Santa in Literature: Theodor Storm’s “Knecht Ruprecht” and DEATH as Department Store Santa in Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather”

24 Festive Tasks: Door 6 – St. Nicholas’ Day / Sinterklaas, Task 2:

Share with us a paragraph / quote / description / image of your favorite Santa Claus / St. Nick depiction in popular culture, and then tell us why it resonates with you?”

E.g., here is the description of Father Christmas from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

“It was a sledge, and it was reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the Witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world—the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.

The text that first formed my childhood image of St. Nick is Theodor Storm’s 1862 poem Knecht Ruprecht — it’s named for St. Nick’s companion, but the description given is actually that popularly associated with St. Nick himself. This poem is something like Germany’s The Night Before Christmas. I think Storm went for Knecht Ruprecht instead because (1) the poem contains a dialogue with Jesus (“the Christ Child”), who according to German tradition is seen as the giver of Christmas gifts alongside Santa, and the proper order needed to be maintained; and possibly (2) also because Storm was Protestant and may have been reluctant to specifically name a poem for a figure based on a Catholic saint. (Lillelara will know better than me whether / to what extent Knecht Ruprecht, to this day, supersedes St. Nick in Northern Germany).

Here’s the text, with an English translation by Denis Jackson, found on this website:
http://www.theodorstorm.co.uk/Life/knechtRuprecht.htm

Von drauß’ vom Wald komm ich her;
ich muss euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Allüberall auf den Tannenspitzen
sah ich goldene Lichtlein sitzen;
und droben aus dem Himmelstor
sah mit großen Augen das Christkind hervor.

Und wie ich so strolcht’ durch den finstern Tann,
da rief’s mich mit heller Stimme an:
“Knecht Ruprecht”, rief es, “alter Gesell,
hebe die Beine und spute dich schnell!
Die Kerzen fangen zu brennen an,
das Himmelstor ist aufgetan.

Alt’ und Junge sollen nun
von der Jagd des Lebens einmal ruhn;
und morgen flieg ich hinab zur Erden;
denn es soll wieder Weihnachten werden!”

Ich sprach: “O lieber Herre Christ,
meine Reise fast zu Ende ist;
ich soll nur noch in diese Stadt,
wo’s eitel gute Kinder hat.”

“Hast denn das Säcklein auch bei dir?”
Ich sprach: “Das Säcklein, das ist hier:
Denn Äpfel, Nuss und Mandelkern
essen fromme Kinder gern.”

“Hast denn die Rute auch bei dir?”
Ich sprach: “Die Rute, die ist hier;
doch für die Kinder nur, die schlechten,
die trifft sie auf den Teil, den rechten.’
Christkindlein sprach: “So ist es recht!
So geh mit Gott, mein treuer Knecht!”

Von drauß’ vom Walde komm ich her;
ich muss euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Nun sprecht, wie ich’s hier drinnen find!
Sind’s gute Kind sind’s böse Kind?

From out the forest I now appear,
To proclaim that Christmastide is here!
For at the top of every tree
are golden lights for all to see;
and there from Heaven’s gate on high
I saw our Christ-child in the sky.

And in among the darkened trees,
a loud voice it was that called to me:
‘Knecht Ruprecht, old fellow,’ it cried,
‘hurry now, make haste, don’t hide!
All the candles have now been lit —
Heaven’s gate has opened wide!

Both young and old should now have rest
away from cares and daily stress;
and when tomorrow to earth I fly
“it’s Christmas again!” will be the cry.’

And then I said: ‘O Lord so dear.
My journey’s end is now quite near;
but to this town* I’ve still to go,
Where the children are good, I know.’

‘But have you then that great sack?’
‘I have,’ I said, ‘it’s on my back.
For apples, almonds, fruit and nuts
For God-fearing children are a must.’

‘And is that cane there by your side?’
‘The cane’s there too,’ I did reply;
but only for those, those naughty ones,
who have it applied to their backsides.’
The Christ-child spoke: ‘Then that’s all right!
My loyal servant, go with God this night!’

From out the forest I now appear;
To proclaim that Christmastide is here!
Now speak, what is there here to be had?
Are there good children, are there bad?


And by way of a total contrast, here’s my favorite incarnation of St. Nick these days, which cracks me up every single time — DEATH as a department store Santa, from Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather:

Someone was sitting in the big chair. There was a child on his knee. The figure was … strange. It was definitely in something like a Hogfather costume but Mr Crumley’s eye kept slipping, it wouldn’t focus, it skittered away and tried to put the figure on the very edge of vision. It was like trying to look at your own ear.

‘What’s going on here? What’s going on here?’ Crumley demanded.

[…]

Behind Crumley, a voice said:

AND WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR HOGSWATCH, SMALL HUMAN?

Mr Crumley turned in horror.

In front of — well, he had to think of it as the usurping Hogfather — was a small child of indeterminate sex who seemed to be mostly woollen bobble hat.

Mr Crumley knew how it was supposed to go. It was supposed to go like this: the child was always struck dumb and the attendant mother would lean forward and catch the Hogfather’s eye and say very pointedly, in that voice adults use when they’re conspiring against children: ‘You want a Baby Tinkler Doll, don’t you, Doreen? And the Just Like Mummy Cookery Set you’ve got in the window. And the Cut-Out Kitchen Range Book. And what do you say?’

And the stunned child would murmur ‘’nk you’ and get given a balloon or an orange.

This time, though, it didn’t work like that.

Mother got as far as ‘You want a—’

WHY ARE YOUR HANDS ON BITS OF STRING, CHILD?

The child looked down the length of its arms to the dangling mittens affixed to its sleeves. It held them up for inspection.

‘Glubs,’ it said.

I SEE. VERY PRACTICAL.

‘Are you weal?’ said the bobble hat.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

The bobble hat sniggered. ‘I saw your piggie do a wee!’ it said, and implicit in the tone was the suggestion that this was unlikely to be dethroned as the most enthralling thing the bobble hat had ever seen.

OH. ER … GOOD.

‘It had a gwate big—’

WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR HOGSWATCH? said the Hogfather hurriedly.

Mother took her economic cue again, and said briskly: ‘She wants a—’

The Hogfather snapped his fingers impatiently. The mother’s mouth slammed shut.

The child seemed to sense that here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and spoke quickly. ‘I wanta narmy. Anna big castle wif pointy bits,’ said the child. ‘Anna swored.’

WHAT DO YOU SAY? prompted the Hogfather.

‘A big swored?’ said the child, after a pause for deep cogitation.

THAT’S RIGHT.

Uncle Heavy nudged the Hogfather.

‘They’re supposed to thank you,’ he said.

ARE YOU SURE? PEOPLE DON’T, NORMALLY.

‘I meant they thank the Hogfather,’ Albert hissed. ‘Which is you, right?’

YES, OF COURSE. AHEM. YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO SAY THANK YOU.

‘’nk you.’

AND BE GOOD. THIS IS PART OF THE ARRANGEMENT.

‘’es.’

THEN WE HAVE A CONTRACT. The Hogfather reached into his sack and produced—

— a very large model castle with, as correctly interpreted, pointy blue cone roofs on turrets suitable for princesses to be locked in — a box of several hundred assorted knights and warriors—

— and a sword. It was four feet long and glinted along the blade.

The mother took a deep breath.

‘You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’

IT’S A SWORD, said the Hogfather. THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.

‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.

IT’S EDUCATIONAL.

‘What if she cuts herself?’

THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.

Uncle Heavy whispered urgently.

REALLY? OH, WELL. IT’S NOT FOR ME TO ARGUE, I SUPPOSE.

The blade went wooden.

‘And she doesn’t want all that other stuff!’ said Doreen’s mother, in the face of previous testimony. ‘She’s a girl! Anyway, I can’t afford big posh stuff like that!’

I THOUGHT I GAVE IT AWAY, said the Hogfather, sounding bewildered.

‘You do?’ said the mother.

‘You do?’ said Crumley, who’d been listening in horror. ‘You don’t! That’s our Merchandise! You can’t give it away! Hogswatch isn’t about giving it all away! I mean … yes, of course, of course things are given away,’ he corrected himself, aware that people were watching, ‘but first they have to be bought, d’you see, I mean … haha.’ He laughed nervously, increasingly aware of the strangeness around him and the rangy look of Uncle Heavy. ‘It’s not as though the toys are made by little elves at the Hub, ahaha …’

‘Damn right,’ said Uncle Heavy sagely. ‘You’d have to be a maniac even to think of giving an elf a chisel, less’n you want their initials carved on your forehead.’

‘You mean this is all free?’ said Doreen’s mother sharply, not to be budged from what she saw as the central point.

Mr Crumley looked helplessly at the toys. They certainly didn’t look like any of his stock.

Then he tried to look hard at the new Hogfather. Every cell in his brain was telling him that here was a fat jolly man in a red and white suit.

Well … nearly every cell. A few of the sparkier ones were saying that his eyes were reporting something else, but they couldn’t agree on what. A couple had shut down completely.

The words escaped through his teeth.

‘It … seems to be,’ he said.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Death found, to his amazement, that dealing with the queue was very enjoyable. Hardly anyone had ever been pleased to see him before.

NEXT! AND WHAT’S YOUR NAME, LITTLE … He hesitated, but rallied, and continued … PERSON?

‘Nobby Nobbs, Hogfather,’ said Nobby. Was it him, or was this knee he was sitting on a lot bonier than it should be? His buttocks argued with his brain, and were sat on.

AND HAVE YOU BEEN A GOOD BO … A GOOD DWA … A GOOD GNO … A GOOD INDIVIDUAL?

And suddenly Nobby found he had no control at all of his tongue. Of its own accord, gripped by a terrible compulsion, it said: ‘’s.’

He struggled for self-possession as the great voice went on: so I EXPECT YOU’LL WANT A PRESENT FOR A GOOD MON … A GOOD HUM … A GOOD MALE?

Aha, got you bang to rights, you’ll be coming along with me, my old chummy, I bet you don’t remember the cellar at the back of the shoelace maker’s in Old Cobblers, eh, all those Hogswatch mornings with a little hole in my world, eh?

The words rose in Nobby’s throat but were overridden by something ancient before they reached his voice box, and to his amazement were translated into: ‘’s.’

SOMETHING NICE?

‘’s.’

There was hardly anything left of Nobby’s conscious will now. The world consisted of nothing but his naked soul and the Hogfather, who filled the universe.

AND YOU WILL OF COURSE BE GOOD FOR ANOTHER YEAR?

The tiny remnant of basic Nobbyness wanted to say, ‘Er, how exactly do you define “good”, mister? Like, suppose there was just some stuff that no one’d miss, say? Or, f’r instance, say a friend of mine was on patrol, sort of thing, and found a shopkeeper had left his door unlocked at night. I mean, anyone could walk in, right, but suppose this friend took one or two things, sort of like, you know, a gratuity, and then called the shopkeeper out and got him to lock up, that counts as “good”, does it?’

Good and bad were, to Nobby’s way of thinking, entirely relative terms. Most of his relatives, for example, were criminals. But, again, this invitation to philosophical debate was ambushed somewhere in his head by sheer dread of the big beard in the sky.

‘’s,’ he squeaked.

NOW, I WONDER WHAT YOU WOULD LIKE?

Nobby gave up, and sat mute. Whatever was going to happen next was going to happen, and there was not a thing he could do about it … Right now, the light at the end of his mental tunnel showed only more tunnel.

AH, YES…

The Hogfather reached into his sack and pulled out an awkwardly shaped present wrapped in festive Hogswatch paper which, owing to some slight confusion on the current Hogfather’s part, had merry ravens on it. Corporal Nobbs took it in nervous hands.

WHAT DO YOU SAY?

‘’nk you.’

OFF YOU GO.”

 

 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Other Hogfather-related Posts:
16 Tasks of the Festive Season – Hogfather Buddy Read
Terry Pratchett: Hogfather – The Bathroom
Terry Pratchett: Hogfather – FTB Enabled
Terry Pratchett / Ian Stewart / Jack Cohen: The Science of Discworld
Hogfather Buddy Read
24 Festive Tasks: Door 23 – Hogswatch
Terry Pratchett: Hogfather – The Boot Menu
Glingleglingleglingle
Hogswatch – Door 23
My Favorite Discworld Characters
Sleigh Rides
Terry Pratchett: Hogfather (Annual Reread)
Bloody Stupid Johnson
Terry Pratchett: Hogfather (Annual Holiday Read)

 

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