Years ago, someone here in Bavaria mentioned something about Knecht Ruprecht (Ruprecht the Servant). I’m often lost in my thoughts so that most of the time in such a situation I’d nod my head and smile and pretend to know what such a person was talking about. But this situation was a little bit different. I’d already been dumbfounded by something that was said, and had asked for clarification. Now I had to pay attention. Who was Knecht Ruprecht?
St Nikolaus shows up sometime in the night before the Sixth of December and leaves coins or gifts in the shoes that the children leave outside their doors. Are you paying attention? Don’t just nod your head. Does this make any sense? Here in Germany (and other parts of Europe-I’m not going to attempt to list them all) the children leave their shoes outside of their front door the evening before, and on the morning of the Sixth of December their shoes are filled with little gifts.
But at some point in the days leading up to this, a man dressed as Nikolaus comes to visit the house or the school and has a little talk with each child. this is where we get our ‘he knows when you’ve been naughty/knows when you’ve been nice‘ business. Nikolaus explains how the kid was good that year and where he might do better. Please don’t ask me how he knows this. Apparently, there’s a way that the parents pass on both the presents he pulls out of his sack, as well as the behavioural balance sheet. But when it was explained to me, the logistical details of how all this works only confused me.
The important thing is that the kid gets a little personal ‘How am I doing?‘ pep talk from the old man in the white beard. And he gets some gifts, if he was in fact good during the last year, both in this face-to-face scenario and in his above-mentioned shoes. But what if he was bad? What if the kid is a little terror? Well that’s where Knecht Ruprecht comes in.
In many places there’s the threat that if you were bad that year, Nikolaus wouldn’t give you presents. Instead you’d get switches that your parents would hit you with. Or coal. Or I don’t know what. Bad stuff. Stuff no-one wants. But in parts of Southern Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland, this punitive responsibility was given to the good Nikolaus‘ servant, who’s called Knecht Ruprecht. In other places he’s called Krampus. I looked at tons of photos of representations of Krampus (he has quite a following on the web), but there were incredibly convincing threats against using those photos elsewhere. I’ve chosen to simply link to Krampus.com.
Living in a similar but different culture is a funny dance sometimes. A dance alternating between thinking you know exactly what they’re talking about, when you don’t, and being completely at a loss what they’re talking about, when it’s really not that different from what you’re used to. I got used to the idea of Nikolaus coming at the beginning of December, but when I finally understood what the purpose of Knecht Ruprecht was, I was truly impressed.
Here Nikolaus gets to do the positive, uplifting part of the whole procedure complete with gifts and pep talk, while he farms out the literal dirty work to this unfortunate Ruprecht slouch. What a deal. And even better? In this culture, St Nick‘s work is done for the rest of the holidays.
A few little toys, some candy or fruit in each child’s shoes and he can sit back and relax for the rest of the season. Who brings them their gifts at Christmas? I’ll leave that for another post. It’s too much to get into at this point. All you need to know at this point is that it’s not Nikolaus. He’s earned his relaxing Christmastime.