Knecht Ruprecht

Categories: Sightseeing, Cultural and History, General Travel Info


[ source: Wikipedia]

American children only have one major figure tied to the giving of gifts at Christmas - Santa Claus. However, in the German-speaking countries, other figures besides Santa Claus appear in folklore: St. Nicholas, the Christ Child, and Knecht Ruprecht, to name a few.

The story of Knecht Ruprecht stretches back to the late Middle Ages, a period that saw parents employing fear as a means of inculcating piety and good behavior into their children. Although tales of him stretch back earlier, he is first mentioned in written sources in the 17th century as a character in a Nuremburg Christmas procession. Knecht Ruprecht often appears today as a companion and helper to St. Nicholas, but he was originally an intimidating, frightening figure meant to scare children into good behavior. He would arrive at the homes of children on St. Nicholas Day, a gift-giving holiday in Germany, and ask parents about their children's activities. Depending on the response, he would give switches for use on the bad children and treats for the good ones.

In appearance, Knecht Ruprecht wears either a brown or black robe, or fur, and always has a long beard. He usually carries a bag of ashes, a basket containing switches and bags of treats (often chocolates, gingerbread, peanuts, and mandarin oranges), and a long staff. Knecht Ruprecht often rides a white horse in the the company of St. Nicholas, and according to German tradition, he appears in homes on December 6, St. Nicholas Day. In some areas, Knecht Ruprecht gives coal and switches to naughty children, while St. Nicholas gives sweets and little gifts to good children.

The figure of Knecht Ruprecht is also associated with another figure in German folklore, Black Peter, who is called this because of the soot that covers him from the chimneys he goes down. In his seminal work on German folklore, Deutsche Mythologie, Jakob Grimm placed Knecht Ruprecht into the context of pre-christian lore related to house spirits and elves, who also sought to punish misdeeds in order to maintain a certain social order.

In either case, visitors to German Christmas markets may find themselves confronted with this dark, impish figure in the company of a splendidly robed St. Nicholas. So be good, or be prepared to receive a switch in return!

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Rachel Hildebrandt

This travel guide has been written by Rachel Hildebrandt.

Starting with her first trip to Germany at the age of 16, Rachel has traveled, worked, and studied in Germany extensively. Although her first encounter with German culture was in Lower Saxony, since that time the focus of her subsequent work as a freelance historian and translator has shifted eastward. Building on her graduate studies in Dresden, Rachel has worked for a variety of German foundations as a historian and translator, and is currently pursuing research pertaining to the Sorbs in Lusatia (eastern Saxony).

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