By Elizabeth MS Flynn w/a Eilis Flynn
In retrospect, a creepy holiday myth from the Germans shouldn’t be that surprising. Bad dreams are inevitable after a heavy meal starring sauerbraten, after all. Seriously, considering the end of the year is so full of good cheer and twinkly eyes and ho-ho-hos, it’s amazing how many dark, disturbing myths can be found. Or maybe it’s because of it. Maybe it’s the overeating.
The Germans? But the American tradition of Christmas trees all sparkly comes from the Germans, you protest. Yes, but there’s more to it. There’s the matter of that dark little demon Krampus, known as the anti-Santa, giving you coal. Or a switch, but depending on where you are in Europe, that could be even if you’re good.
There’s the pan-European version of Santa Claus, who visits children with his assistants—who again are demons. If you’ve been good, no problem, because Santa will give you prezzies. If you haven’t, though, that’s a problem, because then Krampus takes you away to hell. Merry Christmas! Then there’s Santa’s other assistant, Perchta, who appears before Christmas Day to find out if you’ve been naughty or nice and if you haven’t been good, she’s going to soften you up for Krampus by slicing you open. I have to feel sorry for German-speaking children.
But first, St. Nicholas shows up on December 6 (which is, of course, St. Nicholas Day), with his assistant, Knecht Ruprecht, he with the long, red tongue who apparently shows up wearing dark, ominous clothing and has a stick to punish bad children. But at least he’s just there as a warning for the most part.
It’s not just the German speakers, either. Well, it’s part of the German language family. There’s the Dutch version of Santa, better known as Sinterklaas, who also has a sinister assistant. Zwarte Piet also takes bad children, but instead of taking them to hell, he takes them to Spain. (This may say something about the Dutch attitude toward the Spanish, actually.) What is it about the German language family cultures?
If you’re interested in the Slavic traditions, both before and after the Soviets, there’s the story of Ded Moroz (also known as “Grandfather Frost”), which was the seasonal figure that the Communists used as a substitution for Jesus. These days, Santa Claus has made in-roads into the region. Not necessarily St. Nicholas in Central Europe, though he shows up on St. Nicholas Day and leaves gifts and candy for the good kids, while his assistant, Krampusz (now where have we seen that name before?) or just the devil with no name, leaves birch switches. So it’s not just the Germanic cultures. Europe seems to be a scary place for the holidays.
Back to Grandfather Frost. The legend in Eastern Europe has the fellow traveling in a sleigh drawn by reindeer or three white horses with his assistant/granddaughter, the blond Snegurochka (also referred to as the snow maiden). I didn’t find anything that made Sneggy the snow maiden a scary assistant, so that’s a point for her. The Russians also have Ded Moroz and Sneggy. These traditions could have been brought to the country in the 1600s, but not for the first time, I have to ask what was there before. Again similar but not quite is the Georgian version of Santa Claus, tovlis papa (“grandfather snow”).
Then there are the Scandinavians. Let’s start with the Danes, not so melancholy. They have Julemanden, their version of Santa Claus, who also arrives in a sleigh with reindeer. He has helper elves called nisser, but they’re not scary! Finally, a German family language culture that doesn’t threaten scary things!
Iceland has the mischievous Yule lads, the sons of trolls living in the local mountains, who wreak mild havoc, but pretty mild. They wear strangely familiar red and white suits. And there are the Swedes, with their jultomte, house gnomes, who insist on being fed porridge or they’ll spread some bad luck for the coming year. Okay, a little ominous. Those gnomes are basically Santa Claus in red with white beards, and instead of trying to work their way down a fireplace, they are smart enough to knock and inquire if there are good children around. Nothing like the direct route!
Estonia celebrates Christmas on December 24 and Estonians look forward to a visit from jouluvana on Christmas Eve, and while they don’t have to fear that scary demonic assistant, they do have to sing or recite poetry to get their gifts. That’s not bad, unless you have stage fright. Christmas Day is also a day to visit one’s deceased relatives there.
As always, the Finnish march to their own drummer. They have their Declaration of Christmas Peace that is recited throughout the country every year on Christmas Eve; 1939 was the exception, since they were at war with the Soviet Union (known as the Winter War). And there’s also a tradition of a pre-sunset sauna, leaving the sauna available for the ancestral spirits to return and take their own after the sun goes down.
And if we go to Eastern Europe again and take a look at Bosnia-Herzegovina and so forth, we have Santa with his assistant Krampus (familiar?), who steals the gifts of wicked children and the good children as well! The Slovenes also have Santa Claus and Dedek Mraz (“Grandfather Frost”)(note the similarity to other area figures. Ain’t comparative linguistics grand?). In Bulgaria there’s Santa Claus as “Dyado Koleda,” with “Dyado Mraz,” the similar character introduced by the Soviets, now faded away.
When we drop by Greece and Cyprus, with their Orthodox traditions, there’s St. Basil who is basically Father Christmas, as opposed to St. Nicholas. But there are holiday goblins that show up around the Epiphany, thought to be satyrs, the descendants of Pan.
I was an anthropology major, so I enjoy researching cultures. But this thing about sinister demons around Christmas? Freaky!