Christmas Past: Knecht Ruprecht

A Knecht Ruprecht costume, yours to buy from!!

Today’s Christmastime clipping is from William Beatty-Kingston’s Music and Manners: Personal Reminiscences and Sketches of Character (1887), in which the author reminsces about a festive German custom that presents children with the good-cop/bad-cop routine of the Christkind and Knecht Ruprecht…

For young Germany Christmas is the night of the three hundred and sixty-five; the great anniversary, pleasantly surrounded by a diaphanous cloud of semi-mysterious, semi-humorous attributes; the one link remaining to connect the material and immaterial worlds; the rallying-ground of all those creations of fancy that, somehow or other, have power in a land of contradictions to shed a golden glamour over the sternest materialism—to poetise knitting, as it were, and etherealise Butterbrod. On that night the children reign really in Germany, though virtually the are the obedient and even timorous subjects of various supernatural influences, the traditional incorporations of which are as real to them as Punch and Father Christmas are to the English child.

And yet I don’t know; perhaps the juvenile Fatherlanders have allowed that traitor loon Scepticism to insinuate himself into the stronghold of their unsophisticate Christmas faith of late years, for certain familiar figures-in-chief of German child-lore are less numerously represented nowadays than of yore in the market-place settlements that spring up, mushroom-like, every December a l’intention of the Berlinese rising generation in particular, Knecht Ruprecht, although one of the quaintest and most sympathetic—from the grown-up point of view—of all the fantastic figures that tenant a German child’s imagination, and furnish him with plentiful dream-matter at this season.

On Christmas Eve, at twelve o’clock, things being as the should be in the child-realm, a loud and imperious knocking should be heard at th door of the room in which the family—save one of its male members, and where can he be, I should like to know?—is assembled; whereat the hearts of those youngsters who are conscious of school-shortcomings and domestic delicts sink appreciably within their bosoms, the while their livers are turned to water. But the very extra good children feel a joyful leaping-up of the spirits, just chastened with that involuntary thrill which is suggested by the knowledge of an approaching contemplation of something decidedly outside the natural laws of every-day life. Omne ignotum pro terribili.

An impavid elder of the household opens the door. In stumps a bowed, bearded, sturdy being, dressed in a sort of rough grey cassock and a long pointed cap, with a huge sack carried over his left shoulder, and a long birch-rod tucked under his right arm. A heavy chain is loosely knotted round his waist, and clanks in a rather appalling manner as he advances towards the Familienkreis. With sharp, searching glances he takes stock of the personnel of the household, devoting an especially terrifying attention to those amongst the youngsters whose petty delinquencies suddenly appear to them to have acquired a heinousness for which no repentance can atone.

“What is your name?” (Wue heisst Du?) Knecht Ruprecht (for it is he!) suddenly thunders out to one of these self-accusers. Truly, that is an evil moment! But Knecht Ruprecht is not to be trifled with; so a squeaking voice makes an effort to gasp out a name, or the family diminutive thereof—and the interrogatory continues. He soon knows all about that youngster’s behaviour, and gets at the root of affairs; evasions make him very angry, so that his rough grey beard quite bristles up with indignation, and only the entire truth will satisfy his seasonable curiosity.

Knecht Ruprecht is not so hard upon the children, though, when their confessions are made, as might have been anticipated from the severity of his tone and the implacability of his bearing. In he very worst cases, perhaps, he administers a couple of taps, pro forma, with the rod; but mostly he develops a highly opportune forgivingness, and even displays a propensity to refer, in a promising sort of way, to the huge sack he carries on his shoulder.

At last, he gives one surpassing rattle to his chain, and, holding his hearers with his glittering eye, exclaims, “See, young ones: outside stands the Christ-child, under the window. That dear child, loving and humble, waits to hear my report about you; he wishes to make you all happy, even those who are not so good as the others; for he loves you all. But you must not see him. I am going to the window to make my report. You must all shut your eyes fast, upon honour (auf Ehre), although the lights will be out; and keep your eyes shut till you hear and say, ‘Das Christkind ist weg,’ then open them as wide as you can.”

Out go the lights, and the children (that is, the real good children, you know) shut their eyes fast. Perhaps the one or two older, sceptical little duffers, peep a little, mores the pity but they di not see any the more for that. Presently—it seems an awfully long time to the loyal children, who would not wag an eyelid for the world—the Losung is heard, and at the same moment a flash and a glitter pervade the darkness, for the door and the eyes open simultaneously, and what is this pyramid of light rolling into the room; Knecht Ruprecht has altogether vanished; the Christkind has been seen by no one, not even for a second; but here is the concrete, the dazzling, the many-hued, richly-laden, glorious result of their combined Vorspiel or Prologos; it is the Christbaum, the fruitfullest of trees, that is wheeled in on the round table that generally stands near the great china stove in the corner, and whose ordianry prosaic function is to carry Mutteerchen’s knitting-basked and Vaterchen’s tobacco-jar.

Long live Knecht Ruprecht, der treue Diener seines Herrn, as his homely old predicate signifies him to be. This household visitation of his lends a pretty and thoughtful grace to the Bescheerung, or begifting of the children, which is as settled an institution in Germany as, say, compulsory military service. No Hausvater so poor, no Hausfrau so thrifty or careworn, as to omit the Bescheerung of the little ones, be it but with a twopenny tree, illuminated with pfennig tapers and bearing groschen fruit. And for those children who have no parents—haply, no homes—public ben evolence provides a Bescheerung. Let us be joyful for that same!

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