In America there is a Christmas character that is largely unrecognized. Knecht Ruprecht. This character is a scary, even sinister companion to Saint Nicholas. Here in America our Santa Claus is a child friendly fellow who has Christmas elves as his servants. But in Europe they have a different tradition. Carrying a sack and rod, Servant Ruprecht accompanies the European Saint Nicholas. What does Ruprecht do with that rod? He beats children who have been bad children, naughty and not nice!
Traditional processions often include versions of Knecht Ruprecht, who has different personas in different nations. In some eastern European countries Ruprecht is called Krampus who takes the form of a horned devil who is said to snatch naughty children, carrying them away in his sack to drown them in the river. I suppose these characters were used to instill/scare proper behavior in children. Today these stories would NOT be politically correct, at least not in America.
What to make of Knecht Ruprecht? Was he just a fairy tale to scare children? The character does sound like some other fearsome elves from Christmas fairy folklore. The Kallikantzaroi are deformed Greek fairies that appear during the 12 days of Christmas. At night they make a procession through the streets riding on animals or chickens. They are the size of small children, but monstrous with oversized heads, tusks and other attributes of animals. They will torment those they encounter. They finally leave at the Epiphany, to return next at next year’s Christmas.
America’s Santa Claus has been watered down. From an Odin archetype, we now have a jolly old elf. His frightening assistant has become a harmless elf toy maker. Yet there is something primal about the combination of the original version of the European Saint Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht. There is a true-life message behind the folklore. It is what gives fairy tales their power. Children are taught that life does not always provide gifts and joy. Side by side with happiness is desperation and despair. One day we have plenty to eat one day, then next we may be starving. Appreciate it when there is plenty, for hard times are always lurking nearby, like Ruprecht with his rod of punishment. The duality of life is a hard lesson.