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French Christmas Lore: Père Noël and His Assistant, Père Fouettard

The traditions surrounding Saint Nicholas and his feast day have evolved and changed with the times.

The traditions surrounding Saint Nicholas and his feast day have evolved and changed with the times.

December 6th Is Saint Nicholas Day

Saint Nicholas Day is December 6th. In many parts of the world, it is said that on this day, Saint Nicholas visits various cities and homes where he distributes gifts to children. This tradition dates back to before the Middle Ages, which is why it has been able to survive both the Protestant Reformation, with its efforts to do away with the veneration of saints, and the secular revolutions of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which sought to restrict or abolish religious practices altogether.

However, while people refused to give up popular traditions and holidays like Saint Nicholas Day, some compromise was in order. As a result, the traditions surrounding Saint Nicholas and his feast day have evolved and changed with the times.

Here, Père Noël/Santa Claus is sitting by a fireplace waiting for children to come.

Here, Père Noël/Santa Claus is sitting by a fireplace waiting for children to come.

Since Saint Nicholas Day is so close to Christmas, the two celebrations have merged in many countries, with Saint Nicholas becoming a part of the Christmas celebration and his feast day being downplayed.

In many places, he also underwent a name change, becoming Father Christmas in England, Père Noël (which translates to Father Christmas) in France, and Santa Claus (from the Dutch Sinterklaas) in the United States.

In this painting, Saint Nicholas is seen dropping gifts down a chimney with Zwarte Piet, the Dutch version of Père Fouettard.

In this painting, Saint Nicholas is seen dropping gifts down a chimney with Zwarte Piet, the Dutch version of Père Fouettard.

Père Fouettard Accompanies Saint Nicholas in France

In France, it is Père Noël who distributes gifts to good little children. Nowadays he generally distributes gifts on Christmas Eve, except in eastern France where the old traditions persist and he observes the traditional Saint Nicholas Day by distributing his gifts on the night of December 5th.

In France, Père Noël is traditionally accompanied by an assistant named Père Fouettard. Père Fouettard has been accompanying Père Noël since at least the Middle Ages, making him a part of a long tradition associated with the season. Fouettard has a dark, ruffian-like appearance, and in the past, his task was to punish the children who had been bad, while Saint Nicholas/Père Noël rewarded the good children with gifts.

In the past, children were told that Fouettard would punish children who had been bad with a spanking, while Père Noël would reward those who had been good with candy or another small gift. Like Père Noël/Saint Nicholas, Fouettard has evolved with the times, and in our present, kinder and gentler era, his role as the spanker of naughty children is generally downplayed or not mentioned at all.

Here, Père Fouettard is pictured with a sack full of birch rods for spanking naughty children.

Here, Père Fouettard is pictured with a sack full of birch rods for spanking naughty children.

Père Fouettard Murders Three Young Boys

Père Fouettard's connection to Saint Nicholas dates back to the fourth century. His story actually represents both the existence of evil in the world and God's infinite mercy. According to legend, Fouettard is the butcher in the legend of Saint Nicholas and the three boys.

Among the many loving miracles attributed to Saint Nicholas is the story of his bringing back to life three young boys who had been murdered by a wicked butcher. One version of the story tells of a famine in the land and three young boys who become lost while out searching the fields for food missed during the harvest. In other versions, the boys simply become lost while wandering in the fields. As night begins to descend, they spy a butcher's shop and knock on the door seeking shelter for the night. The butcher opens the door and invites them in.

Instead of giving them food and shelter for the night, the butcher kills the boys, then hacks their bodies to pieces and throws the pieces into a barrel of brine (saltwater) along with a butchered pig that he is preserving. His intention, of course, is to increase his profit by including the boys' remains as part of the pork he is selling. Sometime later, there is another knock at the door, and when the butcher opens it, he sees Saint Nicholas standing in the doorway.

Saint Nicholas Brings the Boys Back to Life

Since Fouettard's encounter with Saint Nicholas occurred after the death of the saint, the butcher knew immediately that Saint Nicholas had come for the murdered boys. Stepping past the butcher, Saint Nicholas made his way to the barrel and told the three boys to arise and come to him. All three were immediately made whole and came to life. Stepping out of the barrel, the boys spoke of being asleep and dreaming of Heaven.

Watching from his position by the doorway, the butcher suddenly became remorseful and repentant for what he had done. Saint Nicholas assured him that God forgives all sinners who repent, regardless of their sin. Feeling both ashamed for what he had done and grateful to Saint Nicholas for undoing the damage resulting from his crime, Fouettard chose to follow Saint Nicholas from the shop and has been at the saint's side through the ages, not as his slave or servant, but as a loyal follower showing his gratitude by helping where he can.

That is the story, or a variation of the story, that has been told in France and the surrounding areas for centuries about how Père Fouettard came to accompany Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas also Stands for Repentance and Forgiveness

While much of what we know about Saint Nicholas is myth and legend, it is important to remember that he was a real person. Nicholas was an only child who was born into a wealthy family. While he was still a very young man, his parents died, leaving their vast wealth to him. However, instead of a life of ease and luxury, Nicholas chose to share his wealth and to lead an active life devoted to helping to make the world better.

Saint Nicholas has been adopted by many groups as their patron saint. The seemingly most unusual of these is his being adopted as the patron saint of thieves. However, instead of helping to protect thieves and other criminals from the consequences of their actions, he always seeks to turn thieves away from a life of crime when they seek his help.

As Father Christmas, Santa Claus, and the other names he is known by, Saint Nicholas is most famous for secretly leaving gifts for children on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day or Christmas Eve. Traditionally the gifts go to children whose behavior has been good. For those who misbehave, he has traditionally threatened punishment either through the assistance of enforcers like Fouettard or simply ignoring and not leaving a gift for those who haven't been good.

In the first half of the 20th century, when homes were heated with coal, parents would warn their children to behave, or Santa would leave a lump of coal in their stockings rather than leaving them a gift. Parents still encourage children to be especially good at Christmas time, as Santa Claus might skip their house and not leave a present if they have been misbehaving.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: This tale sounds a bit dark, don't you think?

Answer: As I have tried to show in this and my other articles and stories about St. Nicholas, he never condones evil actions but he is always ready to forgive when people atone and repent of their evil deeds. The tale if Pere Fouettard offers parents the opportunity to tell their children that St. Nicholas will reward good behavior but unrepentant bad behavior will result in unpleasant consequences. Rewards are an incentive for good behavior while the threat of punishment is an incentive to change and cease bad behavior. While not popular today corporal punishment or the threat of it was a common child-rearing practice in the past. While the American Santa Claus tradition has never included a Pere Fouettard type assistant there used to be the threat that bad behavior would result in a lump of coal (this was when coal was the main form of home heating in America) in place of a present from Santa. Today we still have Santa's "naughty and nice" list which tells children that having "naughty" next to their name will result in no gift from Santa and this threat is an incentive to be good especially in the week leading up to Christmas Eve.

© 2007 Chuck Nugent


Terrible-at-French on December 13, 2011:

thank you fr\or this Hub. :D it helped me write my speech for my sophomore french class. Now if only i could have it translated.. :P

Ferry on December 11, 2010:

It's right that santa claus is made up from Saint Nicholas, but thanks to that, we have 2 old men with white beards who give presents. In our countries is the holy Nicholas number 1 about presents giving, he also arrives with steamboat, middle November and rides a white horse. When the holy Nicholas is leaving at December 6 Santa Claus with the Reindeers and stuff takes his place.In the old days we had Santa most as dummies, candle shapes, in snowglobes, Christmas cards, ect. Santa only appeared on tv. Christmas was in our Countries not used as the presents time. These days it is. We mostly do eating, family meetings, party and going to church at December 24-25. We put the Christmas trees down at December 6 or 7, in the old days it was about middle December.

Ferry on December 11, 2010:

For all Foreign Countries, there's Double feast in the Netherlands and Belgium, The holiday of the holy Bishop Saint Nicholas is in Netherlands at December 5 and in Belgium at December 6, that's 3 weeks before Christmas. There's also the Santa Claus or Father Christmas at December 24-25-26. In our Countries Saint Nicholas and Santa are 2 different persons. We call the holy Nicholas; Sinterklaas or Sint Nicolaas, in Southern Belgium Saint Nicolas. We call Santa/ Father Christmas: Kerstman in Southern Belgium and France: Pere Noel. These there's double presents time and we Don't have Chrsitmas trees and stuff till the holy Nicholas holiday is over. Those holiday's are celebrated apart from each other in our countries.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on December 09, 2008:

Prosperity66 - thans for your comment and for sharing the additional information you provided.

Prosperity66 on December 09, 2008:

In Belgium, wise children put their slippers under their bed and the very next morning, by the magic of Saint Nicholas, they are filled with chocolates. We do it for a week before December 6th.

According to Wikipedia, Père Fouettard is the French name for The Whipping Father but is also generally called Black Pete by English speaking people ;-)

However, not sure that Père Fouettard accompanies Santa Claus (Père Noël) in France, it's just a Saint Nicholas companion and in France he only visits the Eastern region (Alsace and Lorraine).

Maria C. Mackiewicz on December 04, 2008:

It is very interesting but the part about the butchered children horrified some of the girls in my sixth grade class. From then on, I never translated it.

chabrenas from middle of France on January 05, 2008:

Great article. Around this part of France (Limousin) we often see Mère Noël as well. Don't know why - perhaps because there are plety of women aroundto help.

Whitney from Georgia on December 13, 2007:

I found this very interesting. It is packed with info and tidbits that I wasn't aware of. It seems St. Nick has a secret life I was just let into. :-) Ha

Lowrychris on December 12, 2007:

Amazing Hub! And people wonder where I come up with my ideas for horror movies?! I don't, I just borrow the legends. Change the time of year, and turn the three young boys into a young couple and their goofy friend and you've got six of the last eight horror films put out by Dimension! Thanks!

Zsuzsy Bee from Ontario/Canada on December 11, 2007:

In the north-eastern part of Belgium Pere Fouettard was called Hans Muff and he helped Bishop Nicholaus with punishing the bad children while visiting the schools on December 6th.

On the night from the 5th of December we also had to leave our cleaned shoes by the window. Usually a nice loot of chocolate, cookies and nuts was left there for the good and a few pieces of charcoal for the bad kids.

Great HUB regards Zsuzsy