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This post is the third installment of a series concerning the astonishing 1600 year backstory of Santa Claus (you should start here with part 1, if you want things in chronological order). At the conclusion of yesterday’s post, Saint Nicholas was a beloved saint from Greek-speaking Anatolia who was the focus of miracle stories about fighting demons, helping the poor, and raising the dead. Many lesser-known saints have similar stories (although few miracles are as impressive as the story of Saint Nicholas resurrecting the murdered boys). So how did Saint Nicholas transition from an ascetic Mediterranean wonder-worker to de-facto god of the winter solstice?
The answer involves the multi-century conversion of northern and central Europe to Christianity. In order to facilitate the widespread conversion of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes into the Christian fold, churchmen drew on preexisting traditions and customs. Many pagan deities thus became conflated with traditional saints (a cultural syncretism not dissimilar from what we wrote about in this post about Afro-Caribbean voodoo loa) and many pagan customs worked their way into Christianity. Saint Nicholas was a stern bearded figure whose feast day occurred near Yule (winter solstice). Additionally he had a history of giving gifts, punching people, and performing strange resurrection miracles. Because of these traits Saint Nicholas became identified with Wotan (or Odin), the otherworldly wandering king of Germanic gods.
At Yuletime, Wotan would hunt through the sky on his flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Many of Wotan’s old names and characteristics are those of a wizard-like winter king. He had a long white beard and his epithet “Jólnir” meant “Yuletime god”. He held suzerainty over tribe of magical gnomes/dwarves who acted as his smiths and crafted wonderful weapon for him. If a youth was worthy, Wotan would bring him a shiny knife or axe (which was slipped into a shoe or under the bed). If a youth was unworthy, then the hapless dullard was in for a round of physical punishment or was simply dragged away by trolls and demons. Wotan knew who was worthy and who was not because he had two black ravens “Thought” and “Memory” who traveled through the world taking note of mortal proclivities. Speaking of animal helpers, at Yuletime it was characteristic to leave apples and carrots for Sleipnir (the flying horse) just in case Wotan decided to visit.
Stepping into these big northern shoes was a heady transition for an orthodox Mediterranean saint. Additionally, northern Europe was not culturally homogenous. Saint Nicholas took on different names and characteristics in different parts of Europe. In Germany he was known variously Weihnachtsmann, Nickel, Klaus, Boozenickel, Hans Trapp, or Pelznickel. Sometimes he was served by bestial underlings like Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus. In other regions he worked alone or opposed these winter demons. In the north Sant Nick’s dwarvish smiths morphed into a tribe of elves but in Switzerland they morphed into Moors. Wotan’s ravens turned into the famous naughty/nice list.
Later, in Holland, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, a magical gift-giving bishop who traveled by means of flying sled—and who kept a captured Surinamese servant to help out (you can read about the eyebrow-raising modern interpretations of Zwarte Piet in this article by my friend Jessica). For some reason Sinterklaas was thought to live in Spain during his off-season. England (with its mix of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French culture) had its own traditions of Father Christmas—a nature god clothed in green. Children from France waited for Père Noël to bring them gifts on his magic donkey (and don’t even ask about Ded Moroz, the Slavic Frost King who travels around Russia with Snegurochka).
In other words Saint Nicholas became more interesting and diverse as he was adopted by different folklore traditions. However he also became confusing and strange to the point of unrecognizability. However by the 18th and 19th centuries, new trends of globalization and industrialization were sweeping Europe—and the globe. Santa was ready to put on his red suit and drive his reindeer to his toy factory.
December 6th, was Krampusnacht, a holiday celebrated in Alpine regions of Germany and Austria. The festival’s roots stretch back into pre-Christian times when Germanic mountain folk paid homage to Krampus the child-stealing demon of winter darkness. Krampus was a hell-sent god with goat’s horns, coarse black fur, and a fanged maw. He would visit disobedient or inattentive children and beat them with a cruel flail before tearing them to bits with his claws (in fact “Krampus” means “claw” in old high German). The demon would then carry the dismembered bodies back to the underworld and devour the human flesh at his leisure.
This harsh myth imparted crucial lessons about the cruel Alpine environment—which would literally reward inattention and carelessness with a terrible death and a vanished corpse. However there were also merry elements of year-end saturnalia to the celebration: young men dressed up as Krampus and drank and played pranks while unmarried women would dress as Frau Perchta—a nature spirit and fertility goddess who could appear as a hirsute old beast-woman or as a gorgeous scantily clad maiden. Amidst the mummery, feasts were held and presents were given. Unsurprisingly, when Christianity came to Northern Europe, these pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christmastime festivities. Thus Saint Nicholas–originally a conservative Syrian bishop (who became a protector of unfortunate children after his death) obtained a devil-like alter-ego. This wasn’t even the end of the pagan metamorphosis of Santa. The orthodox churchman also acquired a team of flying reindeer, a tribe of subservient elves, and a magical wife as Christmas traditions moved northwards into Scandinavia and combined with the universe of Norse myth!
For a time the Krampus story traveled with Santa and became part of the Christmastime traditions of German immigrants to America. Christmas cards and holiday stories often featured Krampus and his evil pagan god features were even incorporated into the popular conception of Satan. However, as Christmas became more important to merchants and tradesmen, the darker aspects of the story were toned down. Additionally fascist regimes in Germany and Austria were hostile to Krampus traditions during the thirties (and the grim imagery was not wanted after the horrors of World War II when those regimes were gone). Lately though the figure has been making a comeback in Austria and Germany and even America seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in the fiend
I am writing about this because Krampus, the clawed god of winter death, is a perfect addition to this blog’s deities of the underworld category. However, I have a more personal (and twisted) Krampus tale to tell as well. As you may know I am a toymaker who crafts chimerical animal toys and writes how-to books on toy-making. Recently a friend of mine who is an art director asked if I could build some puppets for stop-motion animation. He asked for a traditional (not-entirely jolly) Santa and for two children with no facial features–the expressions would be digitally added later.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the puppets were for a dark Krampus segment on a celebrity chef’s Christmas special. Anthony Bourdain, celebrity personality, adventurer, and bon vivant wanted to do an animated segment about this murderous gothic god who is still a vestigial part of the holiday. The segment was supposed to go into the nationally broadcast “No Reservations” Christmas special alongside Christopher Walken and Norah Jones, but when network executives took a closer look at Krampus, child-dismembering Alpine demon, it was decided that he should remain a vestige. So much for my showbiz career (of creating an evil Santa puppet and two faceless victims)…. The stand-alone segment can still be seen by itself on Youtube (or below). Don’t worry though, this dark holiday fable has a happy ending—I still got paid!
Ulfilas (ca. 310 – 383) was a missionary and translator who lived during the tumultuous era when the Roman Empire morphed into an entirely different sort of society. His parents were Anatolians who were enslaved by mounted Gothic raiders during one of the wars of that time. After growing up among the Goths, he was raised to the rank of bishop by Eusebius of Nicomedia, the priest who baptized Constantine the Great (the “thirteenth apostle” who remade Europe and lands beyond into Christian domains).
Bishop Ulfilas again left the Empire to proselytize among the Germanic tribes of the Goths. When threatened by an overbearing chieftan, he was allowed to take his Christian followers into the Roman territory of Moesia (in today’s Bulgaria). There, Ulfilas created a Gothic alphabet, based largely on Greek, but with Roman and Runic letters also involved. Bishop Wulfila (as Ulfilas came to be known in his new alphabet) translated the bible into Gothic, the oldest known Germanic tongue. [As a personal aside for my readers, English is of course a Germanic language.] Wulfila was an Arian Christian who rejected the Trinitarian Christological dogma which is nearly universal in Catholic and Protestant churches today.
Here is the alphabet Bishop Wulfila created:
Why am I writing about this? It serves as deep back-story for my exploration of the aesthetic & cultural concept of “Gothic”. The history of that word is a sprawling epic which twists its way through western history with bizarre twists and dark flourishes as strange as any found in Gothic art.