Santa's Whiskers

Zwarte Piet and Saint Nicholas getting ready to surprise a family at Christmas. 
Nikolaus and Krampus in Austria. Newspaper illustration from 1896.
Saint Nicholas and companions. Photograph by Carsten Peter for National Geographic, 2010.

Companions of St. Nicholas

Like Santa Claus, St. Nicholas has companions, but for a different reason. The companions of Saint Nicholas are a series of similar figures each of whom, in the country of their popularity, accompany St. Nicholas. These characters act as a foil to the benevolent Saint Nicholas, allowing him to reward the “good” children while “they” threaten to thrash or abduct disobedient children. 

For example, take this description that Charles W. Jones recounts from a North Carolina story, recorded in 1917, that describes what he feels is a Santa Claus of about 1850: 

​“I can well remember hearing my grandmother tell of a fearful fire-breathing monster which came and breathed through the key-hole on Christmas Eve. He breathed fire on bad children. “Once on Christmas Eve I saw him with his big eyes that frightened me almost to death. He came into the room where we children slept and put down a pack which contained toys and a bundle of switches. He went to the most mischievous boy of the family and ‘haling’ him up, gave him an awful beating. He treated the other mischievous boys in the same manner, then divided the toys up among the good children and went away. The same thing happened every Christmas, but this was the only time that I saw the creature.”” (pp. 352-353 of Charles W. Jones, "Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan", University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1978)

Does this sound consistent with the behavior of SantaClaus? Or Saint Nicholas? Or is it possibly one of the companions of Saint Nicholas, like Krampus,  Pelznickel, Knecht Ruprecht or Zwarte Piet?


In many countries St.
Nicholas only concerns himself with
the good children, especially during his
Feast Day, which
is celebrated on December 6th. The Night before
6th (known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night), Krampus
appears to
punish the children who have been bad. He is
hairy, usually brown or black, has
the cloven hooves and
horns of a goat and his long red tongue lolls out. He
out coal and switches to punish those that have
been bad and he is said to
capture particularly naughty
children in his sack and carry them away to his
Austrian children grow up believing the worst offenders
are whipped with birch switches, and sometimes stuffed in
a burlap sack and thrown into an icy river for their bad


Also called Belsnickel, is from the German pelzen or
belzen, meaning
to wallop or to drub, and nickel is a shortened version of
The Pelznickel is a crotchety, fur-clad figure in the folklore of the
Palatinate region of southwestern Germany. He is also preserved in
Dutch communities. He shows up at houses a week or
two before Christmas and
creates fright because he always knows
exactly who has misbehaved. He is
typically very ragged and mean
looking, wears torn, tattered, and dirty
clothes, and carries a switch
with which to beat bad children.

A first-hand account of the Belznickle tradition in Allegany County,
Maryland, appeared in “Brown’s Miscellaneous Writings, a
of essays by Jacob Brown. Writing about the period around 1830, he

“We did not hear of Santa Claus. Instead, the tradition called for a
​visit by a different character altogether.

“He was known as Kriskinkle, Beltznickle and sometimes as the Xmas woman. Children then not only saw the mysterious person,
but felt him or rather his stripes upon their backs with his switch. The annual visitor would make his appearance some hours after dark, thoroughly disguised, especially the face, which would sometimes be covered with a hideously ugly phiz – generally wore a femaile garb – hence the name Christmas woman – sometimes it would be a veritable woman but with masculine force and action. He or she would be quipped with an ample sack about the shoulders filled with cakes, nuts, and fruits, and a long hazel switch which was supposed to have some kind of a charm in it as well as a sting. One would scatter the goodies upon the floor, and then the scramble would begin by the delighted children, and the other hand would ply the switch upon the backs of the excited youngsters – who would not show a wince, but had it been parental discipline there would have been screams to reach a long distance.” Found in Jacob Brown, “Brown’s Miscellaneous Writings” (Cumberland, Maryland: J.J. Miller Printing, 1896), p. 41.

Knecht Ruprecht

Instead of operating independently, Knecht
Ruprecht (which
translates as Farmhand
Rupert or Servant Rupert) is a companion
of Saint
Nicholas in the folklore of Germany
as early as the 1600’s, accompanying him
and watching out for him. According to
tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children
whether they can pray. If they can, they
receive applies, nuts, and
gingerbread. If
they cannot, he beats the children with his
bag of ashes.

In some of the traditions, the children would
summoned to the door to perform tricks,
​such as dance or singing a song to
upon Santa and Ruprecht that they were
​indeed good children. Those who
performed badly would be beat soundly by Ruprecht and those who performed well were given a gift or some treats. Those who had committed other misdeeds throughout the year were put into Ruprecht’s sack and taken away, to his home in the Black Forest to be consumed later, or to be tossed into a river.

Zwarte Piet

Probably the most controversial of St. Nicholas’s
Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) was introduced in 1850 by primary
teacher Jan Schenkman, in his book Sint Nikolaas en
zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas
and His Servant). The servant appears
as a page boy or man, who appears as a
dark person wearing
clothes associated with Moors.

That same year Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm, in a handwritten,
unpublished text, remembered that in 1828, as a child, he had
attended a Saint Nicholas celebration in the house of Dominico
Arata, an Italian
merchant and consul living in Amsterdam. On
this occasion Saint Nicholas had
been accompanied by “Pieter
me Knecht . . . . a frizzy haired Negro.”

In 1859, the Dutch newspaper De Tijd noticed that Saint Nicholas
​nowadays was often accompanied by “a Negro, who, under the
of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less populair than the Holy
​Bishop himself.”

Painted faces, afro wigs and big lips painted red are a racist caricature of a black person. “Nobody is against the Sinterklaas celebration or is calling people who celebrate it racist”, said Jessica Silversmith, director of the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amersterdam. “But it is time to consider whether this is offensive, whether there actually are racist ideas underlying Zwarte Piet.”

Despite the growing anti-Pete movement, the tradition has a strong bedrock of support among mainstream Dutch society, and so it’s unlikely to disappear any time soon.