For those of us brought up on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and the concept of a benevolent Santa Claus with a cast of cute sidekicks, the shady characters to whom you are about to be introduced may come as a surprise.
I advise Travel Belles and Boys to take any newfound knowledge as a warning, especially if you should ever find yourself in a country other than your own this holiday season. These characters may seem vaguely familiar sorts to most, at least from childhood nightmares, but we can take courage from the possibility that Santa and his team skipping over your house this year may be a very good thing.
In general Christmas myths and traditions in the Western world are derived from a combination of the Christian celebration of Saint Nicholas Day on December 6, and pagan Saturnalia celebrations held during the time of the Winter solstice. A thorough study of all the associated merry-and-trouble-making that takes place across the European continent this time of year would be exhaustive and quickly grow redundant. So for the purposes of this two part series, I plan to share “the big three:” Austria, Holland and Germany.
It is no surprise that the country that brought us what is perhaps the loveliest of all Christmas carols, Silent Night, is home to a traditional, if somewhat gaunt, Saint Nicholas figure. Austrian legend goes that Saint Nicholas was rewarded for his own good behavior on earth by being allowed to return to on his Saint Day each December 6 to bring gifts for all the good little children.
The trouble starts with his grotesque “assistant,” Krampus, whose lifestyle tells quite the opposite story. The devil-like creature, complete with horns, fur and a forked red tongue, and weighed down by rusted heavy chains, trails behind Santa and threatens children who misbehave and don’t know their lessons. Weapon of choice: a wooden stick.
These days on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day in the Salzkammergut region, Krampus parades are held. Young men dressed up as Krampus, wearing sheepskins and elaborate wooden devil masks, gather and proceed to parade in packs of “Krampusse.” The most frightening activity of all however, takes place when the parade is over, when they disperse and go on to beat anyone who gets in their way. The origin of Krampus parades can be traced back to pagan times, when it was believed that similar evil beings dwelling in the caves of the surrounding mountains, would emerge every now and again brandishing whips. All I can say is, “Good job keeping a a strange and diabolical tradition alive!”
This next Austrian character, wins the honor of making the prospect of staying home with Dick Clark, sound like a most excellent idea. Bringing entire new meaning to the phrase, “Silent Night,” a bearded, old and ugly, man, named Sylvester lurks in the shadows on New Year’s Eve. Recognizable by wearing a mistletoe wreath on his head, the trouble starts when unsuspecting ladies walk by and he leaps from the shadows and aggressively kisses them.
Even though he lives in sunny Spain and travels around by steamship, The Netherland’s Sinterklaas is believed by many to be the most directly related Saint Nicholas figure to the American Santa Claus. He arrives each November in the Port of Amsterdam greeted with a level of national fanfare that far surpasses Santa’s debut each Thanksgiving at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
For the next several weeks Sinterklaas travels from town to town, greeting the hordes of children who come to see him. He is assisted by the Dutch counterparts to American elves, Piets, or helpers. His visit culminates on December 5 on the eve of his Saint day with the exchange of gifts.
The most notorious of all the Piets is Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, a slave character whose depiction dates back to Colonial times. His existence in Holland is unique on the continent, and back in the day until around the 1950s, it was the wrath of the Zwarte Piet that struck fear in the hearts of Dutch children. In addition to the usual threats of receiving lumps of coal, and switches and ashes, Black Peter would pop the most irretrievably bad children into a bag, and haul them with Sinterklaas and his motley entourage on the steamship back to Spain.
As you can imagine the existence of Zwarte Piet always manages to raise a few eyebrows. His character has been re-invented over the years to be just another Piet, who managed to get some soot and ashes on his face in doing the work of his patron Saint. These days Zwarte Piet wears a big smile on his face and is esteemed in a manner comparable to Head Elf. As can be seen in the essay by David Sedaris, Six to Eight Black Men, the Zwart Piet tradition is seen as extremely odd by almost all outsiders, but embraced by the majority of the Dutch. It doesn’t hurt that he now distributes cookies and peppermints, instead of spankings, and that part about hauling kids off in a sack to Spain is a threat reserved only for the most desperate of parents.
The second installment of The Shady Characters of Christmas will be back next week, where an entire post may be dedicated the country of Germany, well, because it’s a big country. For now I leave you with this from last year’s Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude from The Colbert Report (fast forward to 2:30 for a segment featuring Krampus.) Enjoy!
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude – Hallmark & Krampus<a>|
I did end up writing Part II about some of the interesting female characters from Christmas history: Part II, The Bad Belles of the Holiday Season
Or how about something about New Year’s traditions from around the world having to do with wine?