Don’t forget to put your shoes out!
December 6 is St. Nicholas Day, otherwise known among my relatives in western Pennsylvania as "Belsnickel." On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, children should put out their shoes (on the hearth if they have one), and St. Nicholas may come to fill them with candy or little gifts in the night. But only if the children have been good. Otherwise, some quite terrifying things could happen.
In order to understand the myriad of intermingling myths associated with this day (and Christmas), one needs to understand the legend of St. Nicholas himself.
The man who would be St. Nicholas was a bishop in an area that is now part of Turkey. He lived from 270 to 347 A.D. To become a saint, you have to be dead, you have to be considered a role model for Catholics, and you have to have performed a miracle or two. (In general. The rules sometimes change under various popes, and in the early days, sainthood was simply agreed upon by the masses and wasn't an official process like it is now, but I digress.)
Nicholas died on December 6, so he met the first criteria. There are a few key stories associated with him that illustrate how he met the other two main criteria for sainthood.
One account of Nick’s good deed doing concerned a man in the village who had three daughters. The man hadn't the money to be used as dowries for the daughters, meaning they wouldn't be able to marry and would likely have to become prostitutes. Not wanting to embarrass the man by causing him to accept charity, Nicholas went to the man's house in the middle of the night and threw a bag or three of gold through the window. In some versions of the story, he threw the gold down the chimney, and it may or may not have landed in the stockings of one of the daughters who had left them hanging by the hearth to dry.
You can see how this story evolved into the custom of setting out one's shoes on the hearth or hanging stockings on the chimney (in some countries, they put out special boots on the doorstep) so that St. Nicholas (aka Sinter Klaas, Santa Claus) can fill them with treats. But a second story about Nick is a bit more grizzly, and the customs deriving from it a bit more weird.
It seems that during a terrible famine, there was an evil butcher who cut up three strangers, or perhaps it was three children, and put their remains in a barrel to cure and later sell as ham. In some versions, the butcher’s wife suggested he turn them into meat pies. Nicholas discovered the plot, prayed over the barrels, and the children (or strangers) were resurrected – a miracle! Also, the butcher was either reformed and offered to be Nick's helper in further acts of charity, or else Nick forced him to be his servant as punishment for the evil deeds.
You might be wondering what the heck this has to do with Santa Claus. Surely this isn’t why we have Christmas hams and “mincemeat” pies? But to me, this story explains a lot.
In western Pennsylvania, the legend of the Belsnickel still lives among the descendants of German immigrants. Bellsnickle, Belschnickel, Pelznichol, and a myriad of other spellings exist. It translates to “Nicholas in furs” (or pelts), but he was not really a cuddly guy.
When my mother was a child, her youngest brother Freddy would hide upon hearing the bells and chains of the Belsnickel coming down the street. Belsnickel, and sometimes his cohort, Schwarz Peter (Black Peter), would enter the house, and the children would be made to come before them. Belsnickel would interrogate the children as to whether they had been good. He was often privy to eerie details about their recent transgressions. He would demand that they say their prayers. If they did it right, Belsnickel would reward them with candy. If they messed up, Schwarz Peter would give them a lump of coal or threaten to hit them with the switch he carried!
The part of Belsnickel would usually be played by an uncle or a friend of the family disguised in furs. Sometimes he didn’t have a cohort, and so the Belsnickel himself would carry the threatening switch. He wasn’t the jolly old elf we know as Santa Claus; more like a mischievous trickster you didn’t know what to make of.
But let’s go back to this Schwartz Peter guy. In other countries, he’s known as Zwarte Piet, le Père Fouettard (the whipping father), Knect Ruprecht (farmhand or servant Rupert, Ruprecht having been a common name for the Devil in Germany), Hans Muff or Hans Trapp, Schmutzli, Rumpelklas, or the dreaded Krampus. In some cultures, St. Nick comes around with both an angel and a devil who reward or punish the kiddies.
Not sure why he’s called Pete (or Hans), but I believe his legend derived from the butcher who turned children into meat pies. In some cultures, children are threatened not only with a lump of coal or a switch but also with the possibility that Black Pete might stuff them into a sack and cart them off to whatever country he comes from (this varies, too) and eat them. He is often seen wearing or carrying chains, bells, a switch or rod or staff, and/or a burlap sack. In some countries, he’s the guy who comes down the chimney, potentially explaining his blackness.
In the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet is done up in black face, afro wigs, and red lipstick and is St. Nick’s ignorant oaf of a slave. In recent years, this has caused arguments about his political correctness and poor taste, so some folks tried giving him an extreme makeover with rainbows. That didn’t seem to catch on.
In Austria/Slovenia/Croatia, he’s got horns, a long tongue, and/or a tail and is a horrific creature known as the Krampus (derived from a Germanic word meaning claw). Seriously, he looks like a demon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In some towns, on December 5, young men dress up as Krampuses and roam the streets scaring the bejesus out of children and/or whacking young ladies on the butt with their switches.
And you thought the Abominable Snowman was scary!