CREEPY CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS
THE ENGLISH CHRISTMAS GHOST STORY
In the UK, Christmas rather than Halloween is associated with tales of spooks and goblins. The most famous Yuletide ghost story, Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” ends on a note of redemption and cheer, but has its share of scariness. MR James, the acknowledged master of the traditional ghost story, amped up the horror quotient, writing about demons and murderous zombies as well as spirits. James was the provost of Eton and read his bloodcurdling tales aloud to the students every Christmas from 1918 until the late 1930s. One story, “Casting the Runes,” became the 1950s movie Curse of the Demon, which in turn inspired Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. In the ’70s and ’80s, the BBC adapted James’ work for their annual program “A Ghost Story for Christmas.”
BEING BORN BETWEEN CHRISTMAS EVE AND EPIPHANY MAKES YOU A MONSTER
We all knew some poor kid born so near Christmas that he or she only got presents once a year. That sucks, but in Medieval Europe it was considered unlucky for other reasons. If you were born between Christmas Eve and Epiphany — the 12 th night after Christmas — you were in serious danger of becoming a werewolf while alive and a vampire after you died. And we’re not talking about pouting girly-man Twilight vampires, but the repulsive, bloated, redfaced, foul-smelling monsters of actual legend. This belief was so strong that in some regions, wives refused to have sex with their husbands in March, lest they give birth to vampires or werewolves (or in Greece, goblins) in December.
THE YULE CAT
In Iceland, children who’d been good and done their chores all year were given new clothes on Christmas Day. The Yule Cat was a feline of unusual size that prowled the countryside on Dec. 25 , hunting boys or girls in worn or patched clothing. If your parents dressed you in hand-me-downs on that day, you were marked as dinner for the Yule Cat.
GOBLINS DOWN THE CHIMNEY
Christmas was not originally popular in Scotland, a Protestant country suspicious of the holiday’s allegedly Catholic origins. Nor did the British tradition of Father Christmas really take hold there until modern times. But on Christmas Eve, fires were kept burning all night long to ward off goblins, who were believed to come down chimneys and eat children, ravish women and defecate on men.
Under the influence of the Orthodox Church, this pagan Russian winter spirit was remodeled on Saint Nicholas, but he was originally said to kidnap children on Christmas Day and not release them until their parents gave him presents.
In Wales, you began preparing for Christmas by cutting the head off a dead horse in July. You buried it in quicklime until December, when you dug it up, decorated it with ribbons and stuck it on a pole. On Christmas Eve, you and your friends would get roaring drunk and go visit your neighbors. You’d shove the horse-head-on-a-stick through their upper windows while singing rude satirical songs, until they bribed you to go away with food, drink or presents.
One of the most famous miracles associated with Saint Nicholas is the tale of how three seminary students were murdered by an evil butcher, who chopped them up and hid the pieces in barrels. Nicholas reassembled them and brought them back to life. That’s all in the standard biography of the saint. But in France, Saint Nicholas became PÃ¨re Noel, who was said to have enslaved the murderous butcher and transformed him into the immortal PÃ¨re Fouettard (Father Flog), who whips bad children while PÃ¨re Noel brings presents for the good ones.
You may have heard or read David Sedaris’s account of the “six or eight black men” who accompany Sinterklaus in the Netherlands, giving severe kickings to naughty kids and kidnapping the really bad ones to Spain. They/he would be Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who, like many of Saint Nicholas’s folkloric companions, is both an individual and a small mob. Zwarte Piet, who has coal-black skin and dresses in 15 th century Spanish clothes, is for understandable reasons a controversial figure these days. Some of his Dutch apologists claim his face is simply black from chimney soot, but that doesn’t explain the dolls and postcards that depict him as a minstrel show caricature. Warning: if you want to research this topic further, google “Zwarte Piet” and not “Black Peter,” lest you get thumbnail images depicting something else entirely.
Krampus. From 2009 Christmas Card by Ian McDowell.
THE CHRISTMAS WOMAN
In immigrant communities in 19 th century Indiana, Maryland and Pennsylvania, presents didn’t come from Santa but from the Christmas Woman, which wouldn’t be that disturbing if “she” was actually female. Traditionally, Dad would make an excuse to go out to the barn on Christmas day, where he’d dress up in drag, smear soot on his face and return with a bag of presents in one hand and a coach whip in the other. The Christmas “Woman” would then toss the presents on the floor and, while the children scrambled after them, lightly whip them, chanting “that’s for being good and that’s for being bad” in a falsetto voice.
With appearances ranging from Stephen Colbert to “The Venture Brothers,” this hairy Alpine demon is gaining popularity in America. Like several other of Saint Nicholas’s folkloric companions, he’s the enforcer who punishes the bad kids. But despite his birch switch, he doesn’t just whip them. No, he drowns the wickedest brats in streams, dips them in hot tar or simply pops them in a sack or barrel and drags them straight to Hell! Enter “Krampus” in a YouTube search and you’ll find videos of demonic revelers in modern Austria and Bavaria, where annual parades feature drunken young Teutons in shaggy costumes with carved monster faces and enormous horns, who wander the icy streets making noise, mock- threatening children and actually hitting nubile young frÃ¤uleins on the butt. The custom really needs to be introduced here. Imagine the fun if every Salvation Army Santa was accompanied by a lascivious child-abusing man-goat!