history

John Heartfield Versus Hitler by Chris Hall

John Heartfield's  Adolf Hitler the Superman Swallows Gold and Shits Tin , 1932.

John Heartfield's Adolf Hitler the Superman Swallows Gold and Shits Tin, 1932.

Born Helmut Herzfeld on 19 June, 1891, he anglicized his name to John Heartfield to protest the growing anti-British sentiment and rampant German nationalism during the First World War.  Heartfield was a pioneer in the use of art as a political weapon in the 1920's and 1930's particularly against the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.  

Heartfield was a photomontage artist.  Heartfield would create his photomontages by cutting and pasting parts from several photographs (either ones he took himself, commissioned, or found), and then re-photographed the result to produce a single seamless image.  

Heartfield was declared unfit for duty during the First World War by feigning mental illness.  In 1917 he founded Berlin Club Dada, which quickly became the most politically engaged Dada chapter in the movement.  In 1918 Heartfield joined the German Communist Party.  During the 1920's , Heartfield came to conclusion that the only art worth producing was to be of a political nature, and he destroyed all of his earlier work.  

Together with fellow artist George Grosz, Heartfield founded the satirical magazine Die Pleite (The Bankrupt).  Heartfield also produced images for the daily paper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), and the weekly paper Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ, Worker's Illustrated Newspaper).  AIZ was particularly supportive of Heartfield's work, publishing some 230 of his images, with more than half of them appearing on the front or back cover.  

Heartfield's work was also reproduced on many dust jackets for books, including Upton Sinclair's The Millennium, and on the many political posters that plastered the streets of Berlin at the time.  Heartfield also designed and built theatrical sets for Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht.

John Heartfield lived in Berlin until April 1933, when the Nazis took power.  On Good Friday, the SS broke into his apartment, and Heartfield escaped by jumping from his balcony.  He fled Germany by walking over the Sudeten Mountains into Czechoslovakia, where he continued making work denouncing the Nazis.  In 1938, he was forced to flee the Nazis again, during the occupation of Czechoslovakia, this time taking refuge in London, England.  

Following the war, Heartfield settled in East Berlin, East Germany.  He was looking for his Communist paradise, but did not find it.  Instead, the Stasi (East German Secret Police) treated Heartfield with suspicion, due to his lengthy stay in London and the fact that his dentist was being investigated for “collaboration.” Heartfield could not find work as an artist, was denied admission into the Academy of Arts, and was denied health benefits.  Eventually, with the assistance of Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym, he was finally accepted into the East German art community.  Heartfield produced some art warning of the threat of nuclear war, but he was never as prolific as he was during the 1920's and 1930's.  

Some Notes on Dada and Anti-Art

Dada and anti-art are often thought to be the same thing, and while they are thickly entwined, they are really two different things.  Dada was an art movement in the early 20th century, anti-art is an art process and product used and found in many different art movements, up to our present day post-modern art production.

Dada was born with the outbreak of the First World War.  For many of the artists, particularly in Berlin, Dada was a protest against the war, and against the bourgeois, nationalist, and colonialist interests responsible for it.  Dada was viewed as a revolt against cultural and intellectual conformity in art and society at large.  `

While some artists interpreted Dada as a celebration of meaninglessness and nihilism (Duchamp and his anti-art), many, like John Heartfield, used Dada to promote political change.  Dada does not mean an abandoning of all culture and aesthetics, only traditional culture and aesthetics.  If traditional art and culture was meant to appeal to our sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend.  But offensive art can be a useful tool to reshape our cultural landscape.  Anti-art, however, rejects even usefulness.

Anti-art rejects everything and abandons all aesthetic considerations.  Anti-art practitioners believe that bourgeois and capitalist “reason' and “logic” is the root cause of society's ills, and so they champion nihilist attitudes, embrace chaos, chance, and irrationality, destroying all culture and civilization in the process.  Dada nihilist artist Tristan Tzara once said, “I am against systems; the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.”  

Nihilism, at best, is a sign of resignation, apathy, or giving up.  At worst it is a barbarian's approach, wantonly destroying all aesthetic and cultural view points in its path.  I believe a lot things need to be dismantled and destroyed, but not everything.  Nihilists are usually poor students of history.  I believe there is much to be mined from the past, things that can guide us in terms of what we can reuse and reinterpret, but also things that we can avoid.  Nihilists usually have tunnel vision as well, and fail to see that some things in our present culture are also worth saving.  Instead of being selective and focusing on the small problems, individually, they would rather burn down the whole house and start from the beginning. 

Dada has always been a love/hate affair for me, as so many of its practitioners were nihilist anti-artists, like Duchamp.  I can not support the nihilist position nor can I support the production of anti-art.  I do not believe that everything is meaningless.  I have not lost my ideals and believe with hard work and cooperation, there is a small chance that we might just be able to make the world a better place.

John Heartfield was a Dada artist, but not an anti-artist.  He believed in something and had ideals, something he thought so highly of that he risked his life defying Hitler for it.  Marcel Duchamp the anti-artist did not.  John Heartfield, while he may have abandoned traditional aesthetics, he did not abandon aesthetics completely.  This is why Heartfield's art could so effectively carry his strong anti-Nazi message, why his work was deemed worth saving and not thrown away like a makeshift protest sign constructed out of poster-board and magic-marker, and why we are able to appreciate his work in museums today.

Native American Ledger Art by Chris Hall

The term Ledger Art comes from the accounting ledger books that were a common source of paper for the Plains Indians during the late 19th century.  Ledger Art evolved from hide painting techniques.  Plains Indians would record historic events on a calendar called the Winter Count.  Plains Indian Art emphasizes narrative action, eliminating unnecessary details and backgrounds.  The figures tend to be made with hard outlines and are filled with solid fields of colors.   With the U.S, Army hunting the buffalo to near extinction (to starve the Native American population), hide was gradually replaced by paper.  Traders, government agents, missionaries, and military officers introduced new media to the Native Americans, namely pencils, ink, crayons, and watercolors.  

Native American Ledger Art can trace its roots to the mid 1870's, when a band of Southern Plains Indians (Kiowa, Cheyenne, Southern Arapaho) were held at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida.  In an effort to improve morale, Captain Richard Henry Pratt began passing out drawing materials and encouraged the prisoners to document their lives.  Pratt was progressive in that he believed that Native Americans deserved support and respect, and that they could be assimilated into Anglo-American society, if they would only abandon their old ways.  Pratt gave his prisoners English and literacy classes, taught them practical skills, introduced them to Christianity, and gave them an basic education.  Today forced assimilation is considered a form of cultural genocide, but Pratt's program was at least a step up from the generally held notion of his time, that all Indians were the enemy, that they were all thieves and murderers in the way of progress, and that they should all be eradicated.  Pratt's superior, General Philip Sheridan, dismissed Pratt's beliefs as “Indian twaddle,” but gave him a chance under the pretense that if the program did not work, Pratt would resign his command.  Pratt's education program worked, particularly the Art Project.  Visitors to the fort would purchase the drawings, and the proceeds would go directly to the artists.  Eventually the prisoners at Fort Marion were released back into society.  Historically, Ledger Art was exclusively by men.  In Plains Indians culture, the men would create all the narrative, representational art, recording historical events and such, while the women would make the abstract and geometrical designs.  Ledger Art often depicts warfare, stealing horses, and hunting, occasionally showing courtship scenes, mythology, and religious practices.  Ledger artists also depicted their rapidly changing environment, portraying encroaching European Americans and new technologies such as trains and cameras.

Amos Bad Heart Bull

Amos Bad Heart Bull

Amos Bad Heart Bull (Oglala Lakota) – Born c 1868, Amos Bad Hear Bull was a witness to the Battle of Little Bighorn, known to the Native American participants as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, where Colonel George Armstrong Custer's 7th Calvary was massacred.  At the conclusion of the Great Sioux War in 1877, the Bad Heart Bull clan surrendered at the Red Cloud Agency, where he witnessed the death of Crazy Horse.  Amos Bad Heart Bull documented both of these events in his art.  In 1890, Amos Bad Heart Bull enlisted in the U.S. Army as a scout and learned English while stationed at Fort Robinson.  He purchased his first ledger book in nearby Crawford, Nebraska, and began filling it with drawings.  After his service, Amos Bad Heart Bull became the Oglala's historian, continuing the tradition of the Winter Count.  He buried his wife and his young daughter before dying himself in 1913, at the age of 45.

Howling Wolf

Howling Wolf

Howling Wolf (Cheyenne) – Howling Wolf was a witness to the Sand Creek Massacre of November 29th, 1864, where 700 Colorado Militiamen attacked a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho, killing and then mutilating the bodies of some 160 people, most of whom were women and children.  Colonel John Milton Chivington, commander of the militia, would say of the event, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians.” Later, while imprisoned at Fort Marion in 1875, Howling Wolf would record the Sand Creek Massacre on paper.  Released from Fort Marion in 1878, he tried to assimilate into Eastern life, but quickly became disillusioned and returned to the Cheyenne reservation in Oklahoma.  In 1881 Howling Wolf returned to the traditional Cheyenne ways and became a prominent member of the new Native American Church. Howling Wolf died in 1927 in a car accident while on his way home to Oklahoma after performing in a Wild West show in Houston, Texas.  

Kicking Bear

Kicking Bear

Kicking Bear (Oglala Lakota) – Kicking Bear fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn (Battle of the Greasy Grass) alongside his first cousin Crazy Horse.  Kicking Bear was also a holy man active in the Ghost Dance religious movement of 1890, which was suppressed at the Wounded Knee Massacre.   Following the murder of Sitting Bull, Kicking Bear was imprisoned at Fort Sheridan in Illinois.  Upon his release in 1891, he joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and toured Europe for a year.  He found the experience humiliating and left, returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation to care for his family.  At the request of artist Frederic Remington, Kicking Bear recorded his account of the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1898.

Squint Eyes

Squint Eyes

Squint Eyes (Cheyenne) – Squint Eyes began drawing while a prisoner at Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida.  He is one of the few Fort Marion prisoners who continued to make art after his release.  Upon his release from Fort Marion in 1878, Squint Eyes trained as a Naturalist at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, before finding employment at the Smithsonian.  One of the drawings below, made by a Fort Marion prisoner, possibly Squint Eyes, shows a woman teaching.  The Natives were at first uncomfortable with women teachers, but quickly accepted the situation.  Off to the right, a ghost figure observes.  

Unfortunately, no photo of Black Hawk exists.

Unfortunately, no photo of Black Hawk exists.

Black Hawk (Sans Arc Lakota) – Black Hawk was the chief medicine man of the Sans Arc Lakota.  He is best known as the artist who, in 1880–1881, produced a set of 76 ledger drawings for William Edward Caton, the federal Indian trader at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.  The drawings depict Lakota life, wildlife, and spiritual beings in Lakota mythology.  One drawing shows the horned Thunder Being on a horse-like creature with eagle talons and buffalo horns.  The creature's tail becomes a rainbow, which represents the entrance to the Spirit World, and the dots on the horse represents hail.  Black Hawk entitled the drawing “Dream or Vision of Himself Changed to a Destroyer and Riding a Buffalo Eagle.”  Black Hawk had difficulty feeding his family during the winter of 1880-1881, and gave Caton the drawings at 50 cents apiece in exchange for store credit.  Black Hawk is thought to have been killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

Silver Horn in 1930

Silver Horn in 1930

Silver Horn (Kiowa) – Born in 1860 in Southwestern Oklahoma, Silver Horn came from a long line of Kiowa Calender Keepers, who recorded the tribe's history in art.  Between 1870 and 1920, Silver Horn produced over a thousand drawings depicting Kiowa culture, including warfare, coup counting, the Sun Dance, and early representations of Peyote religion.  Silver Horn began making Ledger Art while a prisoner at Fort Marion and met with some success in the art world after his release in 1878.   Like his fellow artist-prisoner, Squint Eyes, Silver Horn would go on to work for the Smithsonian.  Silver Horn  was influential on the Kiowa Six group, who showed at the Venice Beinnale in 1932.

Red Horse

Red Horse

Red Horse (Miniconjou Sioux) – Red Horse was a Lakota Sioux sub-chief and a witness to the Battle of Little Bighorn.  He recorded his account of it at the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1881 in a series of 41 drawings.  Following the battle, reporters were eager to interview Red Horse, whose account of the battle is considered important as there were no U.S. Army survivors from the battle, Custer's command being annihilated.  Red Horse's drawings depict the dismemberment and mutilation of the 7th Calvary soldiers.  The Plains Indians believed that in the afterlife, the soldiers would also be dismembered and mutilated.  To be fair, the Indian Wars was a savage affair, and atrocities occurred on both sides.  The U.S. Army was also guilty of desecrating the dead, such as at the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.  

Aside for their historical significance, I also appreciate the work for their aesthetic qualities.  I find the informal, democratic (everyone draws), and personal nature of the work refreshing and inviting.  Often, the line and color quality is also interesting as well.  Ledger Art also anticipates Modern Art's interest in collage, albeit out of necessity, since the artists used what ever paper they could find to draw on.  A good source for researching Plains Indian Ledger Art can be found at plainsledgerart.org

Starting in the 1960's, there was a revival of the Ledger Art tradition among Native American artists, notably Terrance Guardipee, Michael Horse, John Pepion, Dolores Purdy Corcoran, and Eddie Encinas.  In some cases, the artists purchase dated paper and documents to draw on, often using the medium to comment on contemporary Native American issues.

Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Weimar Berlin by Chris Hall

Otto Dix and George Grosz were both artists in Post World War I Weimar Berlin and participated in the New Objectivity art movement.  Both artists served in the German Army and their experiences during the war colored their art work.  Dix and Grosz were also ruthless, sharp observers of Weirmar Berlin decadence after the wartime defeat and the financial collapse.  The Weimar Republic encompassed the years between 1918 and 1933, when Hitler came to power.  The Weimar Republic was a Renaissance in intellectual production.  Germany was forefront in advancements in science, technology, literature, philosophy, and art.  Nine Germans won Nobel Prizes during the Weimar Republic, including Albert Einstein, for Physics in 1921.  Despite the progressiveness of the era, the Weimar Republic was far from stable.

 It was a strange and chaotic time.  Politics were passionate.  Roving gangs of Communists, Anarchists, Pro-Republics, and right-wing Nazi SA stormtroopers not only competed with each other for control of the government, but battled each other in the streets.  The treaty of Versailles, and later the Great Depression, produced inflation, effectively making currency worthless.  As a result, many people resorted to desperate means of survival, and crime and prostitution grew as a result.  During this time, police identified 62 organized criminal gangs operating inside Berlin.  Berlin became a capital of vice.  Aside from prostitution, it was also a hub for drugs (cocaine and heroin) and black market goods. Thrill seekers sought out Berlin as a destination and guide books were produced highlighting Berlin's erotic nightlife entertainment.  There were an estimated 500 venues, ranging from cabarets to brothels, with some catering to homosexual, lesbian, and transgender clientele.  Many Berliners, living in a world of sexual freedom and criminal violence. Became fascinated with lust-murders, or “lustmord,” and publishers met this demand by printing cheap crime novels called 'Krimi.”  

German art, literature, music, and film was made up of Expressionists, Dada, and a movement called the New Objectivity.  Expressionism and Dada had their roots before and during the War years, but the New Objectivity dominated German aesthetics starting in 1920.  Otto Dix and George Grosz formed their own version of New Objectivity called Verism in Berlin.  Verism refers to classical Roman aesthetic, Verus, meaning truth, warts and all.  The new Objectivity rejected Expressionism, with its reliance on Romanticism, fantasy, subjectivity, raw emotion and impulse, and focused instead on representing facts and real circumstances.  New Objectivity themes included the horrors of war, social hypocrisy, moral decadence, the plight of the poor, and the rise of Nazism.  Politically, the New Objectivity was left leaning and iconoclastic; they were hostile to big business and bourgeois society, as well as Prussian militarism and authoritarianism.  

Otto Dix, Self Portrait as Target, 1915

Otto Dix 

Otto Dix was a German Expressionist artist who volunteered for the German Army during the First World War.  He was at first assigned to a field artillery regiment, but in the autumn of 1915 he was transferred to a machine-gun unit on the Western Front and participated in the Battle of the Somme.  By the war's end, Dix had fought on both fronts, and was going to get training as a pilot before he was wounded in the neck.  Dix was  profoundly affected by his experiences during the war and would suffer recurring nightmares as a result.  In 1924 Dix produced a series of etchings that documented his experiences during the war.  Dix's etchings rival Goya's Disasters of War series from 1810-1820 for their gruesome depictions of the horrors of war.  

During the 1920's Dix tried to live a respectable life.  He married and had three children.  Dix began to have some success as a painter and was invited to teach art at the Dresden Academy.  As an artist, Dix viewed himself as both an Expressionist and an objective documenter of his times:  "Art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time." 

When the Nazis came to power, Dix was regarded as a degenerate artist and had him fired from his post as professor of art at Dresden Academy.  Dix had two painting, his War Cripples and The Trench, in the Entartete Kunst exhibition in 1937.  These works were later burned.  Dix was then forced to join the Nazi government's Reich Chamber of Fine Arts and had to promise to only paint inoffensive landscapes.  In 1939 Dix was arrested on a trumped-up charge of being involved in an assassination plot against Hitler, but was later released.  Later, during the Second World War, when Germany's fortunes reversed, Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm home guard.  He was captured by French troops and was held in a POW camp until February 1946.  

Photograph of artist George Grosz

George Grosz

George Grosz was a Dada artist who served in the German Army during the First World War.    After the war, Grosz, along with Dix, would become a New Objectivity artist and make art examining the Weimar Republic's wounded soldiers, prostitutes, politicians, and profiteers.  Grosz was an expert in depicting the despair and wretchedness of man.

In Novermber 1914, at the outbreak of the war, Grosz volunteered for the Army in hopes that  he would avoid conscription and being sent to the front.  Disillusioned, he became a strong opponent of the war and was released for being unfit for duty.  A year later, however, he was recalled into the Army and given the assignment of transporting and guarding prisoners of war.  In 1917 Grosz was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock.  After he attempted suicide, he was hospitalized before being discharged.  For the duration of the war, Grosz, along with his friend John Heartfield, began making anti-war art.  In 1918 Grosz joined the Communist Party.  In January of 1919, Grosz participated in the Spartakus uprising.  Grosz escaped escaped arrest by using faked identification documents.  

In the late 1920's and early 1930's Grosz made art directly attacking Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.  In 1932 Grosz was forced to flee Germany and settled in the United States before becoming a citizen in 1938.  Critics of Grosz say that while in the United States his work became sentimental and Romantic.  After the war, Grosz returned to Germany, where he died on July 6th, 1959, from a drunken fall down a flight of stairs.

Post-Note

A few years back a friend of mine said my work reminded her of Otto Dix.  This surprised me a little bit, as Dix has not been a conscious influence.  It is true that since 2008 most of my work (particularly my drawings) has been a kind of social criticism.  I suppose I could chalk it up to post-graduate disillusionment and the fact that I graduated during a recession.  Before that my work had a more Expressionistic and Romantic tendency.  I don't mind being compared to Otto Dix.  There are worse people to be compared with.

Unusual Christmas Traditions: Caga Tio and El Caganer by Chris Hall

A cartoon featuring both a Caga Tio and a Caganer figure.

Caga Tio

In Catalonia and neighboring parts of Spain, the Yule log tradition has taken on rather scatological connotations.  It is called Caga Tio, or “Shitting log,” and consists of a hollowed out log about 30 cm in length.  The log is propped up with two legs, tripod style, with the high end painted with a smiling face and embellished with a three dimensional nose.  The Caga Tio is complete with a hat with a little red sock hat and a blanket to keep it warm.  

Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, on December 8th, one begins to “feed” the Caga Tio a little bit each night until Christmas Day.  On Christmas Day one puts the back end of the Caga Tio into the fireplace and orders it to defecate.  To make it defecate one beats the Caga Tio with a stick while singing songs about the Caga Tio.  The Caga Tio begins to drop candy, nuts, and other small items, whatever was secretly placed into mouth of the log during the preceding days.  When there is nothing left to “shit,” the Caga Tio usually drops a salted herring, a head of garlic, or an onion.  It may also “urinate” a bowl of water.  The gifts left behind by Caga Tio tend to be smaller gifts.  Larger gifts are delivered by the Three Wise Men.

A Lady Gaga Caganer

El Caganer 

El Caganer means “The Shitter” in Catalonia.  It is a tradition dating back to the 17th century and is found in Catalonia, neighboring parts of Spain and France, Portugal, and parts of Southern Italy around the city of Naples.  El Caganer is a small figurine of someone with their pants dropped and shitting, which is then hidden in the Christmas Nativity scene.  Traditionally the figurine is depicted as a peasant wearing the Catalan red cap or “barretina.”  In the region where El Caganer is common, the Nativity scene doesn’t just include the manger scene, but rather the entire town of Bethlehem, with outlaying scenes which might include a washerwoman by a river, a woman spinning, shepherds tending their sheep or walking towards the manger bearing gifts, the Three Wise Men approaching on horseback, an annunciation scene with an angel, etc.  But sometime during the Baroque period in 1600’s, El Caganer was introduced.  

Some people have interpreted El Caganer’s presence to mean that he represents equality among all people.  Regardless of status, race, or gender, everyone shits.  It might also suggest the idea that God will manifest Himself whenever He is ready, without regard for whether we human beings are ready or not.  Others have thought El Caganer reinforces the belief that the Jesus is God in human form, with all that being human implies.  Of course it may also just be that we are reading too much into it, and the original Caganer was a sick prank.  Many modern Caganers represent celebrities and authority figures, such as clergy, royalty, pop stars, and politicians.  By representing them with their pants down, El Caganer serves as a device to bring the high and mighty down to our level.  

You can print out the image below and make your own Caganer!

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.  


Four of Santa's Contemporaries by Chris Hall

Ever wonder how Santa Claus delivers all those presents to everyone around the world?  He doesn't, he has brothers and sisters throughout the world who help him. Santa Claus isn't the only holiday gift giver this season.  Here is the history of Santa Claus’ other siblings, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Christkindl, and La Befana, the Christmas Witch .

Sinterklaas has Odin's beard but wears St. Nicholas' Bishop Clothing.

Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas is Saint Nicholas’ incarnation in the Netherlands and Belgium.  He really isn’t that much different from the Saint Nicholas as he wears Saint Nicholas’ bishop outfit and is celebrated on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th.  Sinterklaas delivers gifts on the night before, December 5th.  What makes Sinterklaas different is that, like Odin, he wears a long white beard, rides a flying horse, and delivers his gifts by rooftop chimney.  In the Netherlands the horse is named Amerigo, in Belgium the horse is named Slecht Weer Vandaag, meaning "Bad Weather Today."  Sinterklaas is known to carry a large book with a list of all the children who have been naughty or nice.  The American Santa Claus is a direct descendent of Sinterklaas.  Santa Claus is the anglicized name of Sinterklaas, and was invented by Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam, now known as New York City.  

Unlike Santa Claus, who arrives in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer from the North Pole, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from his home in Spain.  Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, so this is why he arrives by boat.  As to why Sinterklaas lives in Spain, some have suggested that the gold balls that are Saint Nicholas’ attributes, while meant to symbolize the three bags of gold, which he gave to the three poor girls as a dowry, are commonly misidentified as being three oranges, and oranges come from Spain.  It should also be noted that Saint Nicholas has been buried in Bari since the 11th century.  Bari is now in southern Italy, but from the 15th to 18th century, Bari was part of the Kingdom of Spain.  

During the Middle Ages, Sinterklaas festivities began to rival Carnival for its drunken excesses. The Protestant Reformation thought Sinterklaas was too reminiscent of the Catholic Saint Nicholas, so Sinterklaas went into hiding.  The role of gift giver was transferred to Christkindl, the Christ Child, and gifts were exchanged on Christmas, on December 25th, not on Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th.  Christkindl was never really popular with the people, and Sinterklaas soon return, but in a more secular form, in the 19th century.  Sinterklaas also returned with a Moor servant, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who helps Sinterklaas out with distributing gifts, but who also punishes the bad children.  Often accompanying the gifts are humorous and sarcastic poems from Sinterklaas, teasing the recipient for well-known bad habits and character deficiencies.   

Image from an anonymous pamphlet showing Father Christmas on trial.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas is the traditional British name for a figure associated with Christmas, a forerunner of Santa Claus.  He is known by different names in different countries, (France, Canada, Ireland, Brazil, Hispanic South America, Portugal, Spain, Armenia, India, Andorra, Romania, Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria all have a Father Christmas figure).  Father Christmas lives at the North Pole, and like Odin, delivers gifts via chimney.  Some have argued that Father Christmas was born sometime after Henry VIII left the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England in the 16th century, but there are clear indications that he was around in the 15th century.  At this time Father Christmas was not a gift giver, but was an instigator of celebration and good cheer for adults on the news of Christ’s birth.  He was a party man and Christmas celebrations rivaled Carnival in their excesses.

 By the mid 17th century and the rise of Puritanism, Father Christmas became a controversial figure.  Royalists supported Father Christmas celebrations, while Puritans wanted to ban them.  The English colonies founded by Puritans in America prohibited the celebration of Christmas.  When the Puritans came to power in 1644 one of the first things Oliver Cromwell did was to enact legislation to ban all Christmas merry making.  Father Christmas was sent packing.  Fortunately for Father Christmas, his exile was short lived, and with the return of the Charles the II, a chastened Father Christmas returned as well.  By the 18th century, Father Christmas was no longer the lord of excess, but became a social progressive, lecturing stingy business owners for their greed and championing the poor.  Charles Dickens used Father Christmas (in disguise as the Ghost of Christmas Present) to scold Scrooge for his miserly ways.  By this time Father Christmas had assumed the role of gift giver.  During the 20th century, Father Christmas was banned in the Eastern Bloc by cheerless communists because of his religious past.  But if the failed Puritan attempt proved anything, it was that you can’t keep good cheer down.  Father Christmas has since returned there, too.

Christkindl and Father Christmas tag teaming up the gift delivery.

Christkindl

Christkindl, or the Christkind, is the traditional gift giver in parts of Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Switzerland, Slovakia, Hungary, France, parts of Poland, parts of Hispanic America, some areas in Brazil, and in the Acadiana region of Louisiana.  Christkindl is translates as the Christ Child.  Christkindl is literally Jesus as a child delivering gifts to children.  Christkindl was introduced by Martin Luther as a replacement for Saint Nicholas during the gift giving festivities during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries.  To prevent any confusion, the gift giving day was moved from Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th, to Christmas Day on December 25th.  Oddly enough, while Christkindl never really became too popular with Protestants, beginning in the 19th century he was adopted more readily in Catholic parts of the world.

Today the Christkind is often depicted as a sprite-like child with blond hair and angelic wings, and the role is often portrayed by a young woman.  Since the 1990’s however, Christkindl has faced increasing competition from Santa Claus, as Santa Claus is not above appearing in advertisements and commercials, while Christkindl usually shies away from such vulgarity.  Kris Kringle is the American pronunciation of Christkindl.  Somehow through time, Kris Kringle (the Christ Child) has become conflated with the bearded, jolly, and decidedly grown-up Santa Claus.   

La Befana, the Christmas Witch.

La Befana

La Befana, or the Christmas Witch, is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5th), but such is her popularity that she often makes appearances around Christmas time as well.  Italians are lucky in that they get gifts from Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or the Christkind, and La Befana.  Befana is thought to descendant from the Sabine/Roman goddess Strenia, who was the gift giving figure in Roman culture on New Years Eve.  Strenia’s and La Befana’s gifts were figs, dates, and honey, though today her gifts are mostly candies and small toys.  La Befana was not popular with some of the early Christians as her celebrations were often noisy, riotous, and licentious affairs.   

According to legend, Befana was approached by the Biblical Magi (Three Wise Men, or Three Kings) on their way to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus.  They asked Befana for directions, and while she did not know the way, she provided them with shelter for the night.  The Magi invited her to join them on their journey, but she declined, saying she had a lot of housework to attend to.  Later, Befana changed her mind and began her own search, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.  She never finds the manger in Bethlehem, and her search continues to this day.  Along the way she leaves good children toys and candy and bad children a lump of coal, an onion, or garlic, or in some poorer regions, such as rural Sicily, simply a stick.  

In another legend, La Befana has a child whom she greatly loves.  The child dies and the resulting grief maddens her.  Upon hearing the news of Jesus’ birth, she set out to see him as she is under the delusion that Jesus is her son reborn.  She met Jesus and presented him with gifts.  Jesus was delighted and in return gave her a gift.  She would now be the mother to all the children of Italy.  So now La Befana flies all over Italy on her broom to deliver gifts to the children on the eve of Epiphany.  Being a good housekeeper, sometimes she will sweep the floor of a house before she leaves.  To some people this is symbolic of sweeping away the problems of the old year to make room for the optimism of the New Year.  The children of the families who she visits will typically leave a small glass of wine and some snacks out for her, but dare not try to catch her in while she is in the house, as La Befana is said to beat with her broom any children who happen to see her.  Like Santa Claus, Odin, and others, La Befana enters the house through the chimney, so she is depicted as being perpetually covered in soot.

Santa's Pagan Origins by Chris Hall

Odin with his two ravens, Thought and Memory.

Odin with his two ravens, Thought and Memory.

Our present day Santa Claus (an American invention) as well as some of his European contemporaries (Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, etc) is an amalgamation of the Christian St. Nicholas and a variety of pagan mythological sources.  In honor of Christmas, I’ve decided to research and write about some of Santa’s pagan antecedents.  Here you will read about the Germanic god Odin, the Yule Goat, the Tomte and Nisse spirits, the Sabine/Roman goddess Strenia, and the giant ogress Gryla and her sons the Yule Lads.  Merry Christmas!

Odin

The name Odin is derived from the Old Norse, meaning “the furious one,” Odin is the king of the gods in the Germanic pantheon and ruler of Asgard.  Odin is associated with war, victory, and death, but also represents wisdom, Shamanism, magic, poetry, prophecy, and the hunt.  Like Mercury in the Roman pantheon, Odin is a Psychopomp, or a guider of souls from one realm to the next.  Like most pagan deities, Odin is ambivalent towards the fate and fortunes of mankind; he is the bringer of poetry as well war.  

Odin rides on a flying horse with eight legs named Sleipner, and is accompanied by two talking ravens, Huginn and Muninn or “Thought” and “Memory.”  Odin’s ravens fly away from him during the day and report the news of all they have seen of the world back to him during the evening.  Having spirit animals, particularly ravens, his relation to poetry and inspiration, as well as his role as a Psychopomp, connects Odin firmly within the realm of Shamanism.  

Odin has one eye in his head, as he sacrificed an eye by dropping it in Mimir’s magic well in order gain wisdom.  Odin prepares a sacrifice to himself by hanging himself from the World Tree for nine day and having himself pierced by his sword, also in order to gain wisdom.  Germanic mythology promotes the notion, then, that with suffering comes great wisdom.

As a Psychopomp, Odin receives the souls of the valiant dead into the Halls of Valhalla.  Only through a heroic death can a soul achieve immortality.  All other souls perish.  Odin saves the souls of the valiant so they can assist the gods during the final battle during Ragnarok. 

Odin carries a magic spear named Gungnir which never misses its target, a magic gold ring which multiplies into nine new rings each day, and the severed head of Mimir which foretells the future.  

The Wild Hunt by Johann Wilhelm Cordes, 1857

Odin is the leader of the Wild Hunt, leading a host of slain warriors and Valkyries in furious and violent pursuit across the sky.  Seeing the Wild Hunt is considered to be a bad omen, foretelling future disaster or war.  Odin’s Wild Hunt takes place around the same time as the Germanic Yule festival, in midwinter.  Wars would often start when the frost thaws in spring.  In the meantime, Odin would make up for it with the Yule festival.  Like Santa Claus, Odin would sometimes climb down the chimney and leave gifts for people.

Odin is killed (or is to be killed) by the wolf Fenrir during “Ragnarok,” which is the “Twillight of the gods” and the world apocalypse.  

After Christianity was introduced, Saint Nicholas rode on the back of the Yule Goat.  Previously, the Yule Goat was a Goat-Man who gave gifts during the Winter Solstice.

Yule Goat

In many Scandinavian countries, the midwinter gift giver was a man dressed as a goat, a Yule Goat.  A popular theory as to why the goat was chosen as a gift giver is that Odin’s son, Thor, rode around the sky in a chariot driven by his two flying goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.  Then Christianity came, and the Yule Goat took a back seat to Saint Nicholas.  Before Santa Claus had his famous reindeer, Saint Nicholas would often keep the company of Yule Goats, sometimes riding them, suggesting his dominance over the devil.  In the Scandinavian wassailing tradition, often times people would dress in holiday costumes.  A rowdy Yule Goat demanding gifts was often included in the mix.  In Sweden the Yule Goat was an invisible spirit that showed up before Christmas to make sure that the Yule preparations were done properly.  The Yule Goat, in straw effigy form, was often the center of a prank where people would the Yule Goat in a neighbor’s house without their knowledge; the neighbor successfully pranked had to rid themselves of the Yule Goat in the same way.  

For a short time beginning in the 19th Century the Yule Goat returned to role of being the gift giver with people once again dressing as goats to distribute gifts.  Once again, the Yule Goat was eventually replaced by the end of the century, but not with Saint Nicholas.  The Yule Goat was instead replaced with the more secular Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus.  Today there is once again a Yule Goat revival, particularly in Finland.  The Yule Goat often takes the form of small Christmas ornaments, but sometimes as a giant straw or stick effigy erected in cities and towns.  Often times these giant Yule Goat effigies are the victims of arson.  Meanwhile, in Finland, many people are once again returning to dressing up in Yule Goat costumes.  

Tomte's Barn Dance by Jan Bergerlind

Tomte and Nisse

They are called Tomte in Sweden and Nisse in Norway and Denmark.  Tomte and Nisse are little miniature versions of Santa Claus.  They are fairies or gnomes who give gifts to people during the winter solstice.  Tomte and Nisse are small creatures ranging from a few inches but slightly under three feet tall. Like Santa Claus, they have long white beards and wear bright red robes.  Sometimes they are depicted as having a single, cyclopean eye.  Sometimes they are also thought to be shape-shifters, able to take on any appearance they choose.  The Yule Goat and the Tomte coexisted, with the Tomte gaining more acceptance with the introduction of Christianity.  However, it should be noted, that while the Tomte seem more benevolent in surface appearance, the Tomte could actually be quite cruel and dangerous.  If treated well, the Tomte and Nisse  would help out with the chores, but if not respected, they would play tricks, start to steal things, and might even maim or kill your livestock.  It should be noted that the bite of a Tomte or Nisse is considered to be poisonous.  The Tomte and Nisse would leave gifts at the doors of people during the midwinter solstice.  In gratitude, and to prevent their potentially lethal pranks, it was a tradition to leave a bowl of porridge with butter out for their kind gesture.  With the introduction of Christianity, the Tomte and Nisse were demonized.  A farmer jealous of his neighbor’s success might accuse him of using a Tomte or Nisse in order to bring about the wrath of the community.  Beginning in the mid 1800’s there was a revival of interest in Tomte and Nisse as the deliverer of Christmas gifts.  It has become quite a confusing affair as the Tomte and Nisse are either in competition or conflated with both the Yule Goat and the American version of Santa Claus.

The Roman goddess Strenia.

Strenia

In ancient Roman religion, Strenia was a goddess of the New Year, purification, and wellbeing.  Strenia has her origin not in the Greek pantheon, but was adopted from their enemies, the Sabines outside of Rome.  The original Romans are thought to be refugees from Troy after their loss during the Trojan War.  Troy is in modern Turkey, near Greece, so they worshiped Greek gods and goddesses.  Adopting Strenia, a goddess of the Sabines, a people native to Italy whom they would conquer, is unusual.  On January 1, twigs from Strenia's grove were carried in a procession to the citadel in Rome.  In return for maintaining her cult, Strenia would bestow good fortune.  New Years gifts called strenae would also be exchanged between people.  St. Augustine writes that Strenia was the goddess who made people “strenuus”, or strong.  The gift giving cult of Strenia survives in Italy today in Befana, the “Christmas Witch.”

On the Winter Solstice, Gryla would leave her cave and look for children to eat.

On the Winter Solstice, Gryla would leave her cave and look for children to eat.

Gryla and the Yule Lads

Once upon a time in Iceland there was a giant troll who lived in a cave in the mountains named Gryla.  Once a year around the winter solstice she would leave her cave in search of her favorite prey, naughty children, who she would boil in a hot stew.  She had three husbands, none of whom could compete with her malice and wickedness.  Some say Gryla is dead, while others have her living in a cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields.  Gryla had many children, including the famous 13 Yule Lads.  By the 17th century the Yule Lads continued in Gryla’s tradition of Christmas violence, each Yule Lad’s behavior ranging from mere pranks to homicidal monsters who eat children.  One by one they leave their cave in the mountains and appear on one of the 13 days before Christmas to scare children who have been naughty.  Sometimes they are accompanied by a giant Yule Cat who attacks and eats the children who do not receive new clothes for Christmas.  

Unlike many other European countries, Icelandic culture remained more resistant to the introduction of Christianity.  Gryla and her offspring never really went underground or were suppressed until 1746.  The stories of Gryla and the 13 Yule Lads had become so terrifying that there was a decree prohibiting their re-telling to children with the intent to frighten.  

During the 19th century, the Yule Lads and even their hideous mother, Gryla, underwent a gradual rehabilitation.  They no longer were the child snatchers and cannibals of folklore, but had become mere thieving tricksters, who, nevertheless, are out to punish bad children on the 13 days before Christmas.  Each Yule Lad was given a name, identifying their specific mischievous character.  They arrive and depart on specific days:  

December 12th.  Stekkjastaur (Sheepfold-stick).  He harasses sheep but is impaired by his stiff peg legs.  Departs December 25th.

December 13th.  Giljagaur (Gulley-gawk).  He hides in gullies waiting for the chance to sneak into a barn and steal milk.  Departs December 26th.

December 14th.  Stúfur (Shorty).  Abnormally short, he steals pans in order to eat the crusts left behind.  Departs December 27th.

December 15th.  Thvörusleikir (Spoon-licker).  He steals wooden spoons with long handles.  He is thin and malnourished.  Departs December 28th.

December 16th.  Pottasleikir (Pot-scraper).  He steals left-over food from pots.  Departs December 29th.

December 17th.  Askasleikir (Bowl-licker).  He hides under beds waiting for people to put down their “askur” which a type of bowl with a lid.  He then steals them.  Departs December 30th.

 December 18th.  Hurdaskellir (Door-slammer).  He likes to slam doors, especially during the night.  Departs December 31st.

December 19th.  Skyrgámur (Skyr-gobbler).  This Yule Lad has a craving for skyr, a kind of Icelandic yogurt.  Departs January 1st.

December 20th.  Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-swiper).  He hides in the rafters and steals sausages that are being smoked.  Departs January 2nd.

December 21st.  Gluggagægir (Peeping-Tom).  He looks into windows in search of . . . something to steal.  Departs January 3rd.

December 22nd.  Gáttathefur (Doorway Sniffer).  He has a large nose which he uses to locate Christmas bread, so he can steal it.  Departs January 4th.

December 23rd.  Kjötkrókur (Meat-hook).  He uses a hook to steal meat.  Departs January 5th.

December 24th.  Kertasníkir (Candle-stealer).  He follows children in order to steal their candles, which were once edible as they were made of tallow.  Departs January 6th.

By the early 20th century the Yule Lads have become basically reformed and have taken on a more benevolent gift giving role comparable to Santa Claus.  They now place gifts in the shoes of good Icelandic children, but occasionally will place rotten potatoes in the shoes of bad children.  Likewise, they are occasionally depicted as wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing, but are otherwise generally shown wearing the red robe costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus.  

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.  

Coptic Art by Chris Hall

I’ve always loved early Christian Art, from the late Roman era to the Byzantine and Romanesque.  Somewhere in between this time period, and nearly forgotten, is Coptic Art.  Coptic Art is essentially early Christian Art in Egypt.  Coptic art and culture is heavily influenced by Hellenistic (Greek) and Egyptian art and culture.  Historically, the Coptic Period began around the 3rd century with the Roman occupation of Egypt, until the Muslim Conquest in the 7th century, although Coptic art and culture can be found as early as the 1st century and as late as the 9th century CE.  Christians never left Egypt, however, and there was a brief demand for new Coptic icons in the mid 18th century.  

Icon painting has a lengthy tradition in Coptic Egypt, dating back to St. Luke the evangelist, author of the Gospel of Luke in the Bible.  Born in Antioch Syria, Luke was not a witness to Jesus teachings, but was among the first generation of Christians afterward and traveled with Paul to Rome to spread Christianity.  According to tradition, Luke wrote his gospel around 60 CE.  Luke also painted the portraits of Mary, mother of Jesus, and of Paul and Peter, making him the first icon painter.  Luke resided for a time in Egypt and contributed to Coptic culture.  Luke was tortured before being hanged from an olive tree on his last missionary trip in Beothia, Greece.  

The Coptics followed Egyptian burial traditions and mummified their dead (the Greeks would cremate their dead).  Coptic artists would paint portraits of the dead in encaustic (pigment suspended in wax) and in tempera (pigment suspended in egg yolk) on to wooden boards, which they would then attach to the mummified bodies, acting as a funeral mask.  This tradition is known as Fayum (or Faiyum) mummy portraiture, due to the majority of the mummy portraits being found in the Faiyum Basin.  Unlike Egyptian aesthetics, the Fayum mummy portraits are more naturalistic, following Greek tradition.  Due to the hot and dry Egyptian climate, the mummy portraits are often very well preserved, retaining their brilliant colors as if freshly painted.  I’ve always been haunted by these portraits.  Looking at the apparent age of the portraits, it seems the vast majority of the dead are very young, some are even children.  Examination of the mummies confirms that the age distribution of the dead reflects the low life expectancy of the time.  Not everyone could afford a mummy portrait, however.  The vast majority of mummy portraits belong to the affluent upper class, high ranking military personnel, civil servants, and religious dignitaries.  Fayum mummy portraits were lost to European consciousness until the Italian explorer Pietro della Valle rediscovered them in a visit to Saqqara-Memphis in 1615.  

Alexander the Great in Medieval Romance by Chris Hall

Alexander the Great conquers the Sea in an early submarine in this French manuscript dated c 1445.

Alexander the Great conquers the Sea in an early submarine in this French manuscript dated c 1445.

When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.  Uknown

The life of Alexander the Great is a fascinating story.  He was born in Macedonia in July of 356 BC, son of Olympias and King Philip II (or Zeus in the form of a snake, if you want to buy into myths).  He was tutored by none other than the great Aristotle.  At twenty, Alexander succeeded his father and he began a campaign of military conquest that would extend his empire south to Egypt and then northwest to India, taking all of the Persian empire in between.  Although he never lost a battle, his men grew tired of fighting and forced Alexander to return home.  Alexander died exhausted shortly thereafter in Babylon, at the age of 32.  On his deathbed Alexander’s generals asked to whom he would give his kingdom.  Alexander replied, “To the strongest.”

In Medieval times the adventures of Alexander the Great were collected in series of romances and recorded in illuminated books.  It seems the authors of these tales had a great imagination and tended to embellish the history a bit with some colorful mythology of their own.  

In these illustrations Alexander the Great meets a hairy Wildman carrying a club.  Their friendship must have gone afoul when the Wildman attacks a lady.  The ever chivalrous Alexander burns the Wildman in a fire.

According to these illustrations, Alexander wasn't content with conquering the land, he also made attempts at conquering the sky in a vehicle powered by griffins.  Alexander is also recorded as having created an early version of the submarine, which he uses to conquer the bottom of the sea.  For some strange reason this illustration shows Alexander accompanied by a cat and a chicken.

Alexander continues to meet strange people and animals on his path of conquest.  Here he is greeted by the Blemmyae, a people without heads on their shoulders, but who have one giant eye in the center of their chest.  He also is recorded as having to battle an army of giant rats and bats, who are inexplicably led by some kind of three horned dragon-deer hybrid creature.

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

The Art of Pompeii by Chris Hall

In 1999 I had the opportunity to tour Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 AD.  I had previously seen some of the art in books and also in the museum in Naples, but seeing the art in Pompeii, in situ, had a profound effect upon me.  It was clear to me that the people of Pompeii thought, felt, and expressed themselves in much the same way we 20th Century people do.  Like us they were obsessed with sex, death, spirituality, nature, and capturing portraits for posterity.  Seeing these artworks among the ruins produced in me some strange, meditative thoughts, on life, death, and art, both as record specific to time and as something universal and eternal.  

Below are some images from Pompeii that I deem to be beautiful, in some form or fashion.  

Click the images to enlarge

Sex

Death

Spirituality

Portraiture

Animals and Nature

History


Love


The Creative Maladjusted by Chris Hall

In February 1970, SPK (Socialist Patients’ Collective) was founded in Heidelberg, Germany.  Their mission as described in their manifesto:  to “turn illness into a weapon.”  They believed that Capitalism was the cause of mental illness run rampant, and that there could be “therapy through violence.”  At its peak, it was composed of nearly 500 people, nurses and their patients among them.  Some members became militant, making bombs before being arrested.  SPK dissolved in July 1971, though many members were absorbed into the radical terrorist group, RAF (Red Army Faction), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, which had its run until April, 1998.

I don’t condone violence as a method to changing things, but I do admire the spirit of SPK, and am intrigued by their idea that mental illness (or rather, as Martin Luther King would say, the creatively maladjusted) can be transformed from pathology to liberation.  Artistically speaking, though, there has long been a history of alternative mental conditions and notions of liberation, from the first shamans who could go into a trance to combat enemies and illness, to Arthur Rimbaud’s idea that the seer must undergo a “systematic derangement of the senses,” up to Antonin Artaud’s notion that art must be a “Theatre of Cruelty,” to shatter false perceptions and realities, the idea being that if I am mad, so must you be, in order to remove the blinders placed upon us society.  

Concerning purposeful derangement, there is the problem of going too far.  You might not ever come back.   Too many artists have tread this path, gambled, and lost.  

Gerhard Richter, Confrontation 2, 1988

This is a portrait of Gudrun Ensslin, one of the founders of the RAF (Red Army Faction).  On October 18th, 1977, Ensslin and two RAF compatriots committed suicide while in prison.  The details are up for debate, but some have suggested that they were all murdered by prison officials.  Richter's paintings from this series, depicting some of the people and events revolving around the RAF, suggests to me a sad loss and pessimism concerning revolutionary ideals.