Père Fouettard (literally: "Father Whipper") is the companion of Saint Nicholas in Northern and Eastern France and in the south of Belgium. His role is to scare and to (threaten to) punish the naughty children during their visits on the evening of 5 December, or 6 December. (A more extreme, demonic version of this character, known as Krampus, appears in Austro-Hungarian folklore.)
The most popular story about the origin of Père Fouettard was first told in the year 1150. An innkeeper (or in other versions a butcher) captures three boys who appear to be wealthy and on their way to enroll in a religious boarding school. Along with his wife, he kills the children in order to rob them. One gruesome version tells that they drug the children, slit their throats, cut them into pieces, and stew them in a barrel. St. Nicholas discovers the crime and resurrects the children. After this, Père Fouettard repents and becomes St. Nick's partner. A slightly altered version of this story claims that St. Nicholas forced Père Fouettard to become his assistant as a punishment for his crimes.
Another story states that during the Siege of Metz (a city in Eastern France) in 1552, an effigy of king Charles Quint was burned and dragged through the city. Meanwhile, an association of tanners created a grotesque character (also a tanner) armed with a whip and bound in chains that punished children. After Metz was liberated, the charred effigy of Charles Quint and the character created by the tanners somehow assimilated into what is now known as Père Fouettard. Events surrounding the city's liberation and the burning of the effigy coincided with the passage of St. Nicholas, hence Père Fouettard became his "bad cop" counterpart.
In the 1930s, Père Fouettard appeared in the United States under the translated name Father Flog or Spanky. Although almost identical to the original French personification, Father Flog had nothing to do with Christmas and also had a female accomplice named Mother Flog. The two doled out specific punishments for specific childhood crimes (e.g. cutting out the tongue for lying).
Père Fouettard has no precise appearance but it may be that he took inspiration from all similar characters at France's northern and eastern borders -- the German Pelzmärtel, Knecht Ruprecht, Rubelz in Lorraine, the Alsacian Hans Trapp, Houseker in Luxembourg, Hanscrouf in Belgium, the Swiss Schmutzli, even the Dutch Zwarte Piet, although the latter is not a punisher but a much more light-hearted character. Père Fouettard can also have the more friendly role to help Saint Nicholas distribute small gifts to all children.
Père Fouettard is not to be confused with the similar figure of Monsieur Croque-Mitaine.
Drawing of Père Fouettard by Davcha
- Le Père Fouettard (coloured engraving, 1842)
- Vintage photo of Père Fouettard showing his martinet to a scared girl
- Vintage postcard of Père Fouettard and his martinet
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