Christmas is a time of light, good tidings, and peace on Earth…mostly. Just like everything else there has to be a balance of light and dark and Christmas is no exception. These strange and scary Christmas traditions may make more than sugar plums dance in your head.
That cute, funny, creepy, unsettling little spy, Elf on the Shelf is a newer tradition. He or she shows up right around Thanksgiving to keep an eye on the children and report behavior back to old Saint Nick. He moves around the house while you’re sleeping for different vantage points from which to narc. He’s watching you. All the time. In your house. There is just something unsettling about a doll that moves around, especially if neither parent can remember doing it.
Elf on the Shelf wasn’t the first little Christmas creeper, however. Greece has had the Kallikantzaroi, or Christmas goblins way before Santa even had elves. These half-animal-half-human hairy creatures live underground and spend their days sawing away at the World Tree. This tree holds up the whole earth and when it collapses so will the world. Christmas is the only time these monsters can come up on the surface and the draw of wreaking havoc on humans makes them forget about the tree even though they were almost all the way through the trunk. For 12 days these scary little devils try to sneak into homes to spoil food, tip things over, break things, and pee in flower beds. To keep them out Greek families will sometimes hang the lower jaw of a pig behind the front door or inside the Chimney. Finally on the day of Epiphany (January 6) the Kalikantrzaroi must return to their underground home only to find the World Tree has healed itself and they must now start over. Hard to tell what is worse, little black devils running amok in your house or a pig’s jaw hanging around.
Aside from the Christ-child only Santa Claus is a widely accepted symbol of all that is goodness and light about the holiday season. But he too has dark counter points.
In Belgium and the Netherlands Saint Nicholas dressed in red bishop-like robes travels from his homeland of Spain by steamship to reward well behaved children. He carries a huge book in which he records children’s behavior. He comes with his helper, Black Pete, sometimes in the plural. Black Pete performs like a jester and takes care of Saint Nicholas’ horse. Good children get a gift from Saint Nicholas’ huge bag dropped down their chimney (some say bad children are in the bag too, what’s with bad children in bags?). According to a traditional holiday song, naughty children get a spanking with Black Pete’s bundle of twigs, and no presents. There is some controversy around Black Pete being a racist symbol but most Dutch parents tell their kids his skin is black from chimney soot. Uh-huh. Let’s not forget he is a total stranger and he gets to spank your naughty kid. Terrifying.
Black Pete and St. Nick circa 1948
In other parts of Europe Saint Nicholas gets a little more hard core and horrifying. Forget elves, forget joking spankers, even goblins don’t compare. Here Saint Nick shows up with Krampus. He’s a hairy, horned, long-tongue wagging demon looking creature who takes his job seriously. He not only whips naughty kids with birch branches but likes to stuff particularly bad kids into his basket that he carries on his back. Guess where they are going? To hell, of course! Those are not the only punishments in his tool bag. He also has been known to pull ears, rip out pigtails, and drown children in ink. Way worse than coal, right?
Think you’ve outgrown this silly story used by adults to control you, well think again. In Germany they celebrate Krampusnacht or Night of Krampus. Grown men dress up like the demonic character and descend on entire towns with torches, chains, and large clanging bells. Parents with pre-teen and teen-aged children will sometimes let the Krampuses into the house for a drink and permission to torment the children. Invited. By your own parents. Into your house. Relieved you don’t live in Germany? He’s making inroads into North America with appearances on television and growing Krampus parties. Coal is looking pretty good right about now for some of you.
Disturbing Image of Krampus in Action
I really hope you have all been good this year. Wishes to everyone for a Merry Christmas. Eat lots of treats, read lots of books, be kind, be generous, think about the baby Jesus, and enjoy your family. Keep a watchful eye on that Elf. For some of you, you know who you are, I trust Krampus doesn’t find you. But if he does can you send me some pictures? Thanks!