard depicting Ded Moraz | Source
Postcard of Ded Moroz
Postcard of Ded Moroz | Source
Slovenia in 1959
Slovenia in 1959 | Source
Slovenia in 1961
Slovenia in 1961
Christmas Party 1992
Christmas Party 1992 | Source

In Russia and other slavic countries Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) is the popular gift giving figure. He brings presents on New Year's Eve and he is helped by his granddaughter Snegurochka (Snow maiden).

Father Christmas

The original English Old Father Christmas was far from a kind benevolent old man who gave presents to children. By all accounts he was not very interested in children, but a character who loved a drink and Christmas time feasts.

He was originally discussed as a personification of Christmas, of merry making, eating and hospitality. He also featured as a common character in Mummer's plays. These were common plays where amateur actors went round houses and pubs collecting money, often on celebration days such as Halloween, Christmas, New Year or Easter. Examples of such plays featuring Father Christmas can be found in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It was only in the late nineteenth Century that Father Christmas began to morph into a more Santa Claus like figure, bringing children presents.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Old Father Christmas riding a goatMummer's play with Father Christmas
Source
Old Father Christmas riding a goat
Old Father Christmas riding a goat | Source
Mummer's play with Father Christmas
Mummer's play with Father Christmas | Source

Old Christmas poem

Old Christmas is come for to keep open house

And scorns to be guilty of starving a mouse:

Then come, boys, and welcome, for diet the chief,

There's plum-pudding, roast goose, minced pies, and roast beef,

Then let us be merry, and taste the good cheer,

And remember Old Christmas but comes once a year".

The Gentlemen's Magazine 1810

Comparison

A Summary of the Santas and Their Companions

Version of "Santa Claus"
Personality
Appearance
Costume
Companion(s)
1. The Historic St Nicholas
Pious, saintly, devout, generous, giving
Male historical saint
Bishop, Saint
Sometimes
2. Sinterklaas
Kind to good children
Elderly man with long white beard. Dignified
Bishop, Elderly long white beard, thin
Black Peter
3. Christkind
Angelic, innocent
Either a baby cherub or a young girl dressed in white
White, sometimes with wings
Angels (occasionally other devilish characters, but sometimes they come separately)
4. Pelznickel
Grumpy, judgemental
Scruffy, Old man with long beard
Furs, tatty rags
Often on his own
5. Krampus
Fierce, scary
Creature with horns and furs
Brown
Followed by St Nicholas, or the Christkind
6. Ded Moroz
Dignified, stylish
Tall elderly man with white beard
Long Blue Fur lined robe, magic staff
His granddaughter, the snow maiden
7. Old Father Christmas
Jolly, merry, drunk, gluttonous
Elderly man with white beard. Overweight, rosy cheeks from drinking
Wreath of ivy, long cloak
Plum pudding, roast beef
8. Santa Claus
Jolly, merry, kind, hardworking
Elderly man with white beard. Slightly plump
Red suit with white trimmings
Assisted by elves and reindeer, but no companion to punish children

Who would you prefer to be visited by at Christmas time?

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