Knecht Ruprecht, Santa’s scary companion

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Knecht Ruprecht

Knecht Ruprecht

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.

knecht-ruprechtAmerica’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.

4 Responses to “Knecht Ruprecht, Santa’s scary companion”

  1. *lynne* Says:

    Yup, Samichlaus’ companion on Dec 6th! I know him as Schmutzli… and I confirm my Swiss heritage with that statement, don’t I? :) I only vaguely remember this character, because I only recall once that we participated in the village Dec 6th event while at my grandparents’ in Switzerland in December. In principle though, I LOVE this “other side” to the holidays, something that’s so missing here in the US: having to deal with the consequences of your actions & decisions! :p

  2. David Says:

    Hi Lynne,
    I wonder how I would have responded as a child if my parents had me believing in Ruprecht along with Santa? I would have been traumatized! I’d be afraid of Christmas.

  3. Arlene Says:

    I love this David! There is a dark side Santa, Satan Clause. Father Christmas was a rather slim fellow in green with holly around his head.Coca Cola invented the red and white Santa with his big belly–shades of Saturn who devours his children, reminiscent of the old Saturnalia. This was the beginning of commercialization of Christmas. Gifts used to be given as an affirmation of the bounty of the earth to come when the sun returns after Winter Solstice. Now they are given to support gluttonous corporation as WE are no longer citizens but “Consumers”.
    If you think about the symbols and let them turn over and over on themselves you can get some fascinating insights.
    I have Krampusz in my novel The Roses of the Moon–tge Hungarian version.
    Have a great 2011!

  4. David Says:

    Hi Arlene,
    The best fairytales have a dark side. It gives the story its power. Light needs its dark to stand out!

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