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Hans Trapp is the terror of Alsatian nightlife. Riding his black horse, he roams the northern Alsatian countryside with a bang. On the eve of St Nicholas’ Day, he proudly takes part in the procession of the holy man in Wissembourg and other towns in the region. Here is a short presentation of the bogeyman of Alsatian children’s nightmares.

 

Who is Hans Trapp?

In Alsace, three Christmas characters co-exist:

  • Christkindel officiates at Christmas to distribute gifts to children.
  • Saint-Nicolas rewards children who have been good during the past year, AND then there is :
  • Hans Trapp: a bloodthirsty brute who punishes naughty children.

Is Père Fouettard terrorising the children of Lorraine? The toddlers of Alsace should also beware because the frightening Hans Trapp lurks around. The Vosges mountains have done things well: each side, Alsatian or Lorraine, has its terror of the 6th of December.

That said, outside the regions of north-eastern France, Hans Trapp is still very little known, unlike the Père Fouettard of Lorraine, whose fame has spread beyond the French countryside.

Nevertheless, the character of Hans Trapp deserved an article on my blog. You’ll get your money’s worth if you like stories about evening wakes. Because the story of the abominable Trapp would be more appropriate for Halloween than Christmas. Let’s go back in time to the 16th century.

 

The knight Hans von Trotha

Let’s head for the Wissembourg region in the extreme north of Alsace, bordering the German Palatinate. In the 15th century, there was no border between France and Germany at Wissembourg, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire.

Berwartstein - Hans Trapp castle © Ulli1105 - license [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Berwartstein Castle © Ulli1105 – license [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The story of Hans Trapp begins at Berwartstein Castle in the Palatinate. This pink sandstone fortress, located 15 km north of Wissembourg, was awarded in 1480 to a certain Hans von Trotha (or John of Dratt) by the Elector of the Palatinate.

The knight von Trotha, born around 1450 in Krosigk (today in Saxony-Anhalt), was praised for his merits. A few years later, the Prince even raised him to the prestigious rank of Marshal of the Prince-Electors of the Palatinate.

The Elector had acquired Berwartstein Castle and its outbuildings 30 years earlier, in 1450.

The abbot of Wissembourg, the former owner of the site, protested that things had not been done correctly. He denounced the existence of irregularities in the acquisition of the Berwartstein castle. In fact, when the monks learned that the castle had been given to an ambitious “foreigner”, they appealed to the Elector in Heidelberg. The latter decided in favour of Hans von Trotha!

 

The revenge of Hans von Trotha

Wissembourg at Christmas © French Moments
Christmas in Wissembourg © French Moments

The monks must have given the knight so much grief that he had the idea of retaliation. What was crucial for a town in the Middle Ages? Access to water.

And so Trotha built a dam on the Wieslauter, which supplied the city of Wissembourg with water. In doing so, he had the watercourse diverted upstream from the town. It led to the formation of an artificial which flooded the abbot’s land.

The monks, furious and distraught, protested and demanded that the water be returned to their town. Trotha mischievously broke through the dam. The water rushed down the hill and seriously flooded Wissembourg. This disaster caused severe economic damage to the town.

 

The Pope’s punishment

The abbot appealed several times to the Holy Roman Emperor. In vain. He had one remaining recourse: an appeal to the Pope.

And so he pleaded his case to Pope Innocent VIII. Finally, eight years later, he found favour with Pope Alexander VI. The papal tribunal summoned Hans von Trotha to Rome. The latter refused to go and wrote a letter proclaiming his loyalty to the Church… while taking advantage of the opportunity to throw a few spikes at the Pope, accusing him of immorality (although he was not entirely wrong!).

The response was not long in coming: Hans von Trotha was excommunicated, i.e. banished from society.

Trotha despised this punishment, and two years after his death, the sanction was lifted posthumously.

Hans von Trotha died on the 26th of October 1503 at his castle in Berwartstein. And the legend took over.

Hans Trapp in Wissembourg © French Moments
Hans Trapp in Wissembourg © French Moments

 

Hans Trapp, the diabolical one-upmanship

In the centuries following his death, local custom attributed to Hans von Trotha all the attributes of an evil character. A bloodthirsty brute, a debauchee, a power-hungry and violent.

His sole purpose was to terrorise the population by looting travellers and peasants. He was even accused of making a pact with the devil.

In local tradition, he became a bogeyman in search of human flesh. God is said to have punished him by turning him into a scarecrow for eating a young shepherd.

His name was distorted into Hans Trapp, trappen meaning to make a noise while walking to chase away the spirits. This is why it is said of the dark character that he wanders at night without rest in the deep, dark forest of Berwartstein Castle.

The monks of Wissembourg had their revenge! They ruined the name and reputation of their adversary forever. One might even pity the memory of poor Hans von Trotha.

 

What does Hans Trapp look like?

Hans Trapp in Wissembourg © French Moments
Hans Trapp in Wissembourg © French Moments

 

In Alsatian tradition, Hans Trapp looks like a twin brother to the Père Fouettard in Lorraine. However, he has some characteristics of his own. He is an evil, dark and associative character:

  • Hans Trapp is 2 metres tall – which must have been impressive in the 15th century!
  • He is dressed in a black greatcoat and wears big black boots that make a lot of noise when he walks.
  • The man has a long white beard and a pointed hat.
  • He holds a rod in his hand to beat naughty children.
  • This robber-knight appears on horseback, notably during the Hans Trapp parade in Wissembourg.
  • He speaks only German (in fact, the local dialect of the Wissembourg region).

 

Where can you meet Hans Trapp?

Hans Trapp and his accomplices in Wissembourg © French Moments
Hans Trapp and his accomplices in Wissembourg © French Moments

 

Do you really want to? If so, Alsace is where you’ll have the best chance (or bad luck, depending on your choice!) of meeting him.

There is an ideal place to see it on a December evening: Wissembourg. The former city of the abbots at war with Hans von Trotha organises an annual night parade with Hans Trapp and Christkindel.

The parade takes place on the 4th Sunday of Advent in the streets of the old town.

The procession starts with the monks.

Then appear the fire jugglers and the percussionists in a loud uproar, heralding the imminent arrival of Hans Trapp.

He comes on horseback but takes the time to put his foot down and ask the children if they have been good.

To dissuade them from misbehaving, a carriage approaches with a cage full of trapped children imploring the crowd: “Free us, help us!” (you will have understood that these are little actors in the making 🙂 ).

Soon, the atmosphere softens with the arrival of Christkindel’s lighted float. The festival ends with a fireworks display.

Christmas in France - Hans Trapp in Wissembourg © French Moments
Hans Trapp in Wissembourg © French Moments
Halloween in Alsace - Hans Trapp © French Moments
The villain of Alsace: Hans Trapp © French Moments

 

Find out more

Read more about the Hans Trapp parade in Wissembourg.

Read this article in French on our blog Mon Grand-Est

Have you met Hans Trapp? Tell us about it by leaving a comment!

About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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