Knecht Ruprecht, the rustic Christmas farmhand of German folklore

Knecht Ruprecht
Knecht Ruprecht (left) is a servant of St. Nicholas in German folklore.

While supported logistically by a workforce of Christmas elves, the Santa Claus of American folklore largely works alone. European tradition, in contrast, assigns a variety of helpers and companions to assist St. Nicholas in his yearly duties (the most well known, perhaps, being Krampus). One such figure, originating in Germany, is Knecht Ruprecht (possibly a precursor to Belsnickel). Dating at least to the 17th century (and meaning “Farmhand Rupert” or “Servant Rupert”), Knecht Ruprecht

is St. Nicholas’s most familiar attendant in Germany. According to some stories, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild foundling whom St. Nicholas raises from childhood.

Ruprecht wears a black or brown robe with a pointed hood. Sometimes he walks with a limp, because of a childhood injury. He can be seen carrying a long staff and a bag of ashes, and on occasion wears little bells on his clothes. Sometimes he rides on a white horse, and sometimes he is accompanied by fairies or men with blackened faces dressed as old women.

Like Krampus and Belsnickel, Knecht Ruprecht is something of a “bad cop” counterpart to St. Nick:

According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts and gingerbread. If they cannot, he hits the children with his bag of ashes. In other versions of the story, Knecht Ruprecht gives naughty children gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while well-behaving children receive sweets from St. Nicholas.

With one day left until Christmas, you better be good lest Knecht Ruprecht hit you with a bag of ashes!

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The strange history of Leap Day role reversal

A number of Leap Day traditions involve women proposing marriage to men, who must pay some kind of penalty if they decline.

Historically, subversion has often been a central aspect of holiday celebrations. The Roman festival of Saturnalia, for instance, saw slaves treated to lavish banquets and given license to disrespect their masters for the day. Christmastime festivities in England involved the seasonal appointment of a peasant or lowly sub-deacon as the “Lord of Misrule,” elevated beyond his station and charged with overseeing Christmas revelries. Similar traditions in the Middle Ages entailed designating a “boy bishop” to parody the actual bishop during occasions such as the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Leap Day — February 29 — has its own history of holiday subversion, in this case dealing specifically with gender roles. Throughout Europe and even in parts of the United States, Leap Day has involved flipping the script typically adhered to during the rest of the year when it comes to courtship in particular.

One such tradition involved women proposing to men (February 29 being referred to as “Bachelor’s Day”). The custom seems to originate in the British Isles. According to one account,

[I]t is said that the tradition began in 5th century Ireland when St. Brigid of Kildare bitterly complained to St. Patrick that women had to wait far too long for men to propose.

The legend says that St. Patrick decreed the women could propose on this one day in February during the leap year.

This tradition took a different form in three Illinois cities. For much of the twentieth century, Aurora, Joliet, and Morris, Illinois “replaced city council members, police, and firefighters with women on February 29. But the women had only one real objective: finding a husband.” Vox.com illustrates the day with a newspaper account from 1932:

Guilty, pleaded Mr John Livingston, a popular United States airman, when he was arraigned at the police court at Aurora, Illinois, on a charge that while he was the town’s most eligible bachelor he refused to marry the police magistrate, Miss Florence Atkins.

Your honour is beautiful, but I have maintained my plea of guilty, said Mr Livingston as he awaited sentence.

Miss Atkins, passing sentence, said: In accordance with the old Leap Year custom. I must fine you. You are ordered to buy me a new silk dress.

The prisoner was then released and under the care of the dark eyed Chief of Police, Miss Dorothy Ward, was taken to a shop to make the purchase.

Sadly — or perhaps not so sadly, given their sexist overtones — traditions like these have largely been forgotten. Perhaps it is time to establish a new set of Leap Day observances instead. The most promising alternative might be found in 30 Rock’s Leap Day episode (Season 6, Episode 9), in which “the cast and writers celebrate Leap Day with a Santa Claus-like mascot, a gilled creature named Leap Day William, who lives in the Mariana Trench and trades candy for children’s tears.”

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Belsnickel, the crotchety fur-clad Christmas gift-bringer of German folklore

Belsnickel
Belsnickel might wear a long black or brown coat or robe, held together at the waist with a rope, and a fur cap or bear skin hat, decorated with bells.

Old St. Nick’s not the only traditional Christmas character who comes round every December to evaluate children’s behavior and dole out corresponding rewards or punishments. In fact, there’s a whole cast of such figures across European folklore. Some of them serve to supplement Santa Claus, while others supplant him; Belsnickel is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

Originating in southwestern Germany along the Rhine (and preserved, among other places, in Pennsylvania Dutch communities in the United States), Belsnickel

is related to other companions of Saint Nicholas in the folklore of German-speaking Europe. He may have been based on another older German myth, Knecht Ruprecht, a servant of Saint Nicholas, and a character from northern Germany.Unlike those figures, Belsnickel does not accompany Saint Nicholas but instead visits alone and combines both the threatening and the benign aspects which in other traditions are divided between the Saint Nicholas and the companion figure.

Belsnickel is a man wearing furs and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He is typically very ragged and disheveled. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also pocketsful of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.

With Christmas nearly upon us, there’s still time to get out there and do some ‘Belsnickling’!

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