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December 7, 2004

Naughty or nice

Posted by Phil on December 7, 2004 8:45 AM

(UPDATE, 12/10)

(Posted by pk) I have this 19th century drawing that I cut out of the Times one year in Brooklyn that I always put on the Christmas tree: a rendering of the sinister cousin of Santa Claus that some European ethnic group taught its children to fear should they be found naughty. Rather than Santa bringing punitive switches or coal, this tribe threatened that a whole other mean guy would come instead.

I can't remember what his name was, because I immediately started calling him Father Spankings. He's got the long hair, the beard, and a rough-hewn fur hat and robe, but with wild, cruel, black-rimmed eyes, and lips curled back from enraged teeth. He's got ahold of one recalcitrant urchin by the arm, is clutching a stick in his other hand, and has two or three unhappy children in a basket on his back, bound no doubt for some Black Forest lair and the punishment they surely deserve.

It's a bracing image. Anyway, after Christmas I slide the drawing in with the holiday CDs, and it's always a half-surprise and pleasure to find it again; it's held up pretty well for a piece of newsprint. It's the last thing that goes on the tree, tucked in some illuminated spot deep in the branches.

This year, however, Max is old enough to notice these things (he'll be three late next month), so I had to explain to him who Father Spankings is--trying to convey that, y'know, it's funny. He grew decidedly sober, and I started feeling bad, even though I assured him that he was not naughty in any macro sense and need not fear Father Spankings. I'm sure he's never even contemplated metaphysical naughtiness before, but he's heard the word a few times here lately.

I saw Max before the tree a couple times over the weekend, regarding the picture, and finally Sunday night I asked him if he'd like me to put Father Spankings away. He said he would. I told him there is no such thing as Father Spankings, that he's just pretend, and no more a threat than the Abominable Snow Monster--who interests Max greatly, but doesn't seem to haunt him, being, in the end, stupid and toothless. I told him that it would be Santa, and Santa only, who visits our house on Christmas Eve.

I don't like Max to be troubled, of course, but I do think fears like that take a kid to a deep and awesome place. I still have reverent memories of things that scared me on that level--the dark flipside of my twilight half-belief in Santa--and anybody will tell you that the best parts of those Christmas specials were the remorseless appearances of the Snow Monster and the Winter Warlock (who is scarier but, in retrospect, for far too short a time before he gets that old toy religion).

We unfortunately lose those fears later for ones of a more blunt and real nature. By then it's probably fair for us to be judged, but there are no naughty children.

(UPDATE 12/10): Much, much more on Black Peter, Ruprecht, Rumpelklas...

...from Wikipedia (some format edits):

Knecht Ruprecht, Companion of Father Christmas, is also known as "Servant Ruprecht", "Farmhand Ruprecht", "Pelzebock", "Pelznickel" ("Nicholas in furs"), "Zwarte Piet" or "Zwarte Peter" in the Netherlands and Flanders, "Black Peter", and "Schmutzli Samichlaus" in Switzerland, sometimes associated with Saint Rupert. Other names include "Rumpelklas", "Bellzebub", "Hans Muff", "Drapp", and "Buzebergt" in the neighborhood of Augsburg.

His is a character found throughout Germanic peoples and cultures. In Bavaria Saint Nikolaus is accompanied by "Klaubauf", a shaggy monster with horns. In Austria the horned creature is covered with bells and dragging chains, and is called "Krampus". In Styria it is servant "Bartel". The term "Krampus" is relatively synonymous with devil.

Often the subject of winter poems and tales, Ruprecht travels with Santa Claus or his various equivalents, carrying with him a rod (sometimes a stick, bundle of switches or whip, and in modern times often a broom) and a sack. He is sometimes dressed in black rags, bearing a soot-blackened face and unruly black hair.

In some of the tales the children would be summoned to the door to perform tricks, such as a dance or singing a song to impress upon Santa and Ruprecht that they were indeed good children. Those who performed badly would be beaten soundly by Servant Ruprecht, and those who performed well were given a gift or some treats. Those who preformed badly enough or had committed other misdeeds throughout the year were put into Ruprecht's sack and taken away, variously to Ruprecht’s home in the Black Forest, or to be tossed into a river. In other versions the children must be asleep, and would either awake to find their shoes filled with sweets, coal, or in some cases a stick.

Over time, other customs developed: parents giving kids who misbehaved a stick instead of treats and saying that it was a warning from Nikolaus that, "unless you improve by Christmas day, Nikolaus' black servant Ruprecht would come and beat you with the stick and you wouldn't get any Christmas gifts." Often there would be variations to the particulars idiosyncratic to the individual families.

In some regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behavior and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten them with rod-beatings.

In parts of Austria, Krampusse, whom local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (typically children of poor families), roamed the streets and sledding hills during the festival. They wore black rags and masks, dragging chains behind them, and occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusläufe (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past.

In parts of the United States in the 19th century, "Pelznickel" traditions were maintained for a time among immigrants at least as far west as the US state of Indiana. (Link and emphasis mine! pk) In this branch of the tradition, the father or other older male relative was often "busy working outside" or had to see to some matter elsewhere in the house when Pelznickel arrived.

Boy, what those Europeans used to tell the kids! I always wondered where Dad was when Unkle Pelznickel was administering another brutal Yuletide beating.

A terse summation can be found here: "Black Peter is an evil, crippled dwarf who lives in a coal mine."

Nice thumbnails here, and check out this--and this (click Fotos)! Clearly, Krampus runs are kind of a Satanic European tractor pull. Volksy!

Black Peter is also the title of a Sherlock Holmes tale; film director Milos Forman's 1963 debut; and, unfortunately, a song by the Grateful Dead, which resulted in this.

Rotten Dot Com also has an amusing Krampus character summary, likening him to the Norse god Loki, and introduces notions I'm not about to start explaining to Max. ("After all, he had a foot-long red tongue.")

All this, and still no Web rendering of the drawing I clipped from the paper. But I'm beginning to realize our immigrant ancestors left more behind in Europe than persecution and poverty--like snowmobile rallies in Satan masks!

Big thanks to Jim for the tip.


I wonder if "Father Spankings" is some variation on "Schwartze Peter" (Black Peter)?

My own ethnic group of origin (Dutch) includes one of Santa's friends who comes to take away bad children in a sack. He's generally represented as dark complected as I think he's supposed to be from Spain (the Dutch were once conquered by Spain and well... hated Spain as a result).

The Dutch in New York managed to hold on to the Dutch language even into the 1800's so it seems possible that Black Peter survived in some form or another.

Posted by: Jim Zoetewey at December 9, 2004 9:07 PM

That sounds like him. Though the drawing I have doesn't really show him as dark-complected. Sooty, maybe, and certainly black-hearted.

I'm certainly Googling "Schwartze Peter."

Posted by: pk at December 10, 2004 7:01 AM

An actual representation of Black Peter (though not by that name) in a webcomic. Admittedly, reading said comic probably doesn't improve anyone's life.

Posted by: Jim Zoetewey at December 25, 2004 6:59 PM

The absolute best take on Black Peter ever has to be David Sedaris's "Six to Eight Black Men." There's a version of it you can get as part of a "free trial" for some service here but to get the real experience you need to go into the archives of the public radio show "This American Life" and hear David's live retelling of the story.


It's the Dec 7, 2001 episode, and the David Sedaris bit is about 24 minutes into the episode.

Worth the effort.

Posted by: Ed Heil at December 27, 2004 7:22 AM