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St. Nick's Enforcers

Kids today have it easy. Growing up, we were told to be good throughout the year for we would be rewarded at Christmas since Santa Claus was watching and keeping track of our behavior. Would we end up on the Naughty or Good list? Surely, if we were naughty we might get a lump of coal instead of presents. With the state of today's coal industry, that might not be such a bad thing. What do naughty kids get for Christmas nowadays? No new iPhone?

The German and Swiss immigrants who came to Pennsylvania around 1700 brought with them their own beloved Christmas traditions, which are still alive and well in Pennsylvania Dutch communities today, and have helped to shape all Americans’ Christmas traditions.

Before Santa Claus arrived on the scene with his list to keep children on the straight and narrow, our ancestors also brought those traditions with them, and these are the ones who were responsible for monitoring the behavior of the children. These were Saint Nicholas' enforcers responsible for making sure that children got the Christmas they deserved.

Perhaps the one best known to our immigrant ancestors was Belsnickel (or Pelznickel). He originated in the Palatinate region of Germany. He was part of the Christmas folklore and tradition for our relatives in Berks and Schuylkill Counties. He does not accompany St. Nicholas, but visits homes alone, checking up on the behavior of the children. He combines both the threatening and the benign aspects which in other traditions are divided between the Saint Nicholas and the companion figure. Belsnickel is depicted as a crotchety man wearing furs and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He typically wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a birch or hickory switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also brings pockets full of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children. The traditional Belsnickel showed up at houses 1–2 weeks before Christmas and often created fright because he always knew exactly which of the children misbehaved. He would rap on the door or window with his stick and often the children would have to answer a question for him or sing some type of song. In exchange, he would toss candies onto the floor. If the children jumped too quick for the treats, they may end up getting struck with Belsnickel's switch.

Knecht Ruprecht

Another lesser known character is Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Robert in English). He first appeared in written sources in the 17th century, as a figure in a Nuremberg Christmas procession. Belsnickel may have initially been based upon him. He is Saint Nicholas' most familiar companion in Germany. According to some stories, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild foundling whom Saint Nicholas raises from childhood. He is often portrayed as a man with a long beard, wearing fur or a dark cloak. Knecht Ruprecht sometimes carried a long staff and a bag of ashes, and wore little bells on his clothes. He sometimes limps, due to a childhood injury. His dirty face is clothes is due to the soot he collects from going down chimneys. According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht would ask children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive gifts of apples, nuts and gingerbread. If they cannot, Knecht Ruprecht would he hit the children with his bag of ashes. In other versions of the story, Knecht Ruprecht gives naughty children gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while well-behaving children receive sweets from Saint Nicholas. He also reportedly left naughty children a birch switch in their shoes for their parents to hit them with, instead of sweets, fruit and nuts.


Then there is the worst of the bunch, Krampus. His name may be familiar to many, due to an increased popularity in recent years and a couple of movies. For centuries, disobedient children in Germany, Austria and other Alpine countries have faced a truly terrifying Christmas consequence for their misbehavior, a dreaded visit from Krampus. With his curving horns, towering, hairy body, one cloven and one human foot, long, red, pointed tongue and grimacing features, Krampus is a mythical figure dating back to at least the Middle Ages and possibly earlier. Strapped to his back is a leather bucket or woven basket and a stout leather belt to which are attached several large cowbells. The fact that the Krampus can be heard before he can be seen makes him even more frightening, replacing the joyful sound of sleigh bells with something far more sinister - the menacing clanking of rusty chains accompanied by the eerie tinkling of cowbells. He would seek out and terrorize misbehaving children identified by Saint Nicholas for punishment. Children who were the worst offenders could be whipped with birch switches, stuffed in a sack and thrown into an icy river for their bad deeds or placed in his basket and taken away to be devoured later.

Today people use the "Elf On the Shelf" to try to keep children in line for the holidays. This character supposedly keeps watch over all you do during the day and reports back to Santa Claus every night about your behavior. Are children really scared of this elf? With that smile? Sure, he is a little creepy looking and it is a bit disturbing that he is always watching you. It is bad enough that our electronic devices are probably already doing that. But I'm not buying it with this guy. He would not coerce me to be good, certainly not like the three mentioned above. Besides, nobody likes a tattle-tale.

I want to note that I am thankful that every Christmas when I was growing up I always received new socks and underwear. This gift saved me, without my even knowing it, from the dreaded Yule Cat in Icelandic tradition who hunts down and eats anyone who does not receive any new clothes for Christmas. Now that is motivation for appreciating the gifts we received, although they may not have been the latest, hottest toy.



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