My daughter remains fearful of Santa Claus. Every year, she asks that the big man from the North leave the presents on the back porch instead of breaking in to sneak around the interior of our house. The Louis Armstrong tune “Is Dat You, Santa Claus?” makes me think she is not alone in this concern.
Santa is derived from St. Nicholas. This 4th century bishop possessed courage, strength, as well as supernatural powers. He freed slaves and prisoners, sympathetic to their plight after spending time incarcerated for his religious beliefs. Notably, he rescued a boy held by the Babylonian King. His fondness for children allowed him to hear the wrongs done to them. When a father felt inclined to send his dowry-less daughters to prostitution, St. Nicholas in secret and under cover of night sent bags of gold down the chimney to land in the girls’ stockings. They then possessed dowries, preserving their virtue. When walking through a market, he heard children crying out to him, but saw none. He tracked their calls to a barrel of pickling fish. Nicholas opened the lid and discovered their murdered, dismembered bodies. He kicked over the barrel and restored the children to life. Medieval iconography sometimes depicts St. Nicholas with a captured devil in chains.
After his canonization, his feast day became a celebration when the saint brought presents to reward good children and left switches or coal for the naughty. Some folk disliked the Saint’s stern stance and devised a teammate for his deliveries.
Knecht Ruprecht (translated loosely as Black Devil) in 17th century Nuremberg joined St. Nicholas. This staff-carrying, long-bearded gent handed out gingerbread, fruit, and nuts to well-behaved children, and beat the bad with bags of ashes.
Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) generated controversy in recent years in the Netherlands, Aruba, Belgium, Luxenbourg, and Spain. This 19th century holiday character dressed in Renaissance clothes and sometimes a blackened face. He proceeded Sinter Klaas in parades, scattering cookies and amusing children, but he also brought birch switches called “roe” or lumps of coal in his burlap sack for the poorly-behaved. In Holland today, whole fleets of multicolored Petes, including females, are part of an updated imagining of holiday icons such as this freed slave or chimney sweep who assists with gift giving.
One theory links modern images of Santa and his entourage with the Wild Men of Woden on their thrilling hunts. Woden, or Oden Allfather, with his long, white beard battled frost giants and sent his crows Hugen and Mugen to gather intelligence from around the world, including listening on rooftops around chimneys.
However, one of St. Nicholas’ companions generates such enthusiasm that the day of celebration no longer honors Myra’s bishop. Krampus Nacht many call the 5th of December, marking the day with parades, balls, plays, and frivolity. This terrifying, dark companion glories in punishing the naughty with blows from switches and rusty chains. Krampus carries a burlap sack to abduct the particularly bad and drag them to Hell. Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run, includes elaborately costumed, terrifying demonic Krampuses running amok with their punishments. Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, Finland, France, and other parts of Europe embrace the night of alcohol-consumption and nightmare generation. Krampus’ depictions vary from a sinister, black-clad gent to a horned devil or a hairy man-beast with a monstrous tongue. I’ve found Krampus celebrations here in the United States. Tonight is Krampus Gras in New Orleans. Dallas, TX, Honolulu, HI, Phoenix, AZ, and San Francisco, CA revel with the demon tonight, too. Tomorrow finds Krampus partying in Wellsboro, PA, Denver, CO, Kingston, NY, and Los Angeles, CA. He even makes a late-month appearance on the 13th in Philadelphia, PA and Los Angeles, CA.
Other dark companions for the saint include Certa, Perchten, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, and Klaubauf.
In all, though, remember, “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows if you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. So you better watch out!”