During the Middle Ages, the Dutch referred
to the Devil as Black Peter. Gradually, the antithesis of Christmas found
his way into Christmas folklore in Holland.
A legend existed that St. Nicholas put
the Devil in chains and made him his slave. Each St. Nicholas Day it was
believed that the Devil himself was working under orders from Saint Nick.
The good Saint would direct “Black Peter” to drop gifts and candy down
the chimneys into the children’s shoes which were always there on St.
Nicholas Eve. Eventually, the practice was carried over to Christmas which
was actually a few weeks later. I
Gradually, the legend gave “Black Peter”
a role in St. Nicholas’ decision making as to what the Dutch children
should receive for Christmas. The naughty ones and the lazy ones would be
spirited away during the night by Black Peter, or punished with a birch
rod. St. Nicholas would always force this evil slave to reward the good
children with gifts. The fate of the naughty children was often spared by
St. Nicholas at the last moment in some cultures, subject to a promise to
be good during the following year. Depending on which legend one followed
during these times the names for Black Peter varied from Hans Trapp to
Knecht Ruppert to Krampus.
Interestingly, depictions of Black Peter
became an early form of political satire. St. Nick’s devilish little
helper was often dressed in Spanish clothing. It is thought that Peter’s
attire Was: a subtle protest against the Spanish rule of Holland during
this era. Adding to this theory is the legend that the place to which
Black Peter would take the errant children after their abduction was none
other than Spain itself.
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