Times ago Christmas was not dominated only by gifts and good intentions as we know it today. Many of the pagan myths regarding this specific period of the year often featured characters that connoted the Christmas of dark tones. The origins of today’s Christmas traditions see their roots sink in antiquity, and it is interesting to know that the modern icon of “Santa Claus” dates back only to the second half of the 800, invented by the designer Thomas Nast.
In some countries these ancient traditions have survived, and for some, Christmas is filled with supernatural events, ghosts, witches, magic, and especially monsters. In Iceland, for example, from a relatively young age Icelandic children are told the story of Grýla, the ogress living in the Icelandic mountains.
Or do you remember? Santa’s counterpart and his earliest incarnation, Saint Nicholas, brings something other than just gifts to your home. He travel along a demonic sidekick, Krampus. While the good children get presents from Saint Nicholas, Krampus punish the bads, carrying them directly to Hell.
In addition to Krampus, Santa traditionally enjoyed a lot of different companions depending on region and culture, reflecting local history, traditions and beliefs.
Elves, pre-Christian house-spirits of English and Scandinavian tradition or other creatures were believed to be gift makers or bringers, but didn’t share the same elevated status as Saint Nicholas.
These macabre characters have many common traits, and generally play the role of punisher, in contrast to the benevolent and generous saint. They often carried a rod, stick, or broom and were usually dressed in black or dirty rags.
For example…. have you ever heard about Mari Lwyd?
In Wales, this macabre Christmas Zombie Horse rises from the dead and wanders the streets with some companions, who are also back from the grave, to remind the living of their existence. Mary Lwyd has only one goal in mind: to get into your house! To win against the zombie horse, you must engage in a battle of rhyme, called pwnco, usually on New Year’s Eve, in which the figure is represented by a puppeteer with a horse skull on a pole.
Mari Lwyd is a popular character typical of southern Wales, and was widespread until the 1920s and 1930s and disappeared almost completely (except in some villages) in the 1960s.
In Italy, Russia, and parts of Eastern Europe, there is a witch lady who doles out punishments for the lazy, and riches for the hard working. In Italy she is known as Befana and in Russia, Baboushka. Each January, she sets off on a broomstick to join the three kings who are also seeking the Christ Child. She searches every house and if she finds a child there, she leaves cookies and gifts behind if the child has been good, while for the bads she leaves only a handful of black coal. In some variations of the tradition she would take away children who did not behave well, while in the original version of the story, later modified over the centuries, she was indeed a witch.
And speaking of witches, Perchta also known as “Lady of the Beasts” was a deity of pre-Christian alpine traditions. On New Year’s Eve, Perchta roams the earth rewarding those who are hard working and generous, and punishing the idle and greedy. Her punishment involves slashing open your stomach so she may violently rip out your intestines, which are then replaced by straw, rocks, and garbage. The tradition of having goose for Christmas is sometimes linked to witches like her, who is often depicted with a goose foot, and in ancient times was goose fat that enabled witches to fly.
In some places, for example in Switzerland, Perchta enjoys a large number of demonic aides known as Straggele, who love to partake of the feast offerings left out for them on Christmas by people, hoping for Perchta’s blessings of wealth and health in the new year.
In some places, Straggele are the authors of Perchta’s punishments, and they rob all bad children and tear them to pieces in the air.
Now we move to Scandinavia, where the Tomten are know as a creature similar to a gnome, but lives among the dead inside burial mounds. The Tomten acts as a caretaker, protector, and helper of the household…..if you don’t anger him! The Tomten has a strong temperament and is known for driving people to madness, or by stalking his victims with poisonous bites leading to an inevitable death. Just for safety, I advise you to leave some food out on Christmas Eve for him….
Père Fouettard made his first appearance in France in 1150, when he and his wife lured a trio of young boys into their butcher shop so they could rob, or perhaps kidnapped them. Fouettard slit their throats and butchered the children, placing their remains in a barrel. When Saint Nicholas discovered the crime, he resurrected the boys and punished Fouettard by forcing the butcher into his eternal service. Now, this villain appears alongside Saint Nicholas and dispenses coal and floggings to those who deserve them.
If we move to Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, he is know as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), an old mythical figure who has become a controversial figure in modern times. Traditionally was a blackamoor (African male figure usually symbolizing a servant), and he was characterized as a Moor from Spain, and a helper to St. Nicholas who was to amuse children and give candy. Actors portraying Zwarte Piet would wear blackface with dark makeup, curly black wigs and red lipstick, but this practice is now seen as a racist stereotype.
In Germany, Knecht Ruprecht was an old man with a long beard dressed in straw or covered in fur. He accompanied St. Nicholas and carried a bag of ashes, and one might hear his coming due to the ringing of tiny bells sewn into his clothing. So Knecht Ruprecht expected children to be able to recite Christian catechism or say their prayers, whereupon he would give them fruit or gingerbread.
According to the story, If they hadn’t learned their lessons, he’d leave them a stick or a lump of coal at best, and at worst he’d place the children in a sack, and either eat them or throw them in a river. Ruprecht became a common name for the devil in German.
In Palatinate, Germany, as well as Pennsylvania in some Dutch communities, and in the east coast of Canada, Belsnickel shows up a couple weeks before Christmas, dirty and dressed in rags and furs to beat the children who have misbehaved. He is a scary figure, much like Knecht Ruprect, and hands out gifts or punishments.
As an 1872 Philadelphia newspaper recounted: ”Mr. Belsnickel makes his personal appearance dressed in skins or old clothes, his face black, a bell, a whip, and a pocket full of cakes or nuts; and either the cakes or the whip are bestowed upon those around…” In the 19th century it was popular for revelers to go “Belsnicking” and get drunk, vandalize the city, and doing vandalism bad jokes.