The Tale of Père Fouettard

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In Northern France, there's a story about a companion of Santa Claus. If your mind jumped to singing elves, flying reindeer, or a jolly abominable snowman, then clearly you didn't grow up in that part of the world, and you've also probably forgotten who wrote what you're reading right now.

It's a story about a man known as Père Fouettard, and as you can see, he doesn't quite fit in with those toymaking elves, playful reindeer, or the kindhearted abominable snowman living in the North Pole.

A terrifying statue of an unholy looking evil creature with horns.
A statue of Père Fouettard. Photo by Lidine Mia, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pronunciation & Meaning

The pronunciation is always simple when there's a native speaker recording available. Luckily, there is for Père Fouettard. I sometimes create my own pronunciation guides, but it's pretty tricky to do with French because the sounds just don't really map well to anything in English, and the IPA (/pɛʁ fwɛ.taʁ/) is useless to anyone who doesn't know IPA. So, unless someone comes up with English words that even remotely resemble the French pronunciation of Père Fouettard, we'll just stick with the recording.

As far as meaning goes, it's reasonably straightforward. The French word "Père" means "father." The French word "Fouettard" comes from the root "fouet," which means "whip."

If you go Googling "fouet," you'll find images mostly of whisks with the occasional whip mixed in.

A father laughing as his daughter strings along a kid's entrails from a whisk.
"Father! Father! Why is Tiny Tim so stringy?"
"Because he's a bastard, of course."

The suffix "ard" comes from Old French, and you'll find it in (usually pejorative) nouns denoting persons who regularly engage in an activity or are characterized in a certain way. (e.g., coward, dullard, drunkard, wizard) Of course, not all words that end with "ard" are formed or mean this.

Biohazard keyboard whitherward.

Lizard nard.

Put that all together, and you get "Father Whipper."

Weirdly, some French-to-English dictionaries translate "Père Fouettard" to "Bogeyman." Fouettard doesn't actually mean bogeyman, but it is still quite fitting.

Who Is Père Fouettard?

One chilly night in the year of the Lord, 1252, an innkeeper welcomed three boys for a stay on their long journey to enroll in a religious boarding school. Little did the boys know when they entered the inn that the innkeeper and his wife caught the scent of affluence about them—on their fine clothes, their well-educated manner of speaking, and their disregard for the price of a stay.

In hushed tones and whispered words, the two owners of the inn made a pact to rob the three boys. But they couldn't simply take their money and set them out on the road. So, after the boys paid for their stay, the innkeeper and his wife served them a special meal that put them to sleep at the table. The innkeeper tiptoed around the room, careful not to wake the boys. He smiled as he slit each of their throats before carrying them to the kitchen, where he and his wife chopped them into little pieces and stewed them in a barrel.

The ever-watchful St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, felt the atrocities as they unfolded and resolved to make it right. He came and resurrected the murdered children, retrieving them from the clutches of death and reassembling their dismemberment. Though their bodies were restored, the scars of torment from their horrific deaths were forever etched upon their souls.

The innkeeper cowered in the corner as he saw St. Nicholas at work, undoing his crimes.

Good St. Nicholas, divine power coursing through his blood, cursed the innkeeper to an eternity of penance for the heinous murders. The innkeeper's body twisted into a shadowy figure as he was doomed to serve at the side of St. Nicholas.

The innkeeper's new job?

Père Fouettard—Father Whipper—Forever etching the punishment of whippings upon the souls of misbehaving children.

Because that makes sense.🤨

I guess the worst punishment for someone who enjoys murdering children is to be given the official job of torturing children?

This bit of folklore never mentions why St. Nicholas didn't stop the innkeeper and his wife from poisoning the boys, slitting their throats, or dismembering their bodies to make stew. It also doesn't mention what happened to the innkeeper's wife while St. Nicholas was busy unleashing divine retribution in the form of an eternal curse on the innkeeper.

All over the world, there are terrifying stories told to children. Some say these are cautionary or instructional—to teach or protect. But one has to wonder, where did they truly originate? And why are many of them so horrifying? Not that I'm complaining. They make great horror stories. I'm just not sure that telling a kid about an evil child murderer coming to whip them if they don't take out the trash is the best way to see that the chores get done.

Then again, I don't have kids, so I'm just guessing.

There's one thing I know for sure: these tales don't work on cats.

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