Friday, December 18, 2009

Knecht Ruprecht

Today I’m homing in on one of the oldest Christmas ornaments on our family Christmas tree (the Weihnachtspyramide—I told you about it recently). From a very early age, I was taught to be very careful with this object because it was so elderly. “It’s not a toy,” my parents said, with a certain degree of sternness that told me they meant it.

And of course I wanted to be on my best behavior, ’cause Christmas was around the corner, and I wanted as much loot as possible! And no lumps of coal.

Coal? Lumps of coal? Yes. They told me that if I misbehaved, if I’d been bad during the year, I would get lumps of coal in my Christmas stocking instead of candy and toys. And I’d get switches, too!

That word, in its intended sense, was unknown to me at the time. I did know what light switches were, because we’d had a few replaced in our house, and my brother and I had been given the old switches to play around with. Click, click. On, off. It was kinda fun, and receiving them on Christmas morning wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as chocolate bars and, say, the new Johnny West toys, but it wouldn’t exactly be a “punishment,” either.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that “switches” were light, flexible branches used, basically, for flagellation. Geez. If I didn’t behave, they’d whip me with sticks!

How Germanic, huh? Actually, very Judeo-Christian, and heck, very human. Bad deeds are punished at the end of your year, at the end of your life. The lumps of coal, the switches, amount to the kids’ Christmas-morning version of damnation.

But Santa always comes through in the end and brings presents on Christmas, since kids have loving parents, just as a loving God has redeemed us because he loves his creation. . . . I think that’s the idea, anyway.

But the threats of Christmastime punishments used to be spelled out much differently. I’ve been reading up on the various personages that used to be envisioned by children in December.

Didja know that all the gift-giving used to take place on December 6, which is St. Nicholas Feast Day for the Catholics? St. Nicholas was a patron of children and the poor and had been known for giving gifts to them.

It was the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, and his cronies, who convinced folks to focus more on the birth of Jesus, and to change their gift-giving date to December 25, Christmas. Luther naturally wanted to downplay the importance of Catholic saints and put greater emphasis on the Savior.

But going back to St. Nicholas Day, December 6, it was St. Nicholas who would bring the presents, accompanied by a shady dude who went by various aliases. Essentially, this guy was the devil character, the punisher. A mean ol’ hombre.

He was like an assistant to St. Nicholas, freeing him from the distasteful punishing aspects so he could focus on good cheer, presents, fruit and nuts, and so on. It was a classic case of good cop/bad cop.

So this guy’s cognomens included Aschenklas (Ash Nicholas—for chimney ashes that apparently gave him a dark appearance), Pelznickel or Belsnickel (Furry Nicholas—for the furs he wore), or Knecht Ruprecht (which translates to Knight Rupert).

He generally carried around a sack with coal and sticks. When he appeared “in person”—as a man in a costume, the way kids see Santa Claus today in shopping malls—he would interview kids to find out if they’d been good.

It would feel a lot different than sitting on Santy’s lap, to be asked if you’ve been naughty by someone whose sole job is to punish.

I remember my grandma talking about Knecht Ruprecht occasionally; she must have been one of those kids threatened by his presence, even as she was enticed by the presents of St. Nicholas.

An interesting note is that although Protestant reformers drew St. Nicholas out of the picture, they retained the character of Knecht Ruprecht, apparently because he was not a saint.

My purpose here is not to tell the story of St. Nicholas, or, as the Dutch called him, Sinter Nikolaas, the name that got changed into “Santa Claus” by English speakers. Instead, I wanted to give some attention to poor, forgotten Knecht Ruprecht, the stern one who kept kids minding their p’s and q’s, who has been lost in our frantic flurries to purchase presents and our striving for a “merry” holiday.

So my focus today is on this one old Christmas ornament that’s been in my family since at least 1905, when our first photograph of the tree was made. Back then the horse that he rides had all four legs intact, and it straddled the distance between the two posts at the gateway to the garden.

It’s also in the picture from 1915.

When I was a little kid, I assumed this was just a weird version of Santa Claus—sure, he was skinny and wore somber brown instead of jolly red, and he didn’t look very happy, but he had a white beard . . . and it wouldn’t have been the first time my family did things differently than the rest of America.

Sometime before I can remember, his horse’s legs and one of Rupert’s arms got broken off. It was probably the arm that held the bag of coal and the switches!

This is one of the ornaments that none of us have ever tried to refurbish. We’ve allowed him to “look his age”—partly because as an antique, even in his sad condition, he might be “worth” something. You never know.

So here’s how Knecht Ruprecht is looking today. Like his overall image in the world today, he’s kind of downtrodden.

I don’t think you can blame me for his and his horse’s disabilities, because my parents wouldn’t let me play with him. His injuries must have occurred in the first century or so of his existence, well before I came into the picture.

And anyway, at Christmastime, you know I, of course, was always most certainly an angel . . . Just in case anyone asks . . .


BonnieChasteen said...

Awesome post, Julie! I think Pelznickel is a good alternate name for Klaus, who definitely has a dark side. I'm gonna have nightmares about that broken horse/rider figure--creepy!

Unknown said...

Hello, sister! Wow, I think you have a future
with the history channel or discovery channel!
I can imagine the spooky voiceovers during the
close ups of the dark one!

It's amazing how much there is to learn about
that tree.

As we put up our oh-so-youthful artificial tree,
I have to pause for some ornaments with "history"
behind theem. The first ornament that bears
witness to my marriage, the first one with name of each baby, the first one I bought after I
left home and began establishing my own set
of ornaments, etc.

Thanks so much for your wonderful writing; you
are truly gifted!

Your brother, looking out on sun shining on 19 inches of snow that needs to be dug out!