Marianne is a history graduate from Scotland. She is interested in cultural history and how myths have developed over time.
The Good Santa and His Evil Sidekick
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...
Saintly Good Deeds by St. Nicholas
1. St. Nicholas
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 three poor daughters.
Sinterklaas and Black Peter
2. Sinterklaas and Black Peter
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.
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 December he is said to ride over rooftops on his horse dropping off presents.
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.
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.
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
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!
6. Ded Moroz
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).
7. 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.
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
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
Kind to good children
Elderly man with long white beard. Dignified
Bishop, Elderly long white beard, thin
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)
Scruffy, Old man with long beard
Furs, tatty rags
Often on his own
Creature with horns and furs
Followed by St Nicholas, or the Christkind
6. Ded Moroz
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
Alexisboyce on March 15, 2020:
Don’t get me wrong I love Santa but I would like to see him with Christkind.