Thursday, December 23, 2021

Anti-Santas

You've probably heard of Krampus, the horned, hairy, bipedal monster from Austrian legend who prowls in December, mainly on Saint Nicholas Day (December 6), and stuffs misbehaving children into his sack to drag them to Hell:

The Krampus Legend

He even has his own website (which appears not to have been updated recently, since the calendar of festive events refers to 2015):

Krampus.com

The Jungian shadow of Santa Claus has other traditional representatives, however. While we joke about naughty children getting coal from Santa instead of presents, those scary Yuletide figures often take over the punishment task, allowing Santa to remain the good guy. Belsnickel, a fur-clad sidekick of Santa in Germany and among German immigrants in Pennsylvania, does play a dual role. He carries both switches to beat bad children and candy for good children. Similarly, another Christmas companion from Germany, Knecht Ruprecht, gives treats to good children but switches and coal to bad ones. He may also beat the naughty kids with the bag of ashes he carries. In the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete, referring mainly to his sooty appearance) whips bad children with a birch rod or carries them off in his sack. Joulupukki, the Yule Goat of Finland, is sometimes portrayed as an ugly creature who frightens children.

In THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS, an entertaining, in-depth exploration of how the true old-fashioned Christmas (which would look to us like a blend of Thanksgiving, Halloween, and New Year's Eve) was converted in the nineteenth century to the child-centered family holiday we know, author Stephen Nissenbaum analyzes the origins and purpose of Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (aka "The Night Before Christmas"). Nissenbaum draws striking line-by-line parallels between Moore's poem and "The Day of Doom," written by a Massachusetts clergyman in the seventeenth century and still popular in the early nineteenth. The major difference between the two works is that the poem about Saint Nicholas includes no threats of "doom" or "judgment." The "jolly old elf" offers only gifts and good cheer, no coal or switches for naughty children. Christmas was being domesticated.

Traditions of anti-Santas bring to mind THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, the movie in which Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, fascinated by the idea of Christmas but not fully understanding it, tries to appropriate the holiday because he thinks it should be more like Halloween. Likewise, in Terry Pratchett's fantasy novel HOGFATHER, when the existence of the Hogfather (the Discworld equivalent of Santa Claus) is threatened, Death steps up to save Hogswatchnight by temporarily filling the role of his fellow anthropomorphic personification. Not surprisingly, Death handles the job in rather eccentric ways. I especially like the conclusion of the novel, in which the Hogfather reverts to his primal persona as a nature deity in animal form, and only saving his life can ensure that the sun will rise at the winter solstice.

At the end of that climactic scene, Death insists that if the Hogfather had not been saved, the sun would not have risen. Susan, Death's granddaughter, asks what would have happened instead. In his customary all-caps dialogue, Death replies, "A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD."

Happy winter holiday season to all!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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