Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

6.3 The Christmas butcher of Paris: Père Fouettard (France)
December 17, 2008, 11:26 am
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Père Fouettard, the butcher-masochist

Père Fouettard, the butcher-masochist

Leave it to the French to somehow incorporate violent food preparation into their Christmas legends.

In France, “San Nicolas” is accompanied by Père Fouettard (alternately translated as the “whipping father” or the “bogeyman”), who plays bad cop to Saint Nick’s good cop.  On December 6, Saint Nick roams through France with his small donkey laden with gifts and treats, and each good boy and girl receives a present.  The bad girls and boys, however, receive a visit from Père Fouettard, who lashes them with his whip.

The origins of Père Fouettard are quite sinister.  He is said to have been a butcher who lured three young children into his shop, where he salted them and stored them away  for later use (some versions have him chopping the children in pieces and cooking them in a stew.  I’m guessing he used a little wine, a bouquet garni, garlic…oops, but back to the story.)  Through the intervention of St. Nicholas, however, the children are resurrected/saved, and returned to their families.  Père Fouettard was condemned to follow Saint Nick forever afterwards (and yet somehow, he gets the masochistic reward of whipping children for his sins?)

Check out this lovely illustration below (in which Père Fouettard is frighteningly reminiscent of the self-mutilating albino monk in The Da Vinci Code)–my rough translation appears beside it:


Père Fouettard:  I am Père Fouettard, I don’t like children.

Child, foreground:  Mom, I’m scared.

C’est bon.  A lovely Christmas sentiment.

6.2 Hey, Kids, Seriously–You’d Better Watch Out: Krampus (Austria)
December 17, 2008, 10:26 am
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The stuff of nightmares: Krampus

So in Austria, Santa’s (Heileger Nikolaus’s) gift-giving companion is…the devil.

I’m serious.

On the Feast of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6), Saint Nick and the devil (a goat-horned creature named Krampus), visit children to ask for lists of their good and bad deeds.  The nice ones get treats like toys and candy;  and the naughty ones get a whoopin’ with a tree branch from Krampus.

In the Austrian ski town of Schladming, there is a festival celebrating Krampus, where young men dress in elaborate goat demon costumes and roam about the town, getting drunk, ringing bells to warn of their approach, and hitting people with switches.  As one website suggests, “It is not considered wise for young women to go out on this night, as they are popular targets.”

Ah, yes.  Nothing says Christmas like a satanic bacchanal.

In this Austrian postcard from the early 1900s, St. Nick looks on as Krampus harrasses a young woman.  Nice.

In this Austrian postcard from the early 1900s, St. Nick looks on as Krampus harrasses a young woman. Nice.


(And for even more frightening photos of Krampus, click here and here.  Think Christmas meets Mordor.)

6.1 Fight the Power: Zwarte Piet (The Netherlands)


Sinterclaas and Zwarte Piet.  Is it me?  Why is he kneeling?

Zwarte Piet with Sinterclaas. Why is he kneeling?

Several years ago, my husband and I were in Amsterdam for a few weeks during the holiday season.  The city had transformed itself, with twinkling lights everywhere, festive decorations adorning alleys and canalways, and even an ice skating rink in Dam Square.  (I find the city beautiful in “normal” times of the year; but at Christmas it becomes quite magical.)  And then, something strange started to pop up in the picture postcard surroundings:  men in blackface sporting elaborate Renaissance garb began appearing out of nowhere, strolling the city and giving out candy and cookies.  Who is that?  I asked my British husband, rather alarmed.  “Oh, that’s Black Pete,” he replied nonchalantly.  Like there was nothing out of the ordinary about an Al Jolsonesque Othello, complete with neck ruffles, handing out treats to citizens of the 21st Century Netherlands.  I was flummoxed.

After that, images of Black Pete (whose more proper Dutch name is “Zwarte Piet”) began materializing everywhere.  I saw him in shop windows, adorning the labels of Christmas goods, and even in the form of animatronic dolls scaling ropes in a mall atrium.  And I became a bit obsessed.  Who was this Zwarte Piet?  What did he have to do with Christmas?  And why did he look like he was performing in Cirque de Soleil?  

So I did a little research.  And I found out that in Holland, Santa as we know him is Sinterklaas–he’s a close cousin to our own Santa Claus, dressed in red, with the same bushy white beard; the only difference is that he looks a bit more like a Catholic bishop than a secular resident of  the North Pole.  And, as Dutch tradition holds it, he arrives on December 5, not December 24 (St. Nicholas’ eve, his feast day) via steamboat from Spain, where he lives throughout the year.  (And seriously, who can blame him.  Give me the Costa del Sol any day over the wastes of the Arctic.)

And accompanying Sinterclaas on the steamboat every year is Zwarte Piet, Sinterclaas’s Moorish friend/servant/companion, who partners with him on the holiday gift-giving mission.  But here’s the catch.  “Partners” is a very loose term in this case, because Sinterclaas doesn’t actually deliver any of the presents.  No; he just gets the credit.  The legwork actually falls to Zwarte Piet, who, with a few of his friends, goes roof to roof delivering goodies to the children of Holland.

Now we are told that the reason for this is that Sinterclaas is too old and frail for such activity, and also that Zwarte Piet and his friends were former chimney sweeps (hence the blackface) and thus have “experience” on rooftops and entering houses in unorthodox ways.  (Yikes!  I’m not going to touch that one.)  But I say if an American Santa can make it down a chimney in all of his rotundity, then certainly a spry and lean Dutch one can.  The Dutch are fit.

So Piet (I hope you don’t mind if I call you Piet):  I have a message for you.  It’s the same one I had after I visited The Grasshopper several years ago, when I was simultaneously fixated on your fate and finding a 24 hour pastry shop (social justice and locating munchies seemed equally important at the time):  Fight the Power.  Stand up to The Man.  Demand equal pay for equal time.  Or if that doesn’t work out, at least ask for a wardrobe change.  Because believe me, pantaloons just aren’t practical in December.

Week 6: Santa and his Posse (or who is bringing presents to your house?)
December 16, 2008, 9:49 am
Filed under: Santa and His Posse | Tags: ,


Santa, as we know him today, was largely a product of 19th Century cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Santa, as we know him today, was largely a product of 19th Century cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Have you ever really thought about how strange the Santa legend is?  A rotund man from the North Pole arrives (via flying sleigh) on your roof, somehow manages to get down your chimney (with a bagful of goodies) and deposits them in your home without your knowledge.  And this, despite (in many cases) fairly advanced alarm systems, and (in other cases, like mine) a lack of a chimney.

Not all countries celebrate the same  bizarre legends.  In fact, many have interesting variations of their own.  This week, we’ll take a look at a few.