The holidays are seen as a time of peace, goodwill, and generosity. We gather with friends and family, share gifts, and eat huge, decadent meals with all the trimmings. At the root of all of these celebrations, however, is a very dark and grim past.
The legend of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus himself, began with the tale of the Greek bishop of Myrna, a Roman town in Turkey in the late-third to the early-fourth century. As one fantastical story goes, Bishop Nicholas once discovered that an innkeeper had murdered three children and cut their bodies into pieces. And yet, Nicholas was still able to revive them!
Along with the many good deeds of this zealous Christian in a time of heavy persecution, these tales cemented Nicholas’s place as a saint, a protector of children, and a generous gift-giver. If Santa Claus himself can revive the dead, though, wait until you meet the fearsome ‘anti-Santa:’ Hans Trapp, the Christmas scarecrow!
Who Was Hans Trapp?
For as long as there has been a jolly old Saint Nick providing gifts for well-behaved children, there has been someone–or something—else filling the role of his counterpart: punishing the naughty ones. These fearsome figures range from the iconic horned Krampus to Perchta, the shape-shifting Christmas witch who fills disobedient children’s bellies with straw. The terrifying Hans Trapp is possibly the worst of all, though. One story, in particular, describes an instance in which he stabbed a child, sliced him into tiny pieces, and cooked and ate his flesh!
The legend of the Christmas scarecrow is well known in the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine. Hans Trapp, according to the story, lived in the 1400s; a rich, powerful, and merciless man who was feared by the people of Alsace. His thirst for power was so great that he turned to deals with the Devil to enhance his power and status. Hearing of this, the Pope himself excommunicated Trapp, after which he was banished from Alsace and his wealth and lands confiscated. All of which is nothing compared to what came next!
The Christmas Boogeyman
Trapp was reduced to constructing a makeshift home in the mountains of Bavaria in Germany, and the legend goes on. Here, he continued to brood and his evil desires festered. He developed a hankering to try the taste of human flesh. Finally, he became the dreaded Christmas scarecrow: adorned in straw as a disguise, he waited on lonely roads for a victim.
A boy aged around ten happened across his path one day, and Trapp stabbed the unfortunate shepherd’s boy with a vicious sharp stick. With the body safely back at his lair, Trapp sliced it into pieces and roasted it, but before he could eat, he was struck by a divine lightning bolt and killed. Today, naughty children are warned that Hans Trapp’s spirit lingers on and that he may visit them in his scarecrow disguise if they don’t mend their ways. A popular boogeyman and a frightening tall tale, you may think, but nothing more than that. Sadly, though, we’ve got some bad news: the story seems to have been inspired by the incredible true tale of a real person!
The Man Who Inspired The Legend?
Hans von Trotha was a knight who lived from 1450 to 1503. He commanded two castles in the Palatine (French/German) territory but became embroiled in an argument with the church over the property in one of them. The abbot would not concede certain properties to von Trotha, so the embittered knight stopped the supply of water to the nearby town of Weissenburg with a dam. In retaliation, the abbot had the dam destroyed, which flooded the villagers’ homes and businesses. The dispute continued until, just as with Hans Trapp, the knight was summoned by the Pope himself and excommunicated!
While there’s no record of von Trotha turning to cannibalism and hunting children while dressed as a scarecrow, what we know of Hans von Trotha’s life is also extraordinary. Even the Emperor’s intervention wasn’t enough to put a stop to the knight’s battle with the abbot of Weissenburg Abbey, which is exactly why Pope Innocent VIII came into the picture in the first place. On his summoning to successor Alexander VI’s Papal court, von Trotha refused to attend. Instead, he sent a letter to the Pope which expounded on von Trotha’s faith while accusing the Pope of all manner of impure acts!
Even excommunicated, the wily von Trotha did well for himself. Serving the French royal court, he was given the Chevalier d’Or by King Louis XII. On his death, all charges against him were reversed and forgiven. Something of his notoriety lived on, though, and not only in Hans Trapp. Local legends also referred to him as the Black Knight, a formidable specter that was also sometimes said to accompany Santa Claus and punish children who were unworthy of gifts.
By Chris Littlechild, contributor for Ripleys.com