LONDON, Dec. 20, 2009 -- What's not to love about Santa Claus? He's jolly, kind, patient and, with a workshop full of scurrying little elves, he makes children's dreams come true. Santa depicts the soul of goodness and the spirit of Christmas itself -- at least in America.
Elsewhere, Santa has a much darker side.
The Netherlands' Sinterklaas does have a white beard and a big book with children's names in it, much like the gentle Santa who keep a list of who's naughty and nice, but he also goes about with a posse of soot-covered sidekicks called "Black Peters." If Sinterklaas' records show a child to have been particularly bad, legend has it he or she could be carried off by a Black Peter to be turned into a cookie.
Dutch journalist and filmmaker Arnold-Jan Scheer has studied St. Nicholas' scary side. He says some parents feel it's good for their children to be taunted and intimidated by St. Nick's helpers.
"I think the mother thinks, well, this is tradition, this is part of life, this is how it has to be," Scheer said. "Children need to be confronted with their fears."
In parts of France, St. Nicholas is accompanied by a cannibalistic child killer named Père Fouettard (or the "Whipping Father"). He flogs children who have been naughty and dispenses lumps of coal, leaving St. Nick to bestow gifts to the good. In village parades this time of year, sinister Père Fouettards grab children and whisk them along, while some cry in fear and others taunt him back.
In parts of Austria, it's worse still. When St. Nicholas makes a house call, he is accompanied by a demon named Krampus. While St. Nick rewards good children, Krampus beats the bad ones. Wearing fierce-looking masks, horns and animals skins, he overturns tables, sets fires, and grabs adults and children to spank them while St. Nicholas watches from the sidelines.
Children Scream and Run Away From Scary Santa Sidekicks
Scheer has filmed Santa's scary sidekicks in action throughout Europe.He's captured scenes of children screaming and reaching for their mothers. The mothers themselves scream as Krampus comes for adults, too.
"There is an understanding that if you're around during this rampage, yes, you could be attacked, you could be wounded," Scheer said.
Rev. Canon James Rosenthal, the president of the St. Nicholas Center, has studied the roots of the holiday legend.
"Why do they do it? ... They wanted to tell the story of good versus evil," he says. "Nicholas is good and the devil is bad."
Clearly, the gentle image of Santa and his elf helpers that American children grow to love isn't the one that some European children grow up with.
"I don't think the children are completely traumatized," the filmmaker Arnold-Jan Scheer says. "But it is definitely something that stays with them."