Almost every culture has some form of Santa Claus. He’s jolly and benevolent, and spreads cheer. Most people, however, aren’t familiar with the Germanic tradition of giving old St. Nick a special sidekick too.
He has some iteration of a right-hand man in countries ranging from Switzerland and the Netherlands, to Austria and Croatia. There even is a specific version of Santa’s helper in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.
The idea of a Christmas right-hand man might conjure up images of a cheery elf, a veritable Christmas Robin to Santa’s Batman, but it’s far from that. Santa’s companion in Germanic-speaking cultures is usually a dirty, violent rogue who delights in abusing or stealing naughty children. Here are some of his most recognized forms.
Krampus is a Christmas companion in Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary. He is the Christmas devil, often pictured with the horns of a goat and a terrifying face. He carries a bundle of sticks with which he beats naughty children before stuffing them into his sack to take them back to his lair. Krampus probably originated in pre-Christian times, but he’s as frightening as ever now, since he is usually played by drunken young men who roam the streets and pick on young women. Overall, he gives off an incredibly rape-y vibe.
Krampus is now becoming more popular in America and the media as well. He was mentioned in an episode of “The League,” and Southern Tier Brewing Company named a beer for him. TV show host and chef Anthony Bourdain tried to include a short claymation story about the horned Christmas demon in Bourdain’s 2011 “No Reservations” Christmas special, but it was cut from airing. Luckily he posted it online, so you can watch here:
Belsnickel is a comically shady character in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. He wears fur and carries a bundle of sticks like Krampus, but Krampus is a demon, animal-like creature, whereas Belsnickel is very much a human. Belsnickel goes from house to house a couple weeks before Christmas and confronts naughty children. He makes the children sing a song or answer a riddle before throwing them candy. He never actually hits the children with his sticks, like Krampus does, but merely threatens them.
He was mentioned in popular culture when the Dwight Schrute character from “The Office” portrayed him during a Christmas episode of the show. Watch a clip from the show here:
Zwarte Piet is a popular sidekick for Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and areas of Belgium. He accompanies Santa and passes out candy and sweets to children. He sounds like a merry elf, but the controversial part is the fact that Zwarte Piet is a Moor, and therefore traditionally portrayed in blackface. There have been a number of protests alleging racism, however for most celebrations involving Zwarte Piet, he remains in colorful clothes with a bright grin on his black face.
Schmutzli is the Swiss version of a Krampus-like figure. He isn’t as frightening, but more of just a bum that follows Santa around. He face is covered in soot and dirt, and his name literally means “dirty.”
While young men dressed as Krampus terrorize children and young women, it seems that modern Schmultzis have a more noble purpose. Ethnologist Paul Hugger wrote in the “Historical Lexicon of Switzerland,” that young men actually use Schmultzi to keep the girls in their village eligible bachelorettes. Hugger said, “Schmutzlis normally appeared in groups. That’s because it was originally a custom observed by groups of boys, who wanted to defend the local girls from boys from outside their village. It was about protecting the marriage market against outsiders.”
Merry Christmas, and don’t let Krampus get you.