Santa Claus has become the dominant international figure of the holiday season, but he does have a variety of sidekicks depending on where in the world you are. One of the craziest without a doubt is northern and eastern France’s Le Père Fouettard (Father Whipper), a sort of anti-Santa.
Across Europe, traditions have monstrous beings accompany St. Nicholas on his rounds, either as mismatched good cop/bad cop type pairings (Krampus, Necht Ruprecht, Schmutzli) or as stand-alone villains (such as Frau Perchta and Iceland’s feline menace, the Yule Cat). Like mobsters doing their boss’s dirty work, Krampus and Le Père Fouettard set out into the cold December night to deal with the children who have been naughty. They’re more likely to deck the halls with Holly’s bowels than boughs of holly. Children are given a choice: presents or a sound beating with a bag of ashes. If you’ve been naughty, cheeky or not said your prayers, it’s possible an evisceration is all you’ve got to look forward to. Le Père Fouettard basically terrifies you into being good.
On the night of 5 December Saint Nicholas leaves chocolates and sweets in shoes for the children who have said their prayers, been good to their parents and done their devoirs (homework) all year round. While Krampus and Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) have featured in recent movies the story of Le Père Fouettard is a whole other level of crazy and vicious. It is probably the only seasonal tale that centres on cannibalism, infanticide and zombie children. Lovely.
So how does this lovely man fit into the St. Nicholas tradition? There are two origin stories that have become popularised, one is entirely apocryphal and the other has its roots in a 16th-century medieval siege in the eastern city of Metz.
The first, which started to be told around 1150, involves an evil butcher who kidnapped three lost children, murdered them by slitting their throats, carved the meat up and put it in a salting-tub. Alas, St. Nicholas turned up at the door and the butcher attempted to ingratiate himself to his saintly visitor by offering him his best meat. Instead, Saint Nicholas resurrected the boys from the dead and sent them back to their parents. Seeing an opportunity for the butcher to repent his sins, the butcher became Father Whipper, a sort of eternal servant, who basically acts as the bad cop to Saint Nick’s good cop.
The second story relates to the 1552-53 Siege of Metz, part of the war between France’s Henry II and the Holy Roman Empire. During the festive period, locals decided to burn an effigy of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and dragged it through the streets. A group of tanners created the Father Whipper character and based his physical appearance on the burnt effigy, a very early version of the Guy we later started putting on bonfires.
So why the name ‘Father Whipper’? Le Père Fouettard is often described as a dishevelled-looking brute in black robes, either a black or red beard, who carries a martinet (a scourge-style whip) ready to dole out beatings to naughty children. He looks like something from a horror movie and is very much the stuff of nightmares.
There is a cultural, social and religious through-line in all these folk traditions: Toe the line, say your prayers, be good to your parents and you’ll be rewarded. If not, watch out!