For a lot of people, Germany is the Christmas capital of the world. And not just because of the Christmas markets, Glühwein, and snow. No. They LOVE the fact that Germany also has this dark side to Christmas where ghoulish and menacing figures terrorize people under the happy twinkle of Christmas lights. But who, exactly, is doing the terrorizing?
Knecht Ruprecht & Krampus: Your FAQ
A quick note before we begin. The Knecht Ruprecht/Krampus figure has more names and variations than just these two. And it exists in other countries besides Germany. However, this post only deals with Germany.
Who the heck is Knecht Ruprecht?
Short answer – Knecht Ruprecht is St. Nicholas’ helper.
In the States, we have Santa Claus. And he keeps a list of names, tracking which children have been naughty and which have been nice. The nice kids get gifts, the naughty kids don’t.
Well, imagine splitting that into two separate people. In certain parts of Germany, including the Eifel, St. Nicholas rewards the nice children by bringing them sweets, and Knecht Ruprecht punishes the naughty children. So, not only do they not get sweets, they could be whipped with a bundle of switches, thrown into a sack and tossed in the river, or eaten – depending on which variation the parents tell them.
Knecht Ruprecht always appears alongside St. Nicholas because they basically split the workload in a sense. And while we might conflate them with Santa Claus and associate Knecht Ruprecht with Christmas, he actually belongs to St. Nicholas Day (December 6th). He’s always dressed in brown or black clothing and carries a bundle of switches. Most of the time, he’s depicted with a hood, a beard, and he usually has a burlap sack slung over his shoulder – either for goodies or to steal away naughty children.
What is the origin of Knecht Ruprecht?
There are a handful of theories as to where exactly he comes from.
According to one of the more popular ones, he comes from Thuringia. There was a figure in German mythology named Frau Perchta (at least, that was her name in that region – she’s also known as Frau Holle), and she punished lazy and disobedient people with nightmares or by filling their stomachs with rocks and throwing them into wells. But she also rewarded good people. Knecht Ruprecht was most likely her servant as some people think the name comes from “Knecht der Frau Perchta” or “Frau Perchta’s Servant.”
Sometime during the Middle Ages, the figure spread from Thuringia to the rest of the country. However, in certain areas (including Bavaria), the figure developed into a more sinister creature called Krampus.
Are Knecht Ruprecht and Krampus the same “person”?
Yes and no. They have similar origins (most likely in Frau Perchta), but they developed differently. Here’s a breakdown of some of their most notable differences:
- Knecht Ruprecht is a man; Krampus is a creature.
- There is just one Knecht Ruprecht, but there are several Krampuses (or Krampi?) that travel together.
- Both Knecht Ruprecht and Krampus punish bad children, but only Krampus drags them to Hell and hits kids with their bare hands.
But isn’t Krampus the standard St. Nicholas sidekick in Germany?
No. As Americans that might be especially surprising for us because we have become so familiar with Krampus over the last several years – thanks to the 2015 movie of the same name – and probably never even heard of Knecht Ruprecht. But the reality is that the majority of Germans know Knecht Ruprecht as the dark “Christmas” figure, not Krampus.
Are there Krampus events around Spangdahlem?
No. The only areas that have Krampus themed events are the areas where Krampus “exists.” In Germany, that means the Eastern Alps region and southern Bavaria.
Think of it like this. In Texas, we have Big Tex. He’s a HUGE cowboy (55 feet tall) who stands on the fairgrounds of the Texas State Fair. He’s a cultural icon – but only for Texas. Asking where you can find Krampus in the Eifel is like asking where you can find Big Tex in New England.
Are there Knecht Ruprecht festivals like they have for Krampus?
No. Some places might have parties or club events that feature Knecht Ruprecht in the name, but you won’t find parades or festivals dedicated to him.
What do German children learn about Knecht Ruprecht?
From what I’ve been told, it seems like he is used in a similar way to how we use the Bogeyman.
In the States, a lot of parents will tell their kids, “If you don’t stop doing that, the Bogeyman is ‘gonna come get you.” And that’s really similar to what many German parents say to their kids – “You’d better stop doing that or Knecht Ruprecht is ‘gonna come get you.”
Depending on which variation the parents tell their children, the kids might be told that Knecht Ruprecht will hit them with a bundle of switches, throw them in the sack he carries and toss them in the river, or, though it seems a bit rarer, eat them.
I will say that it seems like the younger parents don’t threaten the children so much with Knecht Ruprecht. The older generations grew up being completely terrified of him, but some parents today don’t want to scare the kids to such an extent, so they either tone the possible punishment down or flat out tell them he’s not real.
Can I see Knecht Ruprecht somewhere?
Yes! The best place to catch him is at one of the Christmas markets. Check the programs to see when St. Nicholas will be there. As Knecht Ruprecht always travels with St. Nicholas, he will be there with him to greet the children and pass out goodies.
Unfortunately, though, not all Knecht Ruprechts are created equal. I was at one Christmas market in 2015 where Knecht Ruprecht was literally a guy wearing jeans, a black jacket, and a ski mask. It was almost like he decided five minutes before the event to dress up and just threw on what he had laying around the house.
Are there Knecht Ruprecht inspired souvenirs that I can buy?
Yes. They make Knecht Ruprecht costumes (which you could totally use for Halloween) and sometimes you can find little figurines or table decorations.
You can get the costumes at party stores or from the German Amazon. The figurines and table decorations are a bit harder to find, but you can sometimes get them in Christmas shops, at Christmas markets, or on Etsy.
There are also a lot of books – mostly children’s books – about Knecht Ruprecht, but you won’t find them in English.
Are there any Christmastime traditions surrounding Knecht Ruprecht?
Yes. Many German families read a poem called “Knecht Ruprecht” by Theodor Storm aloud – kind of like how we read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
It’s also common for St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht to visit the houses of German families (as organized by the Catholic Church they belong to, I believe). The parents tell the pair ahead of time what things their kids did really well throughout the year or even what bad things they did and sometimes also give them small gifts for the kids. All of this is done ahead of time without the kids’ knowledge.
It’s always kept secret from the children whether or not St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht will visit the home, so it’s a fun surprise when they show up, and then it’s kind of magical for the kids that St. Nicholas really knows what all they’ve done good and bad throughout the year when he reads out the information the parents gave him earlier from his book. After he’s read out all the good and bad things the kids have done throughout the year, Knecht Ruprecht hands out the gifts they were given, or he might just give out sweets. Sometimes the kids sing for the duo, or they might read them poems about St. Nicholas.
You can see a short video report here that shows St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht visiting people’s homes. It’s in German, but you’ll still get the sense of it from watching.
Bonus: Interesting Fact
On the TV show The Simpsons, the dog (Santa’s Little Helper) is named Knecht Ruprecht in the German-dubbed version.
Got more questions about Knecht Ruprecht? Let me know in the comments below!