The Dark Side of Christmas in Germany

In every culture that celebrates Christmas, there seems to be a counter point to Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, mostly in an effort to get children to behave. In the US, naughty children are left gifts of coal in their stockings, while the good children receive toys, books, and games. In Germany, a land not known for sugar coating things, the naughty children face a much worse fate. However, this fate depends on where in Germany you live. Furthermore, since St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th, leaving small gifts in the shoes of good little boys and girls, the evening of the 5th is when the naughty children have to watch out from St. Nicholas' ''companions.'' So, who exactly are these companions?


The most famous helper is Krampus. His story is popular in southern Germany (think Bavaria), but mostly in Austria. And he. is. terrifying. Often depicted as a black or brown, horned beast with cloven hooves and a long tail reminiscent of a snake. His long tongue lolls out of his mouth, curling at the end. He carry chains and is often found with a sack on his back, supposedly to carry off naughty children to later be eaten. He often visits the homes of naughty children not on Christmas Eve, but on the feast of St. Nicholas, where he either beats or kidnaps them. Like I said, terrifying! If I had been told this story as a child, or been shown his picture, I would have done everything possible to be on my very, very, very, best behavior. 

More common in the rest of Germany are stories of Knecht Ruprecht. Legend has it that he was either a farmhand or an orphan raised by St. Nick. He is much less scary, at least in appearance, than Krampus, and is often shown dressed a dark robe with a pointed hood. On the evening on December 5, he travels around asking children if they have been good and if they can pray. If they are, the children received fruit, nuts, and gingerbread. The naughty one, or those who can't pray, are then beaten, either with a bag of ashes that he carries, or his walking stick. Like I said, the Germans don't sugar coat things (unless it's Stollen).


In the region of Germany where we are, Rheinland-Pfalz, stories of Belsnickel are common. He is often shown as a dirty and disheveled man wearing rags and animals furs. Unlike Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht, he visits children alone. To the good children, he gives cakes, candies, and nuts, while he uses a switch to beat the naughty ones. Interestingly, Belsnickel legends can be found in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and other, probably highly German, regions of America. He's even made an appearance on an episode of ''The Office.''

Are there any traditions where you live that are kind of on the dark side? Did you grow up with stories of these companions?