St. Nick and Père Fouettard (Father Whipper)
I hope you were all more nice than naughty this year and that you received lots of lovely holiday gifts. Handing out presents to good little girls and boys is what Saint Nicholas does best, but what about those kiddies who couldn’t quite manage to be good?
Misbehaving children in Europe have to be very careful the first part of December. Saint Nicholas day is December 6, and that is the day the kindly saint appears and distributes gifts to obedient children… but beware, he has a not-so-nice “helper” who tags along with him.
In north-eastern France, especially in the region of Alsace and Lorraine, this helper is called Père Fouettard, which translates as Father Whipper. His name comes from the small whip that he carries – and uses. While St. Nick gives out gifts and sweets to nice children, Father Whipper takes care of the naughty ones: he might just leave them lumps of coal instead of presents, or he might decide to beat them with his whip. Sometimes he even stuffs them into his basket and carries them away into the night, never to be seen again. Wow! Talk about motivation to behave…
Just looking at jolly, old St. Nick’s partner is enough to give you a scare. He’s a big, ugly man with a long beard and shaggy, dark hair, wrapped in a big fur coat. He’s a noisy fellow too: cracking his whip, rattling chains, and ringing bells as he stomps along in heavy boots.
Where did this decidedly un-cuddly fellow come from? The legend, which goes back to the Middle Ages, tells us of three little boys who were lost in the woods. A butcher found them and decided that, since he hadn’t had much luck on his hunt that day, these three tender little morsels would do. He chopped them up for meat, and put them in the salt barrel to cure.
Saint Nicholas came into the butcher’s shop and the evil man tried to sell him a piece of his “best meat.” But Nick loved children and couldn’t be fooled. He resurrected the boys and took them back to their parents.
The butcher started traveling with St. Nick and became known as Père Fouettard (Father Whipper). It’s not clear how he and Nick became buddies, but it seems that Father Whipper is no longer allowed to eat, beat, or abduct children. I’m pretty sure his only job, these days, is to inspire good behavior in them.
*Northern France isn’t the only place where St. Nick has an evil counterpart, similar characters exist in many parts of Europe.
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