Sunday, December 3, 2017

Krampus and Zwarte Piet: Santa’s Sinister Helpers

It is the Christmas season, and time for us to go back to the medieval world. We all know who Santa Claus is, but, in this post I wanted to discuss his two traveling companions, or even servants. I have written about these servants in the past, so if you want read this previous post.

First, let’s look at Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.  In some legends, Zwarte Piet is said to represent the black crows that would listen for Odin, telling him if mankind was good or bad. This version, is erroneous and was made up to legitimize the origins of Black Pete. In fact, Black Pete was a discriminatory representative of a Spanish Moor.

The Moors were Muslim inhabitants of Spain, Italy and northern Africa in an area known as the Barbary Coast. The Moors engaged in raids into European countries, and kidnapped people (particularly children) to be sold into slavery; This connection to Zwarte Piet will become apparent below.

One aspect of the Santa Clause legend, is that he is often depicted defeating and chaining a devil or demon.  This demon is often depicted as being black in color.

Using the mentality of Europeans at the time, you can see a correlation between the rise of Zwarte Piet to the Moors, and Africans.  Zwarte Piet popularity had two rises in different periods, once with the raids of Moors, the other with the introduction of slaves from Africa.

Zwarte Piet could be a warning, a type of boogey man, a cautionary tale for children to stay near their homes and not to wonder off. This of course is a reaction to the Moors raiding for slaves.

Another, more sinister, and racist explanation for the creation of Zwarte Piet is the enslavement of a savage demon by Santa. In Europe, slavery was not seen as bad (even though many countries, as did the church, outlawed it), there was an argument that slavery (and colonialism) brought education and civilization to “savages” living in the forest. Of course, this argument, was to legitimize slavery and the mistreatment of other cultures; but, the reasoning does correspond to the legend of Santa Claus chaining a demon, taming him and making him his servant.

The most famous (or infamous) servant of Santa Claus is the Krampus. The Krampus is one of the most terrifying Christmas traditions from Europe.  It is a tall fierce looking demon, covered in fur with goat like feet, huge horns and a large tongue sticking out of its mouth.

The Krampus carries birch sticks called a ruten, in which to beat bad children.  Many homes take ruten bundles and spray paint then and use them as decorations to remind children to behave.  He also carried a sack, usually pictured containing 2 bad children in which he was going to eat, drown, or take back to hell with him.  He was constantly on the lookout for number 3 (this would be a negative counterbalance to Saint Nicholas who saved the lives of 3 children). The abduction of children may have originated at the same time as the stories about Zwarte Piet.

The origin of Krampus pre-dates that of Zwarte Piet, but also may pre-date Christianity and Santa Clause himself.  Some folklorists believe it is a horned God associated with ancient witchcraft. The use of the ruten could also be attributed to this since they were used in pagan rituals.

The feast of Saint Nicholas is observed on December 6, this is to commemorate his death in 343 A.D. The night before, Decemeber 5, is considered Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night.  Young men will dress up in a Krampus costume and march through the streets.  It is customary to give these men schnapps if they come to your door.  It would not be unusual for the men to whip people or children with their ruten bundles. This may not be a particular part of a custom, but may be attributed to a bunch of young men holding bundles of sticks at the same time they had been drinking schnapps all night long.

Since the 1800’s in many parts of Europe people began exchanging Christmas and post cards featuring Krampus, these are called Krampuskarten.  These cards would include season greetings alongside a drawing of Krampus looming over children about ready to punish them. Many of the cards simply state Gruß vom Krampus or Greetings from Krampus.

The one significant, and scary, aspect of both the Krampus and Zwarte Piet is that they not only serve Santa Claus but also ride with him in his sleigh (with Zwarte Piet it could be a boat). If these two “anti-clause” characters punished children, it is by the command of Santa Clause himself. On Christmas Eve, a child does not know if they will receive a gift, or a beating that year.
Side note: Readers of this blog may remember a post I did about doing illustrations. I created the krampus illustration using Daz Studios.
A newer “creature” (although from an older legend) has been recently added to the celebration of Krampus, her name is Perchta. This addition was to create a female version of the Krampus. The description of Perchta varies, but usually comes in two forms; a beautiful snow white woman, or an ugly hag. According to the works of Jacob Grimm (yes, of Brothers Grimm tales), she was a goddess overlooking spinning and weaving.

These two descriptions could be, because like the origins of Santa Clause, she was a giver or punisher. In many legends, she would roam the forest looking for a home. She would enter and judge if the girls in the house had worked properly and spun and weaved all year round, if they had she would reward them with a silver coin.  If the girls were lazy and had not worked hard, she would rip their stomachs open and fill it with rocks and straw.

During some periods, such as with the fascists in Germany, the Krampus was frowned upon or even outlawed.  This has recently changed; the Krampus seems to have become a staple during Christmas time. Recent movies have included him, as well as TV shows like American Dad, and the Venture Bros.

I hope you enjoyed our trip to view the servants of Santa Claus. They were terrifying and gruesome, but also were the result of tales of warning, and history combined with that of Christianity.  Have a nice Krampus Night. Remember, Santa might be watching you, but the Krampus is going to beat you.

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W.A.Rusho is a historian, professional wrestler and Author. You can contact him via his website or by email.


  1. Rip their stomachs open?! Oh my, I never realized what a simple and naive childhood I had! Very interesting William, but it really makes me glad I wasn't around during those days.

  2. Well, the Krumpus was certainly not in the spirit of the Christmas I know and love. Very enlightening history lesson, William.

  3. My boyfriend's son has a fascination with Krampus the past year or so, but I wonder now if he's familiar with Zwarte Piet? Both of them probably are.

  4. Yikes! I had no knowledge of any of these creatures except, of course, for Claus. These beasts sound horribly frightening! I'd sure want to stay on the good side of them.

  5. Great post and the timing is interesting for me. I was trying to learn more about Black Pete because here in Ottawa an Afro-Carribean group recently formed to ask local stores not to use "Black Pete" in their Christmas promotions. I was saddened to hear people defending it as a "Christmas tradition for children". Ugh!!! What on Earth could they be trying to teach their children?

    1. I was unaware he was present in Canada, learn something new every day. thanks.

  6. Don't you get nightmares from all the sinister tales you read and watch, William?

    1. I have found out their are more real terrors than those in fairy tales.

  7. I used to watch Grimm, the TV series, and I find all the creatures fascinating. I've never heard of the Krampus or the Zwarte Piet but they sound terrifying! I remember Christmas to be a joyful time rather than the terrifying depiction you've drawn up in this post haha! But thanks for sharing these legends and stories, it's definitely an interesting read!