Every December 6, kids throughout eastern France are visited by the benevolent St. Nicholas. He—or, rather, someone dressed like him—shows up at schools, daycare centers, and homes just to put treats and little presents in the shoes of good children. But during every visit, an eerie figure sticks by St. Nick’s side. Père Fouettard, or “Father Whipper,” has a haggard, menacing appearance, complete with a scraggly black beard, and he always carries a whip on his hip. He’s a butcher whose favorite pastime is eating children, though nowadays he usually settles for (threatening to) whip or give coal to bad kids.
Where did such a wild figure come from? And why is he called “Father Whipper”?
St. Nicholas has been a prominent figure in eastern France since at least 1477, when he was named patron saint of the Lorraine region. One of the most famous tales about the saint concerns his confrontation with a child-eating butcher. The butcher, the legend says, had killed and chopped up three lost children, then stored their meat in a barrel of salt. But that night, St. Nicholas knocked on his door, asking for a meal. Fearing the consequences of feeding human flesh to the then-bishop, the butcher lied and claimed he had no food left. So instead, Nicholas reportedly asked for some salt—and the butcher knew he had been found out.
The butcher was forced to confess to his crimes, and St. Nicholas, putting three fingers on the barrel, resurrected the children completely unharmed. The butcher, meanwhile, was chained to St. Nick’s donkey and forced to become his offputting companion.
But there’s also a more real-world version of the story. In 1552, the Holy Roman Empire, led by Emperor Charles V, laid siege to the city of Metz. The unhappy French residents created a hideous effigy of Charles V, which they then burned and dragged through the streets. Because the effigy was made by the local tanners’ guild, who customarily wore whips, they gave the effigy his own whip—making him Père Fouettard. When the city was liberated the following year, the deformed effigy was brought back out to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas.
“It’s likely that the stories of the butcher and Père Fouettard merged over time,” Nadia Hardy, a historical guide in Nancy, France, told Atlas Obscura. And so the legend was born.
Isn’t a Christmas monster kind of strange?
Believe it or not, malevolent Christmas figures aren’t actually all that rare. It turns out that terrifying monsters do a pretty good job of keeping kids in line, especially around important times like the holidays. And since Christmas traditions are often an amalgamation of Christian and pagan traditions, all kinds of characters based on local folklore have cropped up. The important thing is that someone besides St. Nick is doing the dirty work. Figures like Père Fouettard and the famous Germanic Krampus are purposefully horrifying, serving as a counterpart to St. Nick’s kindness and generosity. After all, the patron saint of children can’t exactly go around handing out coal and threatening the little ones.
Besides, the drama of Père Fouettard’s story makes for some great Christmas entertainment. Every year, cities in eastern France hold annual St. Nicholas parades, during which they reenact the story of St. Nicholas saving the day and foiling Père Fouettard’s cannibalistic plot. The three children—previously “sliced up” and “salted”—are brought back to life, while Père Fouettard becomes St. Nick’s unwitting sidekick. In Nancy, the reenactment even finishes with the mayor giving St. Nicholas a pair of keys to the town.
Unfortunately for French kids, St. Nick’s victory doesn’t mean they get off scot-free. Père Fouettard still stands at the ready to make sure they don’t mouth off too much or neglect their homework.