Key to the Sacred Pattern

15 December 2010

The Darker Side of Christmas

Lurking in the shadows of the neighbor's twinkling Christmas lawn lights is the darker side of the Yule tide.  One rarely associates the holiday season with the ghouls and specters that cavort during Halloween, but in many traditions around the world Christmas does have a dark side.  Aside from the specters in Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the threat of a lump of coal from Santa, and Chevy Chase's Holiday Vacation; American traditions have been insulated from the horror show of Christmas traditions around the world.  Here are just some of stories of Christmas evil that will make you glad that shipping Aunt Tillie's sweater is high on your list of holiday stressors. 

A Tender Norwegian Christmas

Santa riding a goat...
Besides eating lye treated cod during the Holiday season, the Norwegians have a number of frightful Christmas traditions.  The foremost being that of the Julebukk, or the Christmas goat.  Traditions centering around, Julebukk are thought to have come from Thor being depicted as being transported on a sleigh pulled by two goats.  In pre-Christian Norway, during winter celebrations someone dressed as Julebukk and carrying a goat head would burst on to the scene.  Julebukk would then symbolically die and be reborn later that evening.  Another variation in some areas was disguising one's self as a goat and going to their neighbor's homes.  The game was to figure out who was behind the scary goat head.

The tradition was Christianized by turning Julebukk in to a demonic figure.  The demonizing of Julebukk must have given the children one too many nightmares and the use of Julebukk was forbidden by the Church during the Middle Ages.  The ban on Julebukk might have fostered the thought that on Christmas Eve witches and other evil spirits come out of the woodwork and looking for brooms to ride.  To thwart the spirit world, brooms are hidden on Christmas Eve and guns or fireworks are shot off to spook the incorporeal from invading one's home.  Some forms of the Julebukk tradition exist today as more of a door to door caroling event.  Julebukk also makes an appearance on modern Norwegian Christmas trees in the form of straw goats.

Krampus is Comin' to Town

The goat motif extends from Scandinavia to Germany, Austria and some Slavic countries.  There Santa has something of an evil twin brother by the name of Krampus.  Often depicted as a demonic horned goatish creature, Krampus accompanies Santa on his Christmas gift runs.  If a child has been on the super naughty list Krampus will beat them with chains or a switch.  For the semi-naughty, Krampus will just scare the child into being on the nice list for next year.  This particular tradition was born out of the legend that the devil would accompany Santa.  Being the embodiment of all that is good, Santa is able to shackle the devil as his slave on Christmas Eve. 

Much like Julebukk, the Krampus tradition has morphed into something much different in modern times.  Winter celebrations dedicated to the Krampus legends have now turned into a costumed bacchanalia.  On Krampusnacht (Night of Krampus usually on 5 or 6 December) boozing Krampi wander the streets looking for naughty women to spank and other such mischief to get into.  

Whipping Up Some Christmas Cheer

Le Père Fouettard
The French have yet another evil companion to Saint Nick, Le Père Fouettard (the whipping father).  Like our previous examples, Le Père Fouettard has been bound to ride shotgun in Santa's sleigh for his misdeeds.  Said to have been an innkeeper, Le Père Fouettard and his wife planned skullduggery for three wealthy young men who spent the night in their inn.  The pair drugged the lads, stole their money, and then slit their throats.  To cover up their crimes, the boys are cut into pieces and placed into a barrel of stew meat.  Luckily for our three lads, Saint Nicholas was led to the inn by a vision.  There Saint Nick confronts Le Père Fouettard and raises the young men from the dead. 

To punish Le Père Fouettard for his crimes, Santa forced the murdering innkeeper to accompany him on the Christmas gift giving spree.  Predictably, our whipping father punishes the wicked as Santa rewards the good children.  I'm sure in the back of poor French children's minds, Le Père Fouettard's justice will get out of hand and turn them into stew meat.

The mixing of Halloween and Christmas traditions seemed far-fetched to Americans when Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas was released.  Turns out Burton was just following much older traditions than Americans were accustomed to.  This Christmas Eve if you hear something rustling around your tree, make sure you're on Santa's good list.  If you're not, who knows what spirit of Christmas evil you've conjured up!

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