French Christmas Lore: Père Noël and His Assistant, Père Fouettard
December 6th Is St. Nicholas Day
Saint Nicholas Day is December 6th. In many parts of the world, it is said that on this day, St. 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 St. Nicholas Day, some compromise was in order. As a result, the traditions surrounding St. Nicholas and his feast day have evolved and changed with the times.
Since St. Nicholas Day is so close to Christmas, the two celebrations have merged in many countries, with St. 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.
Père Fouettard Accompanies St. 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 St. 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 St. 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/St. 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.
Père Fouettard Murders Three Young Boys
Père Fouettard's connection to St. 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 St. Nicholas and the three boys.
Among the many loving miracles attributed to St. 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 St. Nicholas standing in the doorway.
St. Nicholas Brings the Boys Back to Life
Since Fouettard's encounter with St. Nicholas occurred after the death of the saint, the butcher knew immediately that St. Nicholas had come for the murdered boys. Stepping past the butcher, St. 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. St. 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 St. Nicholas for undoing the damage resulting from his crime, Fouettard chose to follow St. 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 St. Nicholas.
St. 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.
St. 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, St. Nicholas is most famous for secretly leaving gifts for children on the eve of St. Nicholas Day or Christmas Eve. Traditionally the gifts go to children have gone 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 stocking 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.
© 2007 Chuck Nugent