Knecht Ruprecht

Missing image
Krampus (2003 Perchtenlauf in Woelfnitz, Austria)

Knecht Ruprecht, companion of Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas, is also known as Servant Ruprecht, Farmhand Ruprecht, Pelzebock, Pelznickel (Nicholas in furs), and Schmutzli in Switzerland, sometimes associated with Saint Rupert. Other names include Rumpelklas, Bellzebub, Hans Muff, Drapp and Buzebergt in the neighborhood of Augsburg.

He is often associated with his (or Santa's) blackamoor slave helpers, called Zwarte Piet or Zwarte Peter in the Netherlands and Flanders, and Black Peter mosty other places.



His is a character found throughout Germanic peoples and cultures. In Bavaria Saint Nikolaus is accompanied by Klaubauf, a shaggy monster with horns. In Austria the horned creature is covered with bells, drags chains, and is called Krampus, which is almost synonymous with "devil". In Styria he is the servant Bartel.


Often the subject of winter poems and tales, Ruprecht travels with Santa Claus or his various equivalents, carrying with him a rod (sometimes a stick, bundle of switches or a whip, and in modern times often a broom) and a sack. He is sometimes dressed in black rags, bearing a black face and unruly black hair.


In some of the tales the children would be summoned to the door to perform tricks, such as a dance or singing a song to impress upon Santa and Ruprecht that they were indeed good children. Those who performed badly would be beaten soundly by Servant Ruprecht, and those who performed well were given a gift or some treats. Those who performed badly enough or had committed other misdeeds throughout the year were put into Ruprecht's sack and taken away, variously to Ruprecht’s home in the Black Forest, or to be tossed into a river. In other versions the children must be asleep, and would either awake to find their shoes filled with sweets, coal, or in some cases a stick. Over time, other customs developed: parents giving kids who misbehaved a stick instead of treats and saying that it was a warning from Nikolaus that "unless you improve by Christmas day, Nikolaus' black servant Ruprecht will come and beat you with the stick and you won't get any Christmas gifts." Often there would be variations idiosyncratic to individual families.

Historical Accounts

In some regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behavior and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten them with rod-beatings.

In parts of Austria, Krampusse, whom local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (typically children of poor families), roamed the streets and sledding hills during the festival. They wore black rags and masks, dragging chains behind them, and occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusläufe (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past.

In parts of the United States in the 19th century, "Pelznickel" traditions were maintained for a time among immigrants at least as far west as the US state of Indiana. In this branch of the tradition, the father or other older male relative was often "busy working outside" or had to see to some matter elsewhere in the house when Pelznickel arrived.

Modern Perspective

Heiliger Abend, or Christmas Eve thus became known as the time when children were best behaved, and the tales of Ruprecht gave a balance to the winter festivals which might seem disquieting to some, but which were not especially grim or atypical of customs of times past. The story is still popular throughout the German-speaking world.


There is some small controversy regarding the Zwarte Piet legend and the way he is depicted. Regarded by many as a cherished Christmas tradition, there are some who see him as a racist icon.

Literary References

"haste the Sack with you?"
I spoke: "the Sack, that is here;
because apples, nut and almond core
eat pious children gladly."
"haste the rod also with you?"
I spoke: "the rod, it is here;
but for the children, only the bad,
those it meets them right, upon their part."
(translated excerpt of 'Farmhand Ruprecht' by Theodor Storm)

See also

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