Meet the Companions of St. Nicholas

The joy of the holiday season is family, friends, presents, festive food and marvelous celebration. But you need to get on the good side of St. Nicholas’ helpers first.

St. Nicholas was indeed a real person. This Russian bisque of St. Nick, dated 1903, sold for $220 in 2002.

According to the St. Nicholas Center in Holland, Michigan, St. Nicholas was indeed a real person. As far as we know, he was born of means in Greek-occupied Turkey in 270 AD, and he took the Christian oath of helping the poor, the needy, the sick, and the infirm to heart. While we don’t know a great deal about his early years, we do know he was appointed Bishop of Myra, was persecuted, jailed and released in time to attend the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This Council, called to order by no less than Emperor Constantine, standardized Christian theology and created the first unified Bible. Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD, which explains why some festivals of the season begin on that date.

Curiously, we actually know more about those who were said to accompany St. Nicholas during the season. We just don’t know if they are apocryphal or not.

Der Belsnickel (Germany; Pennsylvania Dutch)

This beautiful early German-made 27” Belsnickel candy container sold for $2,900 in March 2018.

It is dark outside, very cold with snow piling up near the doors and windows. Christmas is about two weeks away and preparations are being made; children are trying to be good. Suddenly, they hear a tap on the window. Tap, tap. The children freeze in place. They’ve been expecting this for a while now, some with expectations, others with dread.

The door is opened with its squeaks and groans. Cold air rushes in behind a thin, dressed masked person, sometimes in long full beard wearing old tattered fur cloaks and a pointed hood, all in black and dirty. Bells hang off his cloak everywhere. Male or female, it’s hard to guess. Whichever, there is a bag over the shoulder, hopefully full of gifts. The other hand, though, carries a switch. One is for good children, the other for bad. Which one am I, wonder the children? Finally, one loudly announces “It’s der Belsnickel!”

Yes, der Belsnickel is just one of St. Nicholas’ companions originally from southwest Germany who has been a popular folklore character since the Middle Ages.  Der Belsnickel was brought to Pennsylvania Dutch communities when emigrating during the 19th century, and it remains a holiday tradition that starts on December 5th. Der Belsnickel visits children in person to reward those who’ve been good with candy and to chastise who were less so with the promise of a wallop of a switch unless they can recite a prayer or sing a song (and they usually can).

You can find original German-made Belsnickel from the middle of the 19th century to early 20th century as one-piece papier mache decorations, two-piece papier mache candy containers, and as chalkware at auction. The larger it is, the more colorful the clothing, and the most expressive features make them more valuable at auction. For example, this early German-made 27” Belsnickel candy container in the photo above  sold for $2,900 , and a table top 5” one-piece chalkware sold for $51 in 2017.

Krampus (Austria)

This early Krampus figure sold for a little over $3200 in 2017.

In Central Europe children are expecting to see a half-goat, half-demonic looking, evil character that punishes the very bad children by taking them away in his sack. It is hairy, dark in color, with large horns, cloven hooves, and like der Belsnickel, it carries a switch (or sometimes a whip) to punish the bad children. You will hear Krampus coming because it rattles chains and wears bells. Carrying a sack at times, Krampus will take away bad children to drown or to transport to hell, according to popular accounts.

Where exactly this evil-like character originated isn’t known, but it’s imagined to have been somewhere in the early pagan era. Krampus translates from the German for “claw” and is thought to be the son of the Norse God Hel. The character comes to life throughout Central Europe and the United States on the night of December 5th.

If you miss the live version, there is always the horror movie “Krampus”  that was released in 2015 to remind you. If watching that movie doesn’t scare the Christmas spirit back into you, nothing will. 

Of course, there are plenty of collectibles to remind you to be good throughout the year. An early German-made cotton and possibly papier-mache with glass eyes and evergreen switch Krampus figure in the photo above was auctioned for $3,240 in 2017 , and a seriously evil-looking, handmade mask recently sold for $280.

Knecht Ruprecht

This Hummel figurine # 473 called ” Knecht Ruprecht” sold for $189 in October 2018.

According to early tradition, Knecht Ruprecht is a true companion of St. Nicholas, accompanying him everywhere acting as a manservant, assistant, or general attendant. In fact, his name is loosely translated from the German as “Servant Rupert.” He is also known as Bur Klaas or even Bullerklaas, who may be related to the pagan God Wodin or Odin.

Knecht Ruprecht is dressed in a hooded brown robe and full beard carrying a child-size sack and a switch. He was first mentioned in either a German play in 1668 or found as part of a Christmas procession in Nuremburg, Germany of the same period (it’s hard to pin down). In some accounts he walks with a limp, was saved by St. Nicholas after kidnapping children early on, and wears bells to warn that he is coming.  An excerpt from a poem by Theodr Storm says it all:

From out the forest I now appear;

To proclaim that Christmastime is here!

now speak, what is there here to be had?

Are there good children, are there bad?

 A Hummel ceramic figurine shown above (HUM 473) featuring Knecht Ruprecht sold recently for $189,while a Byer’s Choice felt version sold recently for $15.

Finally…

We’ve been highlighting some of the main companions of St. Nicholas here. There are other “helpers’” around the world such as the Yule Lads of Iceland, a group of rather rambunctious elf-like characters that enjoy making mischief, giving candy to good kids or rotten potatoes to the bad. Zwarte Piet, translated into “Black Pete,” is another companion from the Low Countries who is supposed to be a character from Moorish Spain with malice aforethought for unruly children. He is often depicted in black face, a curly wig and red lipstick which, of course, no longer translates well in certain parts of the world.

All of these characters, though, go about their scary, sometimes evil ways starting about December 5th. Perhaps these “Dark Helpers” were needed in order to frighten children into being good throughout the year. St. Nicholas, with his goodness and light, just wasn’t providing that kind of incentive.

Jeremy Segher, who organized the first Krampusnacht festival in Orlando, Florida in 2015, theorized that Krampus, and by extension the other companions as well, provided the yin to St. Nick’s yang. “You have the saint, you have the devil,” he says. “It taps into a subconscious macabre desire that a lot of people have that is the opposite of the saccharine Christmas a lot of us grew up with.”

I guess it can be said that to be good, you have to be frightened out of the bad, especially as children. Perhaps these companions provide a valuable service after all.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Just don’t celebrate in the dark.


Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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