Krampus

16 More Weird Christmas Traditions by Chris Hall

Burning the Devil in Guatemala....

Christmas can be a weird holiday....  I love it.  We’ve already covered the bizarre history of Saint Nicholas, investigated into Santa’s pagan origins and some of Santa’s weirder contemporaries, and we’ve explored some of his devilish companions and personal assistants.  We’ve also learned about Catalonia’s Caga Tio and El Caganer traditions and about Japan’s Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas tradition.  But this only the tip of the iceberg that is weird Christmas.  Here are 16 more weird Christmas traditions from around the world.  Merry Christmas everyone!

    

 

 


1.  South Africa – On Christmas Day many people will enjoy eating the deep-fried caterpillars of Emperor Moths….


2.  Norway – Here you must hide your broom on Christmas Eve lest it be stolen by a witch or evil spirit.


3.  Venezuela – In Caracas it is a tradition to go to Christmas Mass on roller skates.


4.  Greenland – Be sure to eat try one of these traditional Christmas dishes… Mattak:  raw whale skin served with blubber.  Kiviak:  500 dead auk birds stuffed inside a seal skin and left to ferment for seven months.


5.  Germany – Here it is a tradition to hide a pickle inside the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.  The first child to discover it in the morning will receive a small gift.


6.  Ukraine – The Christmas trees are not hung with tinsel and ornaments, but with a fake Christmas Spider and spider’s webs.


7.  Czech Republic – When a lady stands by a door and throws a shoe over their shoulder, and if the shoe toe is pointing toward them, then the lady will be married in the coming year.


8.   Estonia – It is a tradition in Estonia for families to go to the sauna together on Christmas.


9.  Wales – Small villages will perform a Mari Lwyd ritual on Christmas Eve where a lucky villager is chosen to parade through town with the skull of a mare hoisted on the end of a long stick.

Burning the Devil - photo by Santiago Billy Prem

Burning the Devil - photo by Santiago Billy Prem


10.  Guatemala – Here it is a tradition to sweep out the house before Christmas.  Each neighborhood will create a big pile of dirt and place an effigy of a devil on top, which is then burnt.


11.  Greece – A race of evil goblins called the kallikantzaroi are said to leave their underground dwellings and wreak havoc over the twelve days leading up to Christmas.


12.  Slovakia – The most senior man of the house will take a spoonful of loksa pudding and throw it at the ceiling.  The more that sticks the better.


13.  Finland – Here it is a tradition to honor the dead by lighting candles and leaving them in the grave yards.


14.  Austria – In Gresten people will dress up as Krampus, and parade around town hoping to scare children.

USA Running of the Santas.jpg


15.  USA – Some cities will enact a Running of the Santas, where groups of people dressed as Santa Claus will make a boozy bar crawl.

South Africa Danny Ghost.jpg


16.  South Africa – It is a tradition to tell the story of Danny, who upset his grandmother by eating the cookies left out for Santa Claus.  The grandmother becomes so upset that she kills Danny.  Danny is said to haunt homes on Christmas.


Saint Nicholas' Companions by Chris Hall

With tongue lolling out, Krampus thirsts for the blood of bad children.

Saint Nicholas’ companions are all closely related, as they all come the Germanic speaking territories of the former Holy Roman Empire.  These characters act as a foil to Saint Nicholas and his role as benevolent gift giver, as they typically threaten to thrash, beat, or abduct those on Saint Nicholas’ naughty list.  This is the story of Zwarte Piet, Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Belsnickel, and Le Pere  Fouettard.

Zwarte Piet, "Black Pete," is a Dutchman in Black-face.

Zwarte Piet, "Black Pete," is a Dutchman in Black-face.

Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet (plural Zwarte Pieten) translates as Black Pete.  Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas and is usually portrayed by a man in blackface and a black curly wig, while dressed like a 17th century page boy.  Zwarte Piet is said to be a Moor from Spain (the Moors from North Africa ruled most of Spain from 711 CE until the fall of Granada in 1492).  Typically, Zwarte Piet is shown carrying a large sack full of candy and gifts which he distributes to the good children on Sinterklaas behalf, but he is also shown with a birch rod or a chimney sweep’s broom made from willow branches which he uses to beat those on Sinterklaas’ naughty list.  Some legends have it that Zwarte Piet will also threaten to put the bad children into a sack and carry them back to Spain for the purpose of enslavement.  Historically, the Moors, in fact, had raided the European coasts, as far north as Iceland, to abduct the local people and put them into slavery.  

Zwarte Piet’s popularity has only grown over the years.  Not content with only one Zwarte Piet, now Sinterklaas is in command of a whole army of Zwarte Pieten.  Now he has a Zwarte Piet for every occasion.  There the head Piet, a navigation Piet (Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet both arrive from Spain to the Netherlands on a steamboat), a packing Piet (to pack all the gifts), an acrobat Piet (to climb up the roofs and down the chimneys), and many others.  Today Zwarte Piet has become controversial and is considered by some to be racist.  In order to whitewash the blackface, so to speak, some are now claiming that Zwarte Piet’s face is really blackened with soot, as he does have to climb through chimneys to deliver gifts.  Strangely enough, in a 2013 survey, 92% of Dutch did not perceive Zwarte Piet as being racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% were opposed to altering the character’s appearance, citing the importance of tradition.  In regards to tradition, the Zwarte Piet character is a relatively new invention when compared to Sinterklaas, as Zwarte Piet only dates back to the early 19th century.   I should also be noted, that just because something is a tradition, it doesn’t mean it is always worth saving.  

Saint Nicholas arrives with Knecht Ruprecht.

Knecht Ruprecht

Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand or Servant Rupert) is a companion of Saint Nicholas and first appears in this capacity in German folklore in the 17th century.  Knecht Ruprecht originally had no connection with Christmas time and he is thought to date back to the pre-Christian pagan era as a spirit who helped out with the chores around the farm and around the house.  With the introduction of Christianity, such spirits were then transformed into devils.  Ruprecht is a common name for the devil in Germany.  According to some stories, Knecht Ruprecht began as a farmhand, in others he is a wild child whom Saint Nicholas adopts and raises as his own.  Ruprecht sometimes walks with a limp because of a childhood injury.  In appearance, Knecht Ruprecht typically carries a long staff and a bag of ashes.  He also wears little bells on his clothing.  Sometime he rides on a white horse and is accompanied by fairies or men with blackened faces dressed as old women.

 According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether or not they can pray.  If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread.  If they cannot, they receive a beating with his bag of ashes.  Knecht Ruprech shares the tradition of approaching strangers unusual questions or challenges with the Belsnickel, and origin of the tradition is thought to date back to when Odin, in disguise, would perform similar acts around Yule time.  In the German version of the television show “The Simpsons,” the family dog is named Knecht Ruprecht instead of Santa’s Little Helper.  

Several Krampus Devils with a Saint Nicholas and a Knecht Ruprecht.

Krampus 

Krampus, which translates as “claw,” is perhaps the most evil of Saint Nicholas’ companions.  Krampus is an Alpine tradition (parts of Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia) dating back to pre-Christian pagan culture, but wasn’t enlisted as a companion of Saint Nicholas until the 17th century.  Krampus’s main duty in assisting Saint Nicholas was punishing the bad children.  Unlike some of the ambiguous companions Saint Nicholas, who are mostly human, Krampus is pure devil and his appearance and behavior reflects this.

 In appearance, Krampus is usually covered in black or brown fur and has the cloven hooves and horns of the goat.  Usually his tongue is shown as lolling out of his mouth.  Krampus carries chains, thought to symbolize the binding of the devil by the Christian Church.  Sometimes these chains are accompanies by bells of various sizes.  Krampus also carries a “ruten,” or a bundle of birch branches, with which he beats children and a sack to carry away bad children to an icy creek to drown, to eat, or to transport to Hell.  

Historically, Alpine towns would have a parade where all the young men would dress as Krampus, become drunk, and run amok.  Such festivities were known as Krampuslauf, which is German for “Krampus run.”  Europeans have been exchanging greeting cards with featuring Krampus since the 1800’s.  The cards often show Krampus looming menacingly over children or pursuing a buxom woman.  Over time, however, the representation of Krampus on the cards has become has changed, from a more frightening Krampus to a tamer and cute and cuddly Krampus.  In a sense he was demoted from spawn of Satan murderer to mischievous prankster.

 Nonetheless, in the 20th century, the Austrian government began to discourage the practice of celebrating Krampus.  In the 1950’s the government distributed pamphlets titled “Krampus is an Evil Man.”   Towards the end of the century, however, there has been a popular resurgence of Krampus celebrations, which continues to this day.  There is a public debate in Austria about Krampus is appropriate for children.  Recently, Krampus has made an appearance in North American popular culture as part of a growing movement of “anti-Christmas” celebrations.

The Belsnickel likes to pose riddles.  Answer wrong and you get a beating.

Belsnickel 

The Belsnickel is a Pennsylvania Deutsch tradition which has its origins in Germanic folklore.  Belsnickel is a fur clad Christmas gift giver who shows up in Pennsylvania Deutsche communities a couple of weeks before Christmas.  His name translates as “Rough Nicholas” or “Wallop Nicholas” and this reflects the dual nature of his character.  The Belsnickel is Saint Nicholas and his evil companions rolled into one figure.  When he rolls into town he at first appears as ragged and mean, wearing tattered old clothes and furs, and carrying a switch to beat the bad children.  Sometimes he wears a mask with a long tongue lolling out, reminiscent of Krampus.  During his two week stay, the Belsnickel confronts the children in the community and questions them to make sure that they are behaving properly.  He raps on windows and doors with a stick to alert them to his presence.  Sometimes he commands them to sing him a song.  In exchange the Belsnickel will toss out candy onto the floor.  If the children jump too quick for the treats he may swat at them with his Belsnickel’s switch.

The strange behavior of the Belsnickel is thought to have its origin in Odin’s appearance as a wanderer in the community during the days leading up to Yule.  Like the Belsnickel, Odin appeared in disguise, weathered and covered in fur.  When they approached strangers, both Odin and the Belsnickel would pose them a riddle.  If they answered correctly, they would give them a reward, if incorrectly, they would dole out punishment from a switch.  Sometimes Odin and Belsnickel would give those people who gave a wrong answer a chance to redeem themselves, such giving them a physical challenge, such as wrestling with others who gave a wrong answer, or were ordered to perform a taxing chore, or a skill, such as singing a song.  If the challenges were successfully met, then Odin and the Belsnickel would clear them to celebrate and reap the rewards of Yuletide.  Odin and Belsnickel would then change over to their benevolent nature and distribute gifts to members of the community.

Le Père Fouettard

In parts of France and Belgium there is a character known as La Pere Fouettard.  In French the name means “Father Whipper.”  Le Pere Fouettard is a companion of Saint Nicholas and joins him on his rounds to deliver gifts during Saint Nicholas Eve on December 5th, dispensing lumps of coal and floggings to the naughty children while Saint Nicholas delivers the gifts to the nice.  Le Pere Fouettard’s has two origin stories.  In one story it seems that Le Pere Fouettard was the evil innkeeper (or butcher) who slit the throats of the three children, dismembers them, and puts them into a barrel in order to sell the meat as ham during a bad famine.  Saint Nicholas discovers the crime and resurrects the children.  Afterwards, Le Pere Fouettard either repents and becomes Saint Nicholas’ partner, or is forced to become his assistant as punishment for his crimes.  

The other origin story concerns the siege of the French town of Metz in 1552.  During this siege the town’s people built an effigy of King Charles Quint, dragged it through the streets, and burned it.  Coinciding with this, a group of tanners constructed a figure out of hide with a whip to scare away children.  The liberation of Metz occurred around Saint Nicholas day, and somehow the burnt effigy of the King and the tanner’s grotesque figure merged into one being and produced La Pere Fouettard, who instantly became Saint Nicholas evil whipping companion.

In the 1930’s, Le Pere Fouettard made an appearance in the United States under the translated name Father Flogger or Spanky.  In America, however, he had a female accomplice named Mother Flog, and they nothing to do with Christmas.  They just enjoyed doling out specific punishments for specific childhood crimes, such as a liar having their tongue cut out.  


St. Nicholas: Bad Ass Super Saint by Chris Hall

If God dies, at least we’ll still have St. Nicholas.  Russian proverb.

Nicholas was an early Christian and Bishop of Myra, Greece (now Demre, in modern day Turkey).  Because of his charity and also because of the many miracles that were attributed to him during his life, he was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.  St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, children, merchants, archers, repentant thieves and murderers, brewers, pawnbrokers, students, merchants, judges, the poor, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and many more. . . A full list of the people who St Nicholas protects can be found here:  http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/people/

Nicholas was very religious from an early age and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed ritual fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Nicholas is reported to have been a lean man, and not the jolly old elf of Santa Claus legend.  Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Nicholas suffered for his faith, and at one point was exiled and imprisoned.  Some icons show him as having dark skin, so yes; there is a chance that Santa Claus is a black man.  

St Nicholas Reputation for Gift Giving

Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift giving and would often put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  This habit, along with his protection of children, led to his being the inspiration for Santa Claus (Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch “Sinterklass,” a corruption of “Saint Nikolaos.”  In one of his most famous gift giving exploits, Nicholas discovered a poor man with three young daughters.  The poor man could not afford a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would remain unmarried, and might possibly have to resort to prostitution.  Nicholas decided to help them anonymously, either out of modesty or possibly to save them the humiliation of having to accept charity.  As the eve of the first two girls coming of age, Nicholas would toss a bag of gold coins through the open window.  On the eve of his third daughter’s birthday, the poor man decided to lay in wait to discover his secret benefactor.  Nicholas learned of the plan, and instead tossed the third bag into the chimney.  The youngest daughter had hung up her stockings to dry near the hearth, and the bag of gold somehow landed in one of the stockings.

St Nicholas Stays an Execution

One day while out visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from his home city in Myra came to him and told him of how the ruler Eustathius had wrongfully condemned three Knights to death.  On reaching the outskirts of the city, Nicholas learned that the prisoner’s execution by beheading was to happen that morning.  Nicholas ran to the executioner’s field and stayed the executioner’s sword, which he then threw to the ground.  Nicholas ordered the release of the innocent prisoners and then went to confront Eustathius.  Eustathius confessed his crime and Nicholas absolved him after a period of penance.

St Nicholas Resurrects Three Murdered Children

Nicholas is attributed as having miraculous powers, as well.  In one legend, during a terrible famine, an evil butcher lured three children (or in some stories, three traveling students) to his house, where he killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure.  He planned to sell the meat as ham.  Nicholas, who was visiting the region to care for the hungry, dreamed of the crime, and went to the house of the evil butcher.  Nicholas them resurrected the three dead boys from the barrel.  

St Nicholas and the Miracle of the Wheat

According to another legend, during the same famine (between 311 and 312), a ship anchored off Myra which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople.  Nicholas implored the sailors to share some of the wheat with the starving people of Myra.  The sailors were reluctant to share because they knew that the cargo had been weighed and any deviation would be reported.  Nicholas promised the sailors that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, so sailors agreed and unloaded a share of the wheat.  When the sailors arrived in Constantinople, they found that the wheat weighed the same, as if nothing was taken.  The people of Myra, however had enough wheat for two full years.

St. Nicholas Conquers the Sea

Returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Nicholas found himself aboard a sinking ship in a storm.  Nicholas prayed, the seas calmed, and the ship was rescued.  This was only the first of many episodes which Nicholas figures in the rescuing of ships and sailors.  Nicholas would become the patron saint of sailors, who in return would spread Nicholas’ popularity around the world.  In another legend, a ship in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was caught in a storm.  The sailors were unable to move the ship to safer waters.  The sailors, hearing of Nicholas’ earlier interventions, prayed for Nicholas to help.  Nicholas actually appeared over the ship and then gave the sailors a helping hand, retying and strengthening the ropes holding the masts, and guiding the ship to safety.  As soon as the ship and sailors were rescued, the Nicholas vanished into thin air.  Because of the many stories of Nicholas coming to the aid of ships and sailors, Nicholas became known as “The Lord of the Sea,” a Christianized version of Poseidon.  

Posthumous Activities

After Nicholas’s death, it did not take long for him to be sainted.  Meanwhile, the miracles continued.  One evening the townspeople of Myra were celebrating St. Nicholas’ feast day, on December 6th, when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into town and ransacked the place.  The pirates stole everything of value, and even took a young boy, Basilios, away to sell as a slave.  The young boy became the slave of the Emir, and would often serve the Emir wine in a beautiful golden cup.  Devastated by the lost of their only child, Basilios’ parents grieved for a whole year, until the next St. Nicholas feast.  Basilios’ parents then prayed to St. Nicholas for Basilios’ safety.  St Nicholas then appeared to Basilios and whisked the terrified boy away, and returned him to his parents.  The whole thing happened so quickly, Basilios was still holding the Emir’s golden cup.

St. Nicholas’s Magic Bones

St. Nicholas tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage.  Because of the many wars in the region, many Christians became concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult.  For both the religious and commercial advantages that come with having a major pilgrimage site, the cities of Bari and Venice, Italy, began to compete with each other for hosting the saint’s bones.  In 1087, 62 pirates from Bari resolved to settle the matter, when one of them reportedly had a vision of St. Nicholas commanding him to recover his bones in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest.  The pirates, or sailors (depending on who is telling the tale) in a rush because of the resistance from Greek Orthodox monks, collected only half of the bones, and re-interned them in Bari, in Southern Italy.  Venetian sailors got what was left of St Nicholas during the First Crusade and placed the remains in a newly built church to St. Nicholas on the Lido.

While in Myra, the relics of St. Nicholas began to exude a clear watery liquid, smelling of rose water or myrrh.  The locals called it manna.  The mysterious manna was said to possess miraculous healing powers.  St Nicholas’ bones in Bari continue to ooze the magic potion, which is collected once a year by the clergy of the basilica on May 9th, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ re-internment.  Today you can purchase vials of St. Nicholas manna, economically diluted in Holy Water, in the basilica’s gift shop.

This is not Saint Nicholas' bones, but Alexander the Great's bones, as discovered by St. Sisoes.  Still, a nice illustration.

St. Nicholas Today

St. Nicholas continues to have an exciting afterlife in his incarnation as Father Christmas or Santa Claus.  There is the whole living at the North Pole thing, the elves that make toys, and of course the flying reindeer.  In the Netherlands Santa Claus is accompanied by a mischievous Moor (or more commonly a white Dutchman in blackface) named Black Pieter.  In parts of Germany and Austria, Santa Claus gets help from a demon named Krampus, who punishes all the wicked children.  While in the United States, Santa Claus drinks Coca-Cola gets help from a flying reindeer with a glowing red nose.

In 1993, historians believe they had found the original tomb of St. Nicholas on the Turkish island of Gemile.  On December 28, 2009, the Turkish government announced that they would be making a formal request to return St. Nicholas’ skeletal remains back to Turkey, saying his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.  There is no word as to how the people of Venice and Bari responded.  Turkey is 99.8% Muslim, and although officially a secular state, they have had difficulty accepting St. Nicholas.  In 2000 a Russian bronze sculpture of St. Nicholas in orthodox vestments was erected in Demre (formally St. Nicholas’ hometown of Myra).  Buses of Russian tourists arrived everyday to Demre, who would then knell and pray at the base of the statue.  In 2005, the city removed the statue and replaced it with a brightly painted plastic resin statue of the more secular Santa Claus.  This caused an international uproar, but the city held its ground until Christmas Day, 2008, when they replaced the statue a second time, this time with a fiberglass version of St Nicholas with Turkish facial features and clothing.  The controversy continues, however, as some have pointed out that St. Nicholas was Greek, and the Turks did not arrive in the region until the 11th century.