This week is the final episode of 2017 and the final episode of Season 1. We take a look at some of the folklore behind Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas and specifically, his band of little helpers, who have a much darker history than the elves of today might let on.
If you enjoy the podcast, please consider leaving us a review over in itunes or your app of choice. It really helps us out. Cheers!
Krampus & Co.
Dating back to 1823, the American Christmas Elf is an immediately recognisable character in modern, Anglo-American Christmas traditions. They are a short, enthusiastic little helper, who make toys, take care of the Reindeer and check in on children’s behaviour. The Christmas elf carries very little threat and aligns with the benevolent nature of Santa Claus himself.
In a more distant past, tangled among European Folklore where the Elves roots are firmly buried in the frozen winter ground, their origins are far from friendly little cherubs making wooden trains, however.
This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
The Christmas Elf
Elves have a long tradition in Folklore dating back over a thousand years. Largely independent of Christmas, it wasn’t until 1823, with the publication of the classic Christmas poem, attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, “A visit from St. Nicholas” more commonly known today as “The night before Christmas” that the mention of Elves in relation to Christmas and the Anglo-American version of the Santa Claus figure was born. In the poem, Santa Claus himself is actually mentioned as a “jolly old elf”.
“He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;”
In 1857, this was extended when Harper’s Weekly, an American political publication printed a poem called “The wonders of Santa Claus” that referred to his helpers as elves who would make toys and fill the stockings of children on Christmas Eve night. Disney released a short film in 1932 called Santa’s Workshop that had the elves helping out prepping Santa for his journey delivering presents as well as doing tasks around the workshop.This is. more or less, a depiction of Santa’s Elves that still holds true today and has gone mostly unchanged in popular media and entertainment for almost a hundred years.
The concept of “Santa’s little helper” is not entirely modern, however, and long before he was depicted as a rosy-cheeked man full of cheer, with a white beard and red costume, Santa had the help of a different kind.
Saint Nick and his band of merry men
Prior to the insertion of Christianity, the tradition of a gift-bringer during Winter festivals was widespread throughout Europe. In Germanic Paganism, the midwinter festival of Yule had Wodan, or Odin, the leader of the wild hunt, a ghostly visage of a supernatural horde of huntsmen depicted in Folk Mythologies throughout Northern Europe that would tear across the land on midwinter nights.
Odin was often depicted as an old man, wearing a cloak. He had only one eye and a long white beard. He lead the hunt on a white, eight-legged horse named Sleipnir and wielded Gungnir, a legendary mythological spear. He was feared and loved in folklore. The wild hunt was said to bring raucous scenes to villages and as he rode past in the sky on Sleipnir, Odin would leave gifts of fruit and sweets in children’s boots along with weapons for the adult men.
There are some scholars who claim Odin was the original inception of the gift bringing figure we have today, though it is debated, alongside the theory that Sleipnir shows some parallels with Santas sleigh or perhaps the magical reindeer. Though again, these links are debated. The history itself is mired in folklore and varies so much that making any solid links between the two would be a very difficult task.
Although having some earlier presence in Europe, it wasn’t until later, after the widespread introduction of Catholicism, that a more prominent version of the modern Santa Claus emerged throughout Europe and took the primary position for a midwinter festival. Among several other things, Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of Children and was celebrated on St Nicholas’ Day, the 6th of December. Gifts were given in celebration and thanks for the miracles he had worked throughout his life, such as bringing back from the dead three children who had been murdered by a butcher and saving a young family of child prostitutes. He was celebrated for his benevolence and good cheer and in recognition of his miracles and status as a protector. After the Protestant Reformation, Christmas Day was worked into the annual calendar to bring the midwinter festival to focus more on the birth of Jesus, however, the traditions of Saint Nicholas Day remained and many of the traditions merged with Christmas Day and Saint Nicholas as a gift-bringer was one such tradition that shifted to the newer holiday, though his life as a saint was diminished to a sideline, in favour of the nativity tale.
Saint Nicholas, much like Santa Claus today, did not work alone. Just like the Santa Claus figure of today, he too judged the behaviour of children and gifted to them accordingly, and just like with the elves today, he too had a band of helpers. Throughout Europe, there are folk tales of several figures who helped him to judge whether or not children had been good or bad. Some are widely known, whilst others are regional variations and some are more forgiving than others, though they all hold a similar role, that of the judge and jury and as a child in 17th Century Europe, you’d best hope you have behaved well.
First appearing in Germany during the 17th Century, Knecht Ruprecht, or “Farmhand Rupert” is one of Saint Nicholas’ most widely known helpers. In some countries, he was working alone as both benefactor and punisher, whilst in others, he acted as an assistant to Saint Nicholas, doling out punishment to naughty children.
He was depicted as an old man who walked with a limp. He wore tatty and torn robes of black or dark brown and carried a bag of ashes and a long wooden staff. He would approach parents to ask if their children had been good or not, often asking if they had been praying. If the children had been good and had diligently prayed throughout the year, he would give them gifts of fruits, nuts and gingerbread, however, if the children had neglected their religious duties, he would beat them with the bag of ashes. In some stories, he gave them gifts of coal, sticks or stones and in Austria, there were tales that he would take the worst offenders into the darkness of the winter woods and beat them with Birch sticks before stuffing them into a hessian sack and tossing them into the river, never to be seen again.
In Southern Germany, the character of belsnickel is a common associate of Saint Nicholas. There are some scholars who believe him to be a regional variant of Knecht Ruprecht, however, unlike Knecht Ruprecht, belsnickel operated solo rather than working alongside Saint Nicholas. His name is derived from “Belzen” the German word for “Wallop” and “Nickel”, a diminutive form of Nicholas.
Belsnickel was also depicted as wearing tatty robes and walking with a limp. He wore fur clothing carried a large stick and painted his face or wore a mask. He watched children throughout the year, monitoring their behaviour for Saint Nicholas and on the night of Saint Nicholas Day, shortly after children went to bed, he would knock on their windows to enter their rooms. If the children were deemed by Belsnickel to have been good, he would leave them gifts of snacks and caked which he carried in his pockets, however, if the children were judged to have had bad behaviour throughout the year, he would beat them with his stick. That’s if they were lucky. Some stories told of how he would drag the bad children out of their rooms and off into the forest, where they would never be seen again.
Interestingly, due to German migration to the USA, Belsnickel has some folk history in Pennsylvania and Indiana, where celebrations still told stories of his work and legends of his judgements were still told to some children right up until modern times.
Perchta was one of Saint Nicholas more troubling associates. Originally, she was a Pagan goddess, depicted in two forms as both a pale, young woman of immense beauty and a haggard old lady. In her haggard form, she wore black robes, torn and roadworn and had a hooked nose. Some scholars date Perchtas activities during midwinter as far back as the 10th Century and her presence still holds a central role in celebrations today in Austria and many other southern European countries.
Perchta roamed the land during midwinter, followed by either a band of tiny demons or sometimes, unbaptised babies. Throughout the twelve days of Christmas, she would enter the houses of families and ask the children and young servants if they had been good and worked hard throughout the year. If they had been good, she would lay a silver coin in their boots and no doubt a sigh of relief in their hearts, as if they had been deemed to have been bad, Perchta would slit open their stomachs, remove their innards and stuff them with straw and pebbles.
There are still many more of Saint Nicholas little helpers. Most are all variations of the previous, dolling out punishments to naughty children and working alongside the benevolent saint. There is one, however, whose name is perhaps a little more famous in modern times, even outside of traditional folklore. That of the Krampus.
Deriving from “Krampen” the German word for claw, Krampus was a horned, demon-like figure, walking upright on two legs, with the lower half of his body taking on goat-like appearance, complete with cloven hooves. His body is often depicted covered in dark fur and he often had a tail. He had large fangs and a long tongue and was, for all intents and purposes very close to the classical depiction of a devil figure, though he also held many similarities with earlier folk creatures, such as fauns from Roman mythology and Satyrs from the Greeks. By the 17th Century, Krampus was fully integrated into the midwinter festivals and a staple by the side of Saint Nicholas.
One of the scarier elements of the Krampus character are the chains he carried with him, dragging them behind him as he walked into towns and villages, at times thrashing them about to let the children know, Krampus was coming.
He was always depicted as carrying bundles of Birch sticks and often with a wicker basket strapped to his back. These were, in typical fashion, the tools of which Krampus used to punish the bad children.
Krampus also differed from the previous associates of Saint Nicholas in that he had a night dedicated solely to him. The 5th of December, one day before Saint Nicholas Day, was the festival known as Krampusnacht. On Krampusnacht, the horned helper appeared to take care of the bad children, leaving the good for Saint Nicholas on the next night. As night fell, children would clean their boots and place them on the porch or by the front door of their houses and in softer versions of the tale, Krampus would roam the streets, simply placing birch sticks within the boots of the children he had judged as having misbehaved, though in other versions, he would use the Birch sticks to beat the children. In more extreme folk tales, Krampus used his wicker basket to scoop up the children and transport them away, either into the woods or down to his chambers in the underworld, where he would chain and beat them, lost forever.
The nightmare before Christmas
Throughout history, across physical borders and spiritual eras, we see time and again similar depictions of these characters that closely resemble one another. In Iceland, there are the yule lads, whose depictions over time have varied from a band of young pranksters to demonic monsters that eat children, though their role as both judge and gift bringer to children over the Christmas period has remained the same. Iceland too has the myth of the Yule Cat, a feline stalker who visited children on Christmas Eve and would bring either gifts or punishment, depending on their work rate throughout the year, a criteria which was symbolised by the state of their clothing, as only the well-dressed children or workers with new clothes would have been the ones who had worked hard during the cotton harvest in the run-up to Midwinter with a successful harvest being rewarded with clothes made from said cotton.
In some areas of France, there was Hans Trapp, a man who disguised himself as a scarecrow to capture poorly behaved children who was struck down by God and now returned on Christmas Eve to punish poorly behaved children. France also retains the legend of Pere Fouttard, the very butcher who killed the children Saint Nicholas was said to have brought back to life. After the miracle was performed, Pere Fouttard was brought into the service of Saint Nicholas to punish naughty Children on Christmas Eve.
Despite the at times, extreme depictions of Saint Nicholas’s helpers, they are not necessarily evil spirits or demons themselves. Saint Nicholas himself was a benevolent character, he brought happiness and positivity and so, these helpers represented the darker sides of the festivals to allow Nicholas to maintain his benevolent figure. Krampus and Co. were necessary punishers, working together, they were manifestations of a duality as a manner of teaching people right from wrong, good from bad and fostering a fear to keep children in line with the societal expectations of the times. We still use a similar, yet much-softened version of the same folklore in modern society, if you misbehave Santa won’t bring gifts and in some cases will only bring coal, for example. Over time the folklore of the winter gift-bringer has become much more mild, though the end result is the same.
Nowadays, Krampus and various other companions of Saint Nicholas are still celebrated today, though again, their presence is much softened. They have become mythological figures in old folk tales and characters to dress up as and celebrate the Winter Solstice or the holiday season in a time for cheer and as a reaction to the commercialism of Christmas itself. Midwinter remains a period of the year when the darkness surrounds us and we look to celebrations and festivities to see us through and bring us together.
Thanks for listening, please rate, subscribe and… sleep tight