Father Christmas and His Assistant Père Fouettard

December 6th is St. Nicholas Day

Saint Nicholas Day is December 6th.

In many parts of the world this day is celebrated with St. Nicholas visiting cities and homes where he distributes gifts to children.

This tradition goes back to the Middle Ages and earlier which is why it has been able to survive both the Protestant Reformation with its efforts to do away with the veneration of saints and the secular revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which sought to restrict or abolish religious practices altogether.

However, while people refused to give up popular traditions and holidays like St. Nicholas Day, some compromise was in order with the result that the traditions surrounding St. Nicholas and his feast day have evolved and changed with the times.

Me working as Santa Claus
Me working as Santa Claus | Source

With his feast day being so close to Christmas, the celebration of St. Nicholas day and Christmas tended to merge in many countries with St. Nicholas becoming a part of the Christmas celebration and his feast day downplayed.

In many places he also under went a name change becoming Father Christmas in England and some of her dominions, Père Noël (which translates to Father Christmas) in France, Santa Claus (this was not really a name change since it is the anglicized form St. Nicholas in Dutch which is Sinterklaas) in the United States, etc.

St. Nicholas dropping gifts down a chimney.  Character by horse is Zwarte Piet the Dutch version of Père Fouettard.
St. Nicholas dropping gifts down a chimney. Character by horse is Zwarte Piet the Dutch version of Père Fouettard.
Père Fouettard with a sack full of birch rods for spanking naughty children.
Père Fouettard with a sack full of birch rods for spanking naughty children.

Père Fouettard Accompanies St. Nicholas in France

In France it is Père Noël who distributes gifts to good little children. Now days he generally distributes gifts on Christmas Eve except in eastern France where the old traditions persist and he observes the traditional St. Nicholas Day by distributing his gifts on the night of December 5th.

In France Père Noël is traditionally accompanied by an assistant named Père Fouettard. Père Fouettard has been accompanying Père Noël since at least the Middle Ages, making him a part of a long tradition associated with the season.

Fouettard has a dark, ruffian like appearance and in the past his task was to punish the children who had been bad while St. Nicholas / Père Noël rewarded the good children with gifts.

In the past, children were told that Fouettard would punish children who had been bad with a spanking while Père Noël would reward those who had been good with candy or other small gift. Like Père Noël / St. Nicholas, Fouettard has evolved with the times and in our present, kinder and gentler era, his role as the spanker of naughty children is downplayed or not mentioned at all.

Père Fouettard's connection to St. Nicholas dates back to the fourth century and his story actually represents both the existence of evil in the world and God's infinite mercy. According to legend, Fouettard is the butcher in the legend of St. Nicholas and the three boys.

Among the many loving miracles attributed to St. Nicholas is the story of his bringing back to life three young boys who had been murdered by a wicked butcher.

One version of the story tells of a famine in the land and three young boys who become lost while out searching the fields for food missed by the harvest. In other versions the boys simply become lost while wandering in the fields. As night begins to descend they spy a butcher's shop and knock on the door seeking shelter for the night. The butcher opens the door and invites them in.

But, instead of giving them food and shelter for the night, the butcher kills the boys and then hacks their bodies to pieces and throws the pieces into a barrel of brine (salt water) along with a butchered pig that he is preserving in the brine. His intention, of course, is to increase his profit by including the boys' remains as part of the pork he is selling.

Some time later there is another knock at the door and when the butcher opens the door he sees St. Nicholas standing in the doorway.

Since the butcher's encounter with St. Nicholas occurred after the death of the saint, the butcher instantly knows that St. Nicholas has come for the murdered boys. Stepping past the butcher,

St. Nicholas makes his way to the barrel and tells the three boys to arise and come to him. All three are immediately made whole and come to life. Stepping out of the barrel, the boys spoke of being asleep and dreaming of Heaven.

Watching from his position by the doorway, the butcher suddenly became remorseful and repentant for what he had done. St. Nicholas assured him that God forgave all sinners who repented regardless of the sin.

Feeling both ashamed for what he had done and gratitude toward St. Nicholas for undoing the damage resulting from his crime, the butcher chose to follow St. Nicholas from the shop and has been at the saint's side through the ages, not as the slave or servant of the saint but as a loyal follower showing his gratitude by helping where he can.

At least that is the story, or a variation of the story, that has been told in France and the surrounding areas for centuries about how Père Fouettard came to accompany St. Nicholas.

© 2007 Chuck Nugent

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Comments 10 comments

Terrible-at-French 4 years ago

thank you fr\or this Hub. :D it helped me write my speech for my sophomore french class. Now if only i could have it translated.. :P

Ferry 5 years ago

It's right that santa claus is made up from Saint Nicholas, but thanks to that, we have 2 old men with white beards who give presents. In our countries is the holy Nicholas number 1 about presents giving, he also arrives with steamboat, middle November and rides a white horse. When the holy Nicholas is leaving at December 6 Santa Claus with the Reindeers and stuff takes his place.In the old days we had Santa most as dummies, candle shapes, in snowglobes, Christmas cards, ect. Santa only appeared on tv. Christmas was in our Countries not used as the presents time. These days it is. We mostly do eating, family meetings, party and going to church at December 24-25. We put the Christmas trees down at December 6 or 7, in the old days it was about middle December.

Ferry 5 years ago

For all Foreign Countries, there's Double feast in the Netherlands and Belgium, The holiday of the holy Bishop Saint Nicholas is in Netherlands at December 5 and in Belgium at December 6, that's 3 weeks before Christmas. There's also the Santa Claus or Father Christmas at December 24-25-26. In our Countries Saint Nicholas and Santa are 2 different persons. We call the holy Nicholas; Sinterklaas or Sint Nicolaas, in Southern Belgium Saint Nicolas. We call Santa/ Father Christmas: Kerstman in Southern Belgium and France: Pere Noel. These there's double presents time and we Don't have Chrsitmas trees and stuff till the holy Nicholas holiday is over. Those holiday's are celebrated apart from each other in our countries.

Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Prosperity66 - thans for your comment and for sharing the additional information you provided.

Prosperity66 7 years ago

In Belgium, wise children put their slippers under their bed and the very next morning, by the magic of Saint Nicholas, they are filled with chocolates. We do it for a week before December 6th.

According to Wikipedia, Père Fouettard is the French name for The Whipping Father but is also generally called Black Pete by English speaking people ;-)

However, not sure that Père Fouettard accompanies Santa Claus (Père Noël) in France, it's just a Saint Nicholas companion and in France he only visits the Eastern region (Alsace and Lorraine).

Maria C. Mackiewicz 8 years ago

It is very interesting but the part about the butchered children horrified some of the girls in my sixth grade class. From then on, I never translated it.

chabrenas profile image

chabrenas 8 years ago from middle of France

Great article. Around this part of France (Limousin) we often see Mère Noël as well. Don't know why - perhaps because there are plety of women aroundto help.

Whitney05 profile image

Whitney05 8 years ago from Georgia

I found this very interesting. It is packed with info and tidbits that I wasn't aware of. It seems St. Nick has a secret life I was just let into. :-) Ha

Lowrychris profile image

Lowrychris 8 years ago

Amazing Hub! And people wonder where I come up with my ideas for horror movies?! I don't, I just borrow the legends. Change the time of year, and turn the three young boys into a young couple and their goofy friend and you've got six of the last eight horror films put out by Dimension! Thanks!

Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

In the north-eastern part of Belgium Pere Fouettard was called Hans Muff and he helped Bishop Nicholaus with punishing the bad children while visiting the schools on December 6th.

On the night from the 5th of December we also had to leave our cleaned shoes by the window. Usually a nice loot of chocolate, cookies and nuts was left there for the good and a few pieces of charcoal for the bad kids.

Great HUB regards Zsuzsy

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