As children lay snug in their beds, dreaming of sugarplums, or more likely, Xbox One and the newest Star Wars merchandise, Santa Claus prepares to make his way down the chimney and leave toys wrapped in bright paper under the tree. At least that’s what part of the world believes, for when it comes to Christmas, there are all kinds of traditions and legends, many of which take on a much darker tone than a jolly fat guy in a red and white velvet suit who works only one night a year and loves kids.
Legends are often based upon actual people who existed long ago. Their stories over time are embellished and altered according to whomever is telling the story, which makes it hard to discern fact from fiction. Often in the case of pagan traditions, newer religions tack on their own traditions or obliterate the original pagan symbols, creating a mash-up character such as Santa Claus. We all learned his story in school, but did you know there also exists an “anti-Santa?”
Bum bum BUUUUUUUM!!!
So, many of you may be familiar with Krampus. He’s even got his own Facebook memes, which in this day and age is the hallmark of fame. This German/Alpine legendary figure was said to be an actual companion to St. Nicholas, the gift-giving Greek Saint and Bishop of Myra, who later morphed into Santa Claus with a few modern add-ons (think Rudolph, ho-ho-ho and elves!), and has a distinct pre-Christian origin. This somewhat humanlike creature has a pagan bent, and is more associated with punishing children who don’t behave, than rewarding children who do (even though tradition states he did reward kids as well!). Krampus, which might be an offshoot of the pagan Horned God of the witches, or even a masked devil figure (which later became the Christian devil) is portrayed as hideous and frightening. He sometimes has brown hair, sometimes black, with cloven hooves and goat horns, and a long tongue. Sounds devilish, right? He carries chains, too, which he thrashes about, along with ruten, or bundles of birch branches he swats kids with. Other versions show him carrying a sack or tub that he uses to carry bad children in, and even drown and eat them in. Nice guy for a Saint to be hanging out with, am I right?
Parents would threaten to take bad children in a sack to be dropped off with Krampus (Good Lord, no wonder so many kids end up in therapy!). He even has his own celebratory night, December 5th, one night before the Feast of Saint Nicholas, when he would appear to the public as a hairy devilish creature, sometimes alone, sometimes with his pal, St. Nicholas, visiting homes and businesses. He appeared on Christmas cards in the 1800s and spawned a number of regional celebrations in his honor, featuring pre-Christian rituals and symbols.
Funnily, or maybe not so funnily, the Austrian government actually prohibited Krampus traditions after the Civil War in 1934, and in the 1950s, went so far as to hand out pamphlets stating poor Krampus was an “Evil Man.” It may have suppressed Krampus activities then, but today, Krampus celebrations are once again popular in many European countries, and now in the United States as well. Just this year in 2015, he even got his own movie!
Another German Christmas legend, because Germany cannot have too many twisted traditions, is the story of Belsnickel, a creepy figure in rags and old furs who carries a switch and threatens little children with a whoopin’ if they don’t behave. Belsnickel roams from house to house for weeks before Christmas. If he doesn’t show up at your door, be on the lookout for another crafty German creep named Knecht Ruprecht, which translates to “farmhand Rupert” or “Servant Rupert,” who wears a long beard, brown cloak and holds a staff. He goes around asking little children if they pray. If they do, they get a goodie like some yummy gingerbread. If they don’t pray, well, they can get a punishment in the form of junk, which, if the children refuse, then leads to a beating with a bag of ashes. Tip to the children of Germany – behave and no matter what, say you pray!!!
A similar tradition exists in Sweden and Finland, also involving a goat-like character that visits homes and demands food and alcohol. No, we’re not talking about your ugly drunk Uncle Peter. We’re talking about Nuuttipukki, who wears a leather or birch mask, horns and fur. The tradition has its origins in the life of Canute Lavard, a Danish Duke who was sainted after his death and given January 7th as a holiday. “Knut’s Day” is still celebrated today, albeit with a more positive slant. Apparently, the Swedes and Finns didn’t like anyone taking their food and booze!
In the upper German region of the Alps exists another tradition of a pagan goddess of both good and bad, darkness and light, bodacious beauty and butt-ugly! Her name is Perchta (also known as Berchta) and is often identified with other goddesses such as Holda, Frija, Diana, and Herodias. Perchta appears in two forms, either beautiful and snow white, or as an old hag. Perhaps this is where the Snow White story originated from, for Perchta was indeed a lovely goddess of spinning and weaving, adorned in a white robe, pure as snow. Yet she also led the wild hunt, had one foot bigger than the other, and could shape shift into animals.
Perchta roamed the countryside, going from house to house (a lot of these legendary figures sound like Jehovah’s Witnesses!), leaving a coin in the shoes of good little children who were well behaved. If they weren’t well behaved or hadn’t completed their chores, then she took a whole different tactic. She would gut the children by slitting their stomachs open and take out their guts, replacing them with straw and rocks. She would even do this if someone missed her feast day or ate something she didn’t approve of. Not a very nice lady, which makes you wonder why anyone opened their door to her in the first place!
She was accompanied by an entourage of Perchten, usually men wearing ghoulish animal masks, some of which were beautiful and for good luck, and others, hideous, with horns and fangs. Of interest to the paranormal crowd, men dressed as the ugly Perchten in the 16th century would go from home to home to drive out demons and spirits. Were they the original exorcists, or just celebrants of this highly symbolic goddess of duality?
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Don’t just blame Germany for all the angst in children; Iceland has its own country legend, a terrifying lady ogre named Gryla who feeds on naughty little kids. She has three heads, three eyes per head, ice blue eyes at the back of her head, long fingernails like talons, and goat horns. (There’s that goat symbolism again). She also sports a chin beard. Gryla is said to have trolls called Yule Lads that help her find children to cook and eat. She had as many as three husbands and 70+ kids, some of which were murderous little buggers. Iceland had the good sense in 1746 to prohibit talk of Gryla because it scared children too much. Let’s hope the United States does something similar with Common Core math!
Another Iceland myth involves a cat, Jolakotturinn, or the Yule Cat. The Yule Cat was an evil kitty that ate lazy children, or at least that’s what parents used to tell their children to get them to finish their chores. I’ll take Grumpy Cat any day over this crazy feline.
Italy celebrates the legend of the witch known as La Befana, who flies on her broomstick during the night of January 5 and fills stockings with toys and sweets for good children and lumps of coal for bad ones. According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger where Christ was born, they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions (men asking for directions? Surely this is a legend and not real?). They invited her to accompany them on their journey, but she was too busy and refused. A shepherd came along and asked her to join him, but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a bright star in the sky and was moved to join the Wise Men and the shepherd, bringing gifts that had belonged to her dead child to offer to the Christ infant.
Two of the more, well, interesting legends come to us from around Spain; the Catatonia legend of The Caganer, and the Spanish Tio de Nadal. Both involve something not usually associated with the holidays, unless you’re talking about Santa’s reindeer and a high fiber intake.
Poop. Yes, you read that right. Poop.
The Caganer is a legend from Catalonia, Portugal and Southern France, involving a rather ancient character, a peasant in a red had and trousers pulled down to his knees, who apparently, as legend has it, had to do a “number two” while the Christ child was being born. He is depicted as being evil, but maybe he just ate too much bran that day. Can you give a guy a break? Rumor has it when the Spanish city of Barcelona tried to ban the festival in his honor, there was enough of an outcry to restore the festival. I cannot even BEGIN to imagine what kind of festival it is, and what people do there. Use your imagination.
Some scholars note that this story is highly symbolic of the act of fertilizing the earth to bring about new life. I can buy that, especially with the belief that the Winter Solstice was symbolic of death and the return to light and the coming of spring. A little fertilizer goes a long way to ensuring new growth! Just ask anyone who lives on a golf course.
Tio de Nadal is actually not a person…but a log. A log that poops out goodies such as nuts and fruits. And if you sing to it and burn it in the fireplace, you might even get better gifts than trail mix. The English translation of part of the song goes as follows:
“Poop Log, poop turron,
Hazelnuts and cottage cheese.
If you don’t poop well,
I’ll hit you with with a stick, Poop Log.”
Look, I don’t make this stuff up, I just write about it.
Here in the United States, we have a much less sinister legend in the making, involving a cute little elf that sits on a shelf. “The Elf on the Shelf” started out as nothing more than a book written by a mother and daughter. They got the idea over a cup of tea and self published the book in 2004, which quickly became a sensation, spawning more holiday memes than Charlie Brown or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The book is about Santa’s team of scout elves who visit homes before Christmas to watch over people’s behaviors before reporting back to the North Pole. Scout elves hide all over the house and it’s up to the family to find them, and name them. Oh, it’s all good fun and games, except for some critics who responded by labeling the elves bullies who spy on kids and invade people’s privacy.
Maybe they work for the NSA?
Perhaps we don’t have as many holiday legends as Europe does, but we do like our Christmas ghosts. The holidays serve as a time when the sun shines less, there is more dark than light, and we often turn our thoughts to those we no longer have around, loved ones who have passed on. Perhaps this in part helps to explain our obsession with one of the most famous ghost stories ever written, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” If you haven’t seen any of the numerous versions on television, in the movies or in book form, well, you are living under a rock. The famous Dickens tale is a part of accepted Christmas tradition for millions, maybe because it tells a story we can all relate to.
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English writer Charles John Huffman Dickens first published his novella, or short novel, “A Christmas Carol” under the shortened name Charles Dickens back in December of 1843. It has since become a true classic ghost story that is both parable and morality tale. It tells the story of one grinchy, grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, a businessman in London whose partner Jacob Marley had died exactly seven years ago. Marley turns up one cold Christmas eve moaning and dragging chains, as many ghosts do, to tell Scrooge he will be visited by three ghosts that night. The ghosts represent Christmases past, present and future, and all are attempts to teach the selfish grump some humility and charity before it’s too late.
Over the course of the visits, Scrooge looks back at the error of his ways and begins to repent. On Christmas morning, when he awakens, he is a new man with a big heart, ready to make amends for the sins of his past.
But this tale is more than just a cool ghost story. It’s a story that reminds us of the importance of humility, love, caring and sharing. And it is certainly not the only old ghost story that sports a holiday setting. No doubt, the legends written about earlier became ghost stories of today that many a German or Nordic child hears at holiday time.
During the Victorian and Elizabethan eras, it was normal to sit around all those dark nights by the fire and spin a ghost tale or two, just as we would do today if we weren’t buried in technology or football games. Other authors such as MR James, Henry James, Washington Irving, William Makepeace Thackeray, and even the likes of HP Lovecraft have all written spooky stories set at Yule time. In his wonderful December 2011 article, “Christmas Spirits: The Origins of Ghost Stories at Christmas,” for Hypnogoria.com, author Jim Moon sums up the proliferation of ghost stories related to the holidays rather succinctly:
“In the long, cold evenings, when the soil had been tilled to the extent that climactic conditions permitted, the still predominantly agricultural community of early modern England would sit and while away the hours of darkness with fireside pastimes, among them old wives’ tales designed to enthrall young and old alike.”
Even Shakespeare understood the connection between the dark nights of winter and a good ghost story. “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of Sprits and Goblins.”
For just as we love telling ghost stories over campfires at night, or huddled as children under blanket forts, our ancestors loved a good ghost story during the cold, dark winter nights that went on forever. What better way to pass the time than scaring the living daylights out of one another?
At least until television came along.
So while there may be a lot of ghost stories set during Christmas, and even told during Christmas, it most likely has much more to do with the symbolism of December 21st and the Winter Solstice as the darkest day of the year, than the idea that ghosts exist more abundantly over the holidays. Halloween probably holds that claim to fame.
The stories and legends of Christmas remind us of the past and those we left behind, but also of more ancient, even primitive times, when humans were more focused on nature than technology; when oral and written traditions were handed down from elders to youngsters; and when pagan beliefs were morphing into the Christian holidays we celebrate today.
It is in that “in-between” state, betwixt the old and the new, where spooky stories, like the mighty Evergreen, take root and spread.
Marie D. Jones is the author of several books about the paranormal, metaphysics, and cutting-edge science (many coauthored with Larry Flaxman), including PSIence, The Déjà vu Enigma, Destiny vs. Choice: The Scientific and Spiritual Evidence Behind Fate and Free Will,11:11 The Time Prompt Phenomenon and Mind Wars. She has appeared on more than 1,000 radio shows worldwide, and on television, most recently on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. Her website is mariedjones.com.