BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — We’ve already discussed the history of the original Saint Nicholas, and how depictions of him in history differ from the holiday figure we know today…. but the same concept applies to his many companions. Just as Santa Claus’s image and traditions have changed across the world, though, so have the individuals he associates with.
Nowadays, many of us know the basic ideas of those who help Santa Claus perform his yearly duties — particularly his wife, reindeer, and elves. But there’s an entire cast of supporting characters that you may not know about.
The holiday hero has his fair share of sidekicks — some of whom share his desire to spread kindness and goodwill, and some who have their own reasons for partaking in the holiday season. We’d like to use this article to introduce you to some of Santa’s helpers from around the globe!
(NOTE: Be aware that a few of the characters noted in this article have dark histories and are in this article primarily for their roles in the overall development of stories surrounding Santa Claus and St. Nicholas.)
The Nice List
These are a few of Saint Nicholas’s most popular assistants, from his reindeer to his beloved wife. Many of these have stood the test of time in America, but there are a few lesser-known friends to Santa Claus who are only popular overseas.
Mrs. Claus — One of the most famous denizens of the North Pole and the Santa mythos is his wife, appropriately referred to as Mrs. Claus. It’s believed that while Santa is focused on gift delivery, Mrs. Claus takes care of the workshop’s other important facets — including caring for the reindeer, baking cookies for Santa, mending clothes, and aiding her husband with toy preparation. She was first truly mentioned in passing in an 1849 short story (‘A Christmas Legend’ by James Rees), when an old man and woman are mistakenly believed to be ‘Old Santa Claus and his wife’, but never made a major appearance until the 1889 poem ‘Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride’ by Katharine Lee Bates (the same woman who wrote ‘America the Beautiful’). Goody, in this case, was short for ‘Goodwife’, which carried implications similar to ‘Mrs.’ as a title.
Much like Santa, Mrs. Claus is commonly seen as heavyset and elderly, but also a kind and loving woman. In many depictions, she tends to be patient and calm, as opposed to Santa himself who has a tendency to overdo things. More recent adaptations have portrayed her as a woman of all talents, and she’s been a playable video game character, a feminist, and a woman with a secret life including flying helicopters and riding snowmobiles among other incarnations.
Strangely, the one thing that has seen the most change over time is Mrs. Claus’s first name. Most iterations of her in media seem to give her a different identity, and it seems that almost nobody can agree on it. Just looking over lists of what she was known by before hitching her sleigh to Santa brings up names like Mary, Anya, Carol, Janine, and Nancy. The most famous of these names comes from the immortal Rankin-Bass series of holiday films, in which her first name is stated to be ‘Jessica’.
Reindeer — We all know the names of most of Santa’s Reindeer, but the origins of them — as well as a few of the group’s lesser-known members — aren’t exactly common knowledge. Interestingly enough, the first depictions of Santa with reindeer only featured one. In the 1821 illustrated children’s poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, Santa’s sleigh is first mentioned to be pulled by reindeer, and a later publication of the story in a collection of verses featured an illustration of the sleigh and its one reindeer guide.
It wasn’t until the publication of the famous A Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas) by Clement C. Moore where the idea of Santa having eight reindeer came into play, and even then, it wasn’t what we know now. Six names — Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, and Cupid — first made their appearances here, but the last two members of the sled team were originally referred to as ‘Dunder’ and ‘Blixen’ (‘Thunder’ and ‘Lightning’ in NY Dutch). Moore changed the names of this duo multiple times, and eventually to ‘Donder’ and ‘Blitzen’ in the early 1860s. The current spelling of ‘Donner’ didn’t actually come into the discussion until some time after Moore’s death.
Interestingly, a series of tales about Santa from The Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum provides Santa with not only ten reindeer as opposed to eight, but a group with entirely different names. Baum’s 1902 book lists his sled team as led by Flossie and Glossie, and backed up by duos of Racer and Pacer, Ready and Steady, Fearless and Peerless, and Reckless and Speckless.
We’re not forgetting Rudolph, of course, but he came sometime after the rest of these iterations — his origins lie not in tradition, but in promotion. He originally appeared in a 1939 booklet as part of a marketing attempt by Montgomery Ward department stores, and would later have his own claims to fame with famous songs and movies spurring from the wildly successful story.
Snegurochka — While the origins of Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) have their origins in Russian folklore, the character has been used to decorate Christmas trees for some time — with some stories depicting her as a child made of snow and others as a relative to Ded Moroz, the Russian equivalent of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus. The most common incarnation in newer traditions states that she is the granddaughter of Ded Moroz, who joins him on his trips through the country.
Christmas Elves — As opposed to the fantasy elves many of us know, Christmas elves are exclusive to the North Pole. Elves all have their own roots in European tradition and legend, but the first appearance of a Christmas Elf was actually in an unpublished book for Louisa May Alcott known as Christmas Elves. This image was later popularized by the 1873 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, where a front-cover piece of art depicted Santa Claus surrounded by toys and elves. This magazine was also believed to be responsible for the spread of many Christmas traditions (including Christmas Trees after an 1850 cover). Typically, these elves are associated with helping Santa when he is at home — usually by making toys and taking care of the reindeer in between Christmas journeys. Some newer adaptations also feature them acting as Santa’s secret service, assistants during delivery, or as those who ensure messages are delivered to him.
Some depictions of Santa Claus even portray him as an elf, albeit a larger and plumper one. The most famous instance of this, again, comes from ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, where he is referred to as “Chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”
Angels — In some European traditions, like those in Belgium, Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, Saint Nicholas is accompanied by a host of angels who assist him. They’re most commonly seen as those who keep records of children’s behavior in Saint Nick’s book and carry it as he delivers gifts.
Saint Nicholas’s Horse — In countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives on a large white horse instead of a sleigh. It had many names, though it is usually called “Schimmel” or “Amerigo”. The most recent horse that has the honor of carrying Saint Nicholas is named “Ozosnei” (‘Oh So Fast’). In Belgium, it is known as either “Sleight Weer Vandaag” (Bad Weather Today) or “Mooi Weer Vangaag” (Nice Weather Today). Some countries instead replace this horse with a donkey.
Incidentally, there is also a famous racehorse named ‘Santa Claus’… though it is highly unlikely there is any connection between the two.
The Naughty List
In some traditions, Santa’s helpers aren’t just there to hand out gifts and candy — they can serve as arbiters of punishment for naughty children. While not always figures who are entirely malicious, some of Santa’s helpers have gained notoriety in one way or another that make them a far cry from the image of Christmas we all know… but oddly enough, still important in tradition and celebrations of the holiday.
Krampus — Easily the most famous of Santa’s less festive companions, the Krampus originates from Austria as a demonic figure cloaked in brown or black fur, with cloven hooves, fangs, and a long red tongue, who often travels with Saint Nicholas. Here, the duo each deal with a certain type of child: while Saint Nicholas delivers sweets, fruit, and walnuts to the nice children, Krampus addressed the naughty ones with far less generous methods.
As legends go, on The 5th of December (Krampusnacht, the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas) Krampus would punish children by leaving them coal or lashing out at those who were naughty by swatting them with a whip or Rute (a bundle of birch branches used in Pagan rites). In some cases, he would even capture particularly egregious children in a bag of his own. These offenders were drowned, eaten, or taken directly to Hell. Krampus also carries chains, though he mostly only thrashes them for added intimidation during his visits.
Though Krampus is generally regarded as a fearful figure and one to be avoided at all costs, he is surprisingly popular in modern times. As alternative cultures celebrating the darker sides of the world became more common, Saint Nicholas’s corrupted companion has gained his own infamy in the spirit of the season. He is even celebrated in Austria, where in the first week of December, full-on parades dedicated to Krampus take place. Tourists and guests must tread carefully, lest they be attacked and switched by costumed revelers (literally — striking shins and legs is frequent, and melees between those in Krampus costumes and naughty passersby are also known to occur constantly).
Ruprecht — Ruprecht is Saint Nicholas’s most well-known attendant in Germany. Originally a farmhand, he became Saint Nicholas’s helper, and as a result of going down chimneys, his face became covered in soot. Usually, he is the one carrying the bag of gifts for Santa, and delivers both presents and punishment. It’s been stated that Ruprecht will often question children if they pray regularly. Those who do receive fruits and sweets, and those who don’t will receive stones or coal — or worse — a thrashing from his bag or a rod. His appearance is so ingrained in tradition that for a time, “Just wait until Ruprecht comes” was a threat to misbehaving children.
Zwarte Piet — Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, was first introduced in 1845 as a member of the Piets, helpers of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. In the book where he is introduced, it is explained that Zwarte Piet helps Sinterklas by riding over the rooftops with him, checking on children’s behavior by listening to them from their chimneys, and aiding with gift delivery. Earlier mentions of him also indicate that he was responsible for punishing poorly-behaved children by striking them with a birch rod or taking them back to Spain with him. During the 20th century, however, this side of the character was removed, and he is now seen as a friendly and fun-loving character. Piets, and Zwarte Piet in particular, are especially popular with the Dutch, as they are the ones who entertain children and give treats or candy while Sinterklaas asks them questions and only gives fruit. His behavior, however, is not why he’s on this side of the list.
In recent years, Zwarte Piet has been the subject of a growing amount of controversy due to his appearance. In some stories, he is believed to be a Moor (Muslim Immigrant) from Spain, and others state that his entire face is blackened with soot because he climbs through chimneys to deliver presents — which both amounted to examples of blackface in traditional depictions of the character. After growing numbers of debates, protests, and documentaries on the subject, Zwarte Piet has been portrayed more frequently as a figure with a few soot smudges on his face as opposed to his original appearance, with all Dutch territories except smaller towns and villages entirely phasing out the older depictions as of 2021.
Pere Fouettard — One of Santa’s more fiendish helpers, Pere may have his origins in one of the tales of St. Nicholas’s miracles. Previously, we’ve discussed the tale of St. Nicholas resurrecting three dead children after a cruel butcher intended to pickle their bodies and sell them as meat. Pere’s French origin story has similar aspects, but this makes the reason he’s an assistant to Santa all the more distressing.
Much like the original Saint’s story, Pere is referred to as a crooked innkeeper butcher who lured kids to his shop and killed them, but the story doesn’t end at the children’s resurrection. In French versions, Pere repents for his crimes and atones for his sins by pledging himself to Saint Nicholas, or is forced to by the holiday hero.
Pere’s name translates roughly to ‘Father Whipper’, and that’s exactly what he does. When Saint Nicholas delivers presents and treats to good kids, Pere Fouettard whips the naughty ones.
Belsnickel — Another character who was loved or feared, depending on one’s behavior. According to Pennsylvania Dutch and German traditions, Belsnickel visited children in the weeks before Christmas to check up on their behavior. Some stories say that people were terrified of his visits because he knew exactly which children were good or bad. If he visited children, they would normally need to answer a question or sing a song for him. He would throw candy to those who answered honestly or sang well, but even they would still need to be careful — reaching for the sweets too fast would land one with a blow from the switch instead.
Schmutzli — This Swiss figure is another helper in the vein of Krampus and Pere Fouettard, who served to punish naughty children while Saint Nicholas rewarded good ones. Schmutzli is notable in that his traditional robes, hair, and beard are brown, and that his face is darkened with lard and soot. In a similar manner to Krampus, he carries a switch to beat bad kids with, and a sack to imprison the particularly naughty ones. Old stories say that he takes children in the sacks to the woods, where he devours them. In more recent iterations, Schmutzli still bears his switch and sack, but does not use them.
Demon —As a lesser version of the Krampus tale, in some traditions (notably Czech and Slovakian stories), an unnamed devil travels with St. Nick. This furred creature wields a staff or pitchfork to threaten children with punishment for their bad deeds. Fortunately, unlike Krampus or the others on this list, this demon cannot actually do any harm: he’s usually chained up and out of reach of the kids, and an angel is always seen nearby preventing them from being harmed during Saint Nicholas’s visit to their homes.
As is clearly visible, Santa Claus has a long history of associating with the good, the bad, and the ugly — all of which have their own places in holiday traditions around the world. Yet, in our most well-known depictions of Santa, these characters are restricted to a few of the kinder staples. But of the ones who stayed, how have they carried on into modern depictions of Santa Claus, and what is it that keeps them around when the rest start to fade? Keep following KX’s Christmas special features to find out!
For more information on Santa Claus and his many customs and companions, visit this page on the Saint Nicholas Center’s website.