Friday, December 19, 2008

Nikolaus, Knecht Ruprecht, and the "Cheeky" Girl

In past posts, I've written about Saint Nikolaus Eve, both in the early centuries and in more recent times. But I can't resist one more St. Nikolaus story, this one from perhaps 50 or so years ago. You've probably heard of the film "The Nightmare before Christmas." This one could be called "The Nightmare before St. Nikolaus Day". A woman who lived in Irsch as a child and experienced a fearsome Nikolaus visit tells her story like this:

The Nikolaus Eve at our Home

For my siblings and me, the observance of Nikolaus Eve was full of stress because Nikolaus brought his assistant, the servant Ruprecht (Knecht-Ruprecht in German*). And he left behind a very fearful impression on me.

Now the evening was here and the banging and chain rattling on the wooden steps outside our door were so great that it was frightening and we were afraid. The kitchen door was flung open with great force and Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht came inside.

Knecht Ruprect's red tongue showed all the while because he let it hang out of his mouth. On his back he lugged a sack that was so big that a child would fit inside. Two long, stuffed stockings with shoes sewed to them were stuck to the outside of the bag, a sight that scared me stiff because I thought I would be stuck to the bag in the same way. I started to bawl.

Nikolaus took his big book and quickly leafed through it as if he already knew what the devil had written in it. He looked at me and then said that I had been rude to my Aunt Lena. And he had observed that, in the street, I was a cheeky child. He was going to take me with him, just as I had feared. But before he took me away, I should pray the "Our Father."

As I finished the Our Father, Knecht Ruprecht tugged at me. But I held on to the cutlery drawer. I pulled on it with force and it swung out of the cupboard with a dreadful clanging.

My grandma came down the stairs and helped me out of my jam. In that moment, I loved my grandma more than ever.

As a punishment, Nikolaus gave me a stick and he and Ruprecht started away. But my grandma wasn't finished with them; she snatched a gift from Nikolaus. Face beaming, she brought it to me

Thus ends the story submitted by Hedwig Rice to the monthly Irsch internet newsletter - sent free to subscribers with an interest in reading it.

My family, descended from ancestors who once lived in Irsch, also celebrated St. Nicholas Eve. After reading Frau Rice's story, I'm grateful that St. Nicholas came alone to our Wisconsin farm home and the only sound we heard was of his sleighbells. Never did our cutlery drawer suffer from a visit from St. Nicholas!

*For more on the history of Sankt Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht, use the search box at the top of the page.


  1. Anonymous1:02 PM

    Wow, this is a great story. I only recently heard about Knecht Ruprecht--the dark side of Saint Nick. I think maybe we treat our kids better in general these days, although it doesn't hurt psychologically to have a little bad with the good, I guess. Thanks

  2. fredandanna@comcast.net7:27 AM

    I too had a similar ecperience. Grew up in Linz Austria and my brother and I hid on top of an armoir when we heard St Nickolaus and "krampus" (as the austrians called his helper) come down the street with chains rattling. If krampus would catch us we would get a whipping - but usually we got an orange each and some nuts. Did this hurt us emotionally?? - NO -

  3. My parents are both from Westphalia. Hoch Saurland Kreis Padberg/Bredelar. My father is Michael Graf Droste zu Vischering from Padberg. He was born in 1936 and lived on top of a mountain in the woods in a small town of about 800 people. I loved hearing stories about how Knecht Ruprecht came to his home (a castle)and the story went like this:
    My great grandfather had a horse and sleigh. It magically appeared at the door to my fathers home on Dec. 6 (St. Nicholas names day) in the dark. The door bell would ring (a stick attached to a string and bell) and some one would open the door. My father was the youngest child of six and he and his siblings would be waiting in a roomed called his Grossvater's zimmer up two flights of wooden stairs. As they waited for Nicholas to come they heard the heavy cow chains being dragged up the very long stair case echoing throughout the castle
    The door would fly open and in walked St. Nicholas wearing his bishops uniform complete with hat, staff, and carrying a golden covered book. Behind him Knecht Ruprecht would trail...very dark and scary. Knecht Ruprecht was wearing a dark fur (perhaps bear skin, or wolf skin) and upon his head a dark fur cap which covered most of his face. (The cap was later found out to be a fur foot warmer and the coat he wore was the fur blanket turned inside out from the sleigh.) Knecht Ruprecht had a small red tongue sticking out which could have been a piece of apple skin hanging out of his mouth. He carried a sack over his back large enough to fit a child inside. The sack had a pair of socks with shoes sewn to it so kids actually thought there was a kid inside. (My mom remembered the sack but even wondered as a child why the sack never moved around, even though a kid was allegedly in there.) The children all thought that if they were really bad Knecht Ruprecht would put them in the sack and take them away from home.
    St. Nicholas would stand in the room and open his golden book and call the oldest child first. One side of the book had all the "good things" and the other side had all the "bad things" that the child had done over the year. St. Nicholas was always friendly and kind. He would give the children hazel nuts, apples, and a Stutenkerl, complete with pipe. Knecht Ruprecht would not talk. He would stand behind Nicholas silently. But when Nicholas began reading from the "bad side" Knecht Ruprecht would step closer to the child with each bad thing and would rattle his enormous cow chains.
    When the time came for the youngest child (my dad Michael) to stand before Nicholas he was really nervous. Nicholas asked my father if he knew his prayers and asked him to recite the Our Father or his evening prayers. My father would comply. My father said he remembers that his list of "bad things" was particularly longer than everyone elses. Knecht Ruprecht kept coming closer and closer with each bad thing, and would make horrible noises rattling his chain, moaning, growling, and shaking the bag at my father. He had a "rute" or a switch and he would shake it in front of my father as a warning. St. Nicholas would tell Knecht Ruprecht to back up and leave the boy alone and assured Ruprecht that my father would try to be better.
    Then Nicholas would leave and Ruprecht would follow and the grown-ups would all have a good laugh and a schnapps.