Knecht Ruprecht standing beside Saint Nicholas

Knecht Ruprecht standing beside Saint Nicholas (Böhringer Friedrich, cropped, used under CC BY-SA 2.5 DEED)

The most well-known anti-Santa must be the Tyrolean Krampus figure of northern Italy and Austria.

However, in Germany, Saint Nicholas is often accompanied by a different malevolent being Knecht Ruprecht, or servant Ruprecht. At a Christmas market, you will usually see him striding alongside St. Nick in his dark brown robe. He may have a black or white beard, a staff or bundle of cane, and perhaps a basket on his back.  

His presence in Germany is fairly widespread, so his tradition varies. Generally, he is St. Nicholas’s servant. Sometimes he is simply the sidekick that holds the saint’s bag and keeps the crowd organized. Ruprecht may also ask kids if they can recite a prayer and he will give them a gingerbread or tangerine treat from his basket if they can. As punishment, he will give switches or cane rods to naughty kids or their parents.

In Saxony, Knecht Ruprecht represents a priest who was interrupted while saying Christmas Eve mass by a hoard of young ruffians partying out front of the church. Well, in 1021 that just didn’t fly, so Priest Ruprecht put a spell on them. They could not stop dancing for an entire year until the Bishop of Cologne finally stepped in to offer absolution to the ones who didn’t die.

In southerly states, his story is different. While he isn’t going to eat children, kidnap them or ravage a town with his hoard of fellows like Krampus, the two share an origin. In the early Middle Ages, saints were expected to reward and acknowledge goodness, so many were portrayed with attendants who did the necessary dirty work of punishment.

In Alpine traditions, St. Nicholas’s attendant was said to be anything from a hired servant to a farmhand, or even a wild foundling that the saint had raised. The name Ruprecht, or Robert, was commonly used in the area at that time to refer to the devil so he always had a bit of a rough side.

Regardless of his humble beginnings, his role slowly changed. In the 16th century, horror stories like those later written down by the Brothers Grimm were used to fearfully train children. So, Ruprecht evolved. In much of the Alps, he was replaced with a scary Krampus figure, while his more moderate servant iteration spread through northern Germany.

When you put your shoes out on St. Nicholas Day, it may just be that Knecht Ruprecht is filling them, especially if you get a bundle of sticks for being naughty.

author picture
Kat is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Kaiserslautern, Germany with a special interest in anything outdoorsy or ancient. She has a bachelor’s degree in geography from Penn State University and has been a travel writer for about 10 years. Currently, she is in the depths of dissertation research for an archaeology degree at the University of the Highlands and Islands. 

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