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Well, Christmas is nearly here and for most of us it is a time of happiness, celebrating the season with family and friends. Presents are exchanged, food and drink enjoyed and all is well with the world for a short moment. Unfortunately, Christmas isn’t quite as warm and fuzzy as we all think it is and some of those Christmas traditions have a decidedly dark side to them that seem more at home on Halloween – the horror of Christmas!
The real Santa Claus?
Halloween and horror films have always gone hand in hand but this year, the seasonal special horror seems to have made its way to Christmas in the form of the film Krampus. In the film, a boy who has had a bad Christmas manages to call up the demon of Christmas to his home. However, the mythology of Krampus is a little more complex.Krampus came to us from the German speaking Alpine areas in Austria and Bavaria where he was a contrasting figure to St Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus. Where St Nick rewarded the good kids with presents, Krampus was in charge of punishing the bad ones. The tradition of this being seems to pre-date Christianity in the region though became more well known as the cult of St Nicholas spread in the 11th century. Other names for him include klaubauf in Austria and parkelj in Slovenia.
In his looks, Krampus is something of a typical evil demon. He had black or brown hair, horns of a goat and cloven hooves as well as a long, pointed tongue. He often carried chains around with him, said to be associated with the Devil being bound by the church. Another association is that he carried a bundle of birch branches that he uses to swat children with – this is a pre-Christian tradition so is sometimes replaced with a whip.
The feast of St Nicholas is celebrated on 6th December around Europe and the night before is known as Krampus Night or Krampusnacht. This is when Krampus tours the streets, looking for those to punish while St Nicholas seeks out the good kids for rewards.
While Christmas as we know it today is definitely a Christian holiday, it has its roots in much older celebrations around this time of the year. The mid-winter festival is one such example, when most people lived in an agricultural society. Mid-winter was the time when there wasn’t much to do, the harvest was done and it was too early to start planting so they celebrated their good fortune of the year gone by to cheer themselves up. The celebration finished with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, on 21st December.
When Christianity began to spread, they decided to incorporate their big holiday with the existing ones to help with the transition. Many scholars say that the Bible doesn’t specifically say when Jesus was born so around four hundred years later, they decided to formalise it as Christmas Day, close to the winter solstice and the other festivals of the time.
In fact, the Protestants of the 16th century didn’t like Christmas and saw it as being too pagan for their tastes – ‘raucous, rowdy and bawdy’ was their description. In England during the times of Oliver Cromwell, Christmas along with the saints’ days were banned and in New England, there was a period of around 25 years where the holiday wasn’t celebrated.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that there are no shortage of scary Christmas monsters living in the folklore of the world. Many of these were probably normal pagan creatures that were suddenly transformed into devils and demons when the holiday ‘went Christian’ and have stayed there ever since.
Take Jolakotturinn, the Icelandic yule cat – he was another who punished the wicked or lazy kids and had a sure-fire way to know who was who. Good kids were given new clothes for Christmas by their parents whereas lazy or naughty kids weren’t – the yule cat simply went around and ate those in last year’s clothes. It was even common for those in need to be helped with the gift of new clothes to protect them against the murderous moggy.
The Yule Lads are not actually lads but a group of thirteen trolls who are like Krampus – there to punish the bad kids while Julenisse or Santa Claus rewarded the good ones. Each had a distinct personality and name and presents were left out to appease them, one for each of them in the days leading up to Christmas.
Nor is that all the bad news waiting for Icelandic kids at Christmas. The yule cat lives with Gryla, a pre-Christian ogress who captures, cooks and eats disobedient kids. She was Christianised in the 17th century when she became the mother of the Yule Lads â€“ 13 of her 72 children who all caused chaos and misery to the Icelandic people. She is considered such a nuisance that she was even blamed by some for the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2000.
Frau Perchta is another Germanic nasty who works through the 12 days of Christmas from December 25th through to Epiphany on January 6th. If you are found to be sinful by her, she pulls out your internal organs and replaces them with rubbish!
In France, Pere Fouettard was an evil butcher with a taste for children – in a cannibalistic way. He killed and salted the children in his butcher’s shop until St Nicholas came along and resurrected them. He then made the butcher serve as his alter-ego, punishing the bad kids on St Nicholas Day while he rewarded the good ones.
Christmas, it seems, isn’t all goodness, warmth and fun, especially in the eyes of some of our ancestors! So next time the kids refuse to clean their rooms or go to bed, don’t threaten them with Santa not coming, warn them that one of these guys might!