Published: 17-03-2010, 09:13

Knecht Ruprecht

According to old European folklore, a variety of frightening figures lurk in the long, dark nights of the CHRISTMAS SEASON. They range from the ghostly personnel of the WILD HUNT to mysterious wanderers such as Berchta and FRAU GAUDE. Many folklorists interpret these figures as remnants of old pagan spirits that blended into the emerging Christian folklore of the Christmas season. The folklore associated with ST. NICHOLAS’S DAY offers a clear example of this dynamic. ST. NICHOLAS, a fourth-century bishop from Asia Minor, became the Christmas time GIFT bringer in much of northern and central EUROPE. According to folklore, however, this clearly Christian figure travels about with a variety of somewhat sinister companions. In Czechoslovakia, a demon called a CERT accompanies the good Nicholas. In Holland the devilish BLACK PETER aids Nicholas in his virtuous work. And in the German-speaking lands scruffy Knecht Ruprecht trails behind St. Nicholas, meting out punishment to naughty children. Some folklorists trace Knecht Ruprecht’s roots back to ancient times.

St. Nicholas’s German helper goes by many different names. In Austria and some areas of GERMANY, many children know him as Knecht Ruprecht, which means “Knight” Ruprecht or “Servant” Ruprecht. Some Austrian tales name him as Krampus or Bartel, while German folklore also records the names Hans Muff, Butz, Hans Trapp, Krampus, Klaubauf, Bullerklas, Pulterklas, and Schimmelreiter. Some of the names assigned to this bogeyman reveal that somewhere along the line his identity merged with that of St. Nicholas. Some know him as Ru-Klas, or “Rough Nicholas,” while others identify him as Pelz Nicholas, or “Fur Nicholas.” Still others call him Aschenklas, or “Ash Nicholas.” In some areas a figure known as Pelzmartin, or “Fur Martin,” blended the identity of St. Martin with the Christmas season bogey (see also MARTINMAS). The Pennsylvania Dutch brought Pelz Nicholas with them to America when they began to settle in Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. There the name “Pelz Nicholas” eventually slurred into Belsnickel (sometimes written as “Bell-snickle,” “Bellschniggle,” or “Pelznichol”; see also CHRISTMAS IN COLONIAL AMERICA).

The appearance and activities of these folk figures vary in a number of details, but a rough composite image does emerge. Knecht Ru-precht startles onlookers with his menacing demeanor and unkempt appearance. He wears clothing made of rags, straw, or furs, and often adds a soot-blackened face, beard, or a frightening mask. In past times he sometimes sported devil’s horns. In addition, he carries one or more of the tools of his trade: a whip, stick, BELL, or sack. The bell warns of his approach. He cows all children into good behavior and punishes badly behaved children with his whip or stick. The sack contains treats for well-behaved children and items that serve as symbolic warnings to wrongdoers that their misbehavior has not gone unnoticed.
According to folklore St. Nicholas and his companion visit homes on St. Nicholas’s Eve, often entering through the chimney. They leave treats, such as nuts, fruit, and cookies for good children, and ashes, birch rods, or other warnings for naughty ones. In some areas the pair make their rounds on Christmas Eve instead of St. Nicholas’s Eve.
For the most part, Knecht Ruprecht and his various aliases tag along behind St. Nicholas, serving as an ever-present reminder of the fate awaiting the poorly behaved. Although most often found serving St. Nicholas, in the past Knecht Ruprecht has also accompanied other saintly figures, such as St. Peter and St. Martin (see also MARTINMAS). In some areas of Germany he followed the CHRISTKINDEL, or “Christ Child,” on his gift-bringing journey. In other areas, however, this Christmas bogey appears to have struck out on his own. Belsnickel seems to have emigrated to America’s Pennsylvania Dutch country without a companion saint.

Few historical records mention Knecht Ruprecht or his counterparts. A seventeenth-century document notes the appearance of Knecht Ruprecht in a Christmas procession in Nuremberg, Germany. In addition, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century folklorists observed that people dressed as Ruprecht, St. Nicholas, and St. Martin visited homes during the Christmas season in Germany. Still, the lack of historical records has not prevented folklorists from guessing about Ruprecht’s origins. Many believe that Ruprecht in all his guises represents some remnant of a pagan spirit or deity. One writer suspects that Ruprecht evolved from the Teutonic god Odin. Another proposes that Ruprecht represents a relatively modern interpretation of the “wild man,” an ancient, archetypal figure representing the forces of nature. She suggests that as Christianity spread throughout Europe, Christian authorities campaigned against folk representations of the wild man, likening him to the Devil. After many centuries his role in folk celebrations dwindled to that of the scruffy servant who follows behind the Christmas season saints.

Until the early part of the twentieth century, men dressed as Knecht Ruprecht and St. Nicholas visited homes on St. Nicholas’s Eve in German-speaking lands. St. Nicholas quizzed the children on their behavior, their prayers, and their lessons, while Ruprecht posed threateningly in the background. In some areas the Christmas bogey worked alone and arrived on other dates during the Christmas season, such as Christmas Eve. Although Knecht Ruprecht’s looks and manners often intimidated, his brash and erratic behavior entertained. Children still prepare for his visit by leaving their SHOES by the fireplace, on the doorstep, or in some other place where the gift bringer was sure to notice them. In the morning well-behaved children find their shoes filled with treats, while those whose behavior needs improvement find birch rods, ashes, or other warnings.

In the early years of the United States people from different coun-tries adopted elements of each other’s lore and traditions, giving rise to new customs. By the nineteenth century the English custom of MUMMING had grafted itself onto the Pennsylvania Dutch figure of the Belsnickel to create the custom of belsnickeling.
Groups of young men or single individuals dressed themselves in rags, overcoats, or furs, and hid their faces behind beards, hats, or masks, or covered them with soot. They carried whips, bells, and sacks as they marched from house to house. After gaining entrance to a neighbor’s home they entertained the householders with their comic antics and horseplay while family members tried to guess their identities. In return for their visit the belsnickelers expected to receive hospitality in the form of food and drink. The belsnickelers took nuts and sweets out of their pockets and tossed them onto the floor, cracking their whips over the heads of any children bold enough to retrieve them. Sometimes they also pulled pranks on their neighbors under the cover of their disguise.
Although Belsnickel was originally associated with St. Nicholas’s Day, Pennsylvania belsnickelers shifted the dates of their activities closer to Christmas, visiting their neighbors in masquerade on the dark nights between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Belsnickelers also plied their trade in Canada’s Nova Scotia province.

Christmas season masquerading met with some resistance by the more subdued groups who made up Pennsylvania’s population. In the eighteenth century, Quakers in Philadelphia vigorously opposed this custom. Court records indicate that some masqueraders were brought before juries for their unruly behavior. In the early nineteenth century the Pennsylvania House of Representatives formally outlawed Christmas season masquerading. Those who dared to flaunt this edict faced fines of between $50 and $1,000, and prison sentences of up to three months. A Philadelphia ordinance forbade Christmas Eve masquerading and noisemaking in 1881. Nevertheless, belsnickelers continued their seasonal activities in rural areas settled by people of Germanic descent who were friendly to the custom.

Belsnickeling died out in the early twentieth century, about the time when authorities ceased to oppose it. In 1901 Philadelphia issued its first permit for a New Year’s Day mummers’ parade. This parade developed out of the mumming and noisemaking traditions of a variety of Philadelphia’s immigrant groups, among them the German-American tradition of belsnickeling. Philadelphia’s New Year’s Day MUMMERS PARADE continues to this day. Today’s parade, however, revolves around a competition between highly organized groups wearing elaborate and expensive costumes. (For more on Christmas in Pennsylvania, see CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA; AMISH CHRISTMAS; BARRING OUT THE SCHOOLMASTER; CHRISTMAS IN BETHLEHEM, PENNSYLVANIA).