Merry or scary?: Christmas as the other Halloween
You may have heard of Krampus, the Germanic Christmas demon who brings naughty children something worse than coal.
Santa’s monstrous enforcer immigrated from Teutonic folklore to American pop culture in 2004. That’s when viewers of the Cartoon Network met the hairy merry man-goat in a special holiday episode of the popular “Adult Swim” cartoon The Venture Brothers (think The Hardy Boys meet Jonny Quest on acid).
Since then, the horned horror has appeared on The Colbert Report and in the 2015 comedy-horror film Krampus. Several big cities have begun hosting American versions of the traditional Austrian Krampuslauf (Krampus run). These are something like New York’s SantaCon, only with shaggy monsters mock-threatening giggling children rather than leering red-suited drunks vomiting on the sidewalk (no offense to our fun and harmless local SantaCons; my disdain is only for the notorious East Village douchefest New Yorkers have come to despise).
In recent years, the Triad has been treated to Krampus-themed burlesque shows by companies like Vaudeville After Dark, often starring a literally horny Gavin Glass, aka Stage Slave Gavin, the rare male star on the Southern g-string (or in Gavin’s case, thong) circuit. I’ve read Krampus-themed poetry at Tate Street Coffee, accompanied by my friend Scott Rogers in a repurposed Donnie Darko bunny suit, wrapped in chains and wearing make-up and horns instead of the mask.
But Krampus is not the only creepy Christmas tradition, oh ho-ho-no!
Ever wonder why Edward Pola and George Wyle’s 1963 song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” immortalized by crooner Andy Williams on his first Christmas album, references “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long ago?” That’s because Christmas, rather than Halloween, was once the time for ghost stories. In the land of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, merry and scary went together like bangers and mash.
This is partially due to climate. Here, we seldom get much snow until after the New Year, but in much of Europe, as in the northern United States, white Christmases are common. Although textual evidence suggests that Jesus was born in summer or early fall, the early Church chose late December for both symbolic and practical reasons. Symbolic because it was the darkest part of the year and thus a fitting prelude to renewal and salvation, practical because it marked the Winter Solstice and the Church co-opted pagan holidays.
“A sad tale’s best for winter,” says precocious young Prince Mamillius in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, threatening to tell his mother Hermione “one of sprites and goblins.” Here “sad” assumes a somewhat broader meaning than it does today, as Mamillius wants to make his mom shudder, not cry. She laughingly calls his bluff, daring him “do your best / To fright me with your sprites,” but before the poor kid can say more than “There was a man / Dwelt by a churchyard,” his insane father King Leontes barges in, accuses Hermione of infidelity and their son of being a bastard, and throws the boy into prison, where he dies offstage. Despite this, the play’s last two acts are comical, with a happy ending.
A century later, those sprites and goblins were explicitly associated not just with “the bleak midwinter,” but Christmastide, the 12 days between Dec. 25 and Jan. 5.
In 1734, the London publisher Fenwick printed Round about our Coal Fire, or, Christmas Entertainments, Together with some Curious Memoirs of Old Father Christmas; Shewing what Hospitality was in Former Times. Attributed to “Dick Merryman,” (which now sounds like someone’s Twitter handle), the pamphlet’s first page promised “Raw-heads, Bloody-bones, Buggybrows and such like Horrible Bodies” as part of its Yuletide merriment
One can only imagine what fundamentalists upset at the “Satanic influence” of Harry Potter would make of such “Christmas Entertainments” as the chapter titled “Of Spectres, Ghosts and Apparitions: the Great Convenience arising from them; and how to make them.” But for many churchgoing Christians of “Former Times,” that stuff was as seasonal as a fruitcake, if less horrifying.
By the late 19th century, Christmas ghost stories were an English and American fireside tradition. The most famous is the novella by Charles Dickens originally titled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas. Those who know Scrooge mainly from Mr. Magoo or the Muppets may be unaware just how grim and harrowing his Yuletide journey to redemptive joy truly is, both in Dickens’ text and in such faithful adaptations as the classic 1951 film with Alastair Sim, the 1971 ABC cartoon by the brilliant animator Richard Williams, or the excellent 1984 T.V. movie with George C. Scott. But there are even grimmer 19th Century Christmas ghost stories, one of which, “The Signal-Man,” is also by Dickens.
Grimmer still are those by Montague Rhodes James, sometimes mistakenly called the master of the Victorian English ghost story. That claim is wrong only because James published his classic first collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904, three years after Queen Victoria’s death. He originally read his elegantly gruesome and still horrific tales aloud at Christmas Eve gatherings of his friends and students at King’s College, Cambridge, and then to the boys at Eton, as during his lifetime he was Provost at both institutions.
In the 1970s, the BBC dramatized five stories by James (along with Dickens’ “The Signal-Man”) for their annual program A Ghost Story for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, 1989, an adaptation of Susan Hill’s grim and ghostly novel The Woman in Black was broadcast by the BBC’s commercial rival ITV and proved extremely popular. In recent years, the BBC has revived their A Ghost Story for Christmas broadcast, most notably with 2014’s The Tractate Middoth, adapted by Sherlock co-creator and Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss from a typically grisly M. R. James story.
Creepy Yule traditions are not just an English thing. We Celts, who gave the world Halloween, can get seriously spooky at Christmas, too. Consider the quaint Welsh custom of the Mari Llwyd, which is pronounced something like “Marie Loo-Id” and either means “Grey Mare” or according to some scholars, obscurely references the Virgin Mary (to any Sassenach claiming this shows Celts don’t fully understand their own languages, this proud Scot says “shut yer geggie!”).
The Mari Llwyd is a horse’s skull with beads in its eye sockets, decorated with ribbons and bells, and carried on a pole under a sheet. A child’s Christmas in Wales can include a visit from a spectral Death Horse accompanied by rowdy lads in jester’s caps singing satirical and often drunken songs until his or her parents bribe them with food and ale to go away.
Things are no better (or from my admittedly macabre and irreverent point of view, just as delightful) across the Channel. Père Noël, France’s version of Father Christmas, is accompanied in some Northern and Eastern provinces by Père Fouettard (Whip Father). Formerly a murderous butcher whose dismembered victims were miraculously reassembled and reanimated in a traditional miracle associated with Saint Nicholas (who depending upon the region may or may not be the same personage as Père Noël), Père Fouettard was sentenced to become Père Noël’s enforcer, punishing bad children with floggings.
You may have noticed the carrot or stick theme. Good children receive gifts, but bad ones are lucky if they’re only beaten. In Iceland, you either get a new suit or are devoured by the gigantic Yule Cat, as mothers sew nice kids new outfits on Christmas Eve, but brats become chow for the big kitty preying on children in old clothes.
The grisliest variant may be Perchta. Like Krampus, this former goddess is known in Alpine regions, where her hairy servants are sometimes confused with Saint Nicholas’s horned familiar. Perchta, who can appear as either beautiful or horrific, rewards good children with silver coins, but slits bad ones open and stuffs them with straw.
My favorite (although less grisly) variant of this tradition made it not only to 19th century America but possibly to the Triad, as the “Dutch” (German) settlers who came down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania brought Belznickle to Winston-Salem. While the Belznickle seen today at Old Salem is sometimes called the Moravian Santa Claus, in many Pennsylvania Dutch settlements, there was a female variant also known as the Christmas Woman.
In parts of rural 19th century Pennsylvania and Indiana, a Dutch farmer might sneak out to the barn before daylight on Christmas Day, put on one of his wife’s old dresses, smear his face with soot, wear an old mop as a wig, and come back to greet his children. The Christmas Woman carried both a bag of gifts and a birch switch. Scattering the former on the floor, “she” would declaim “this is for being good!” in a high falsetto voice, then shout “and this for being bad!” while lightly whipping the kids as they scrambled to snatch their presents.
That’s right, on Christmas morning, you got whipped by your father in drag. And modern kids think they have it rough when they have to kiss their drunken uncle or that mustached great-aunt who smells like cheese.
A different tradition still practiced in North Carolina, if only in the Outer Banks, resembles Mari Llwyd more than Belznickle or Krampus. But in the Hatteras village of Rodanthe, the skull atop the sheeted figure is bovine rather than equine.
Like Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, Rodanthe celebrates Old Christmas or “Little Christmas” on Jan. 6, the traditional Feast of the Epiphany. There is a big oyster roast and, in past decades, a marksmanship competition with .22 rifles, as well as the infamous Christmas Brawl (more on that below). There’s music and dancing at the community center, then the annual appearance of Old Buck, two people under a spotted sheet or cow skin holding up a bull’s skull on a pole.
While the tradition is said to commemorate a real wild bull that roamed the island over a century ago, its similarities to Mari Lwyd or the English Hob-Horse suggest an older origin. Some even claim Old Buck is a variant of the Horned God of the Celtic “Old Religion.” Shades of the classic horror film The Wicker Man (no, not the one with Nicholas Cage, the good 1970s original with Christopher Lee).
Oh, and about that Christmas Brawl. In the early 1970s, my father read about the traditional Old Christmas celebration at Rodanthe and told me that we were going to go there the next January. It was one of many things Dad promised that never happened, but one summer, when visiting my great-uncle Olan’s Greensboro poultry farm at Friendly and Holden, I told him about it.
“Don’t do that, Ian-Keith,” said Olan, who treated my first and middle names as if hyphenated. “Not unless your dang fool red-headed daddy wants you and him beat up.” He explained that the “heathen village” celebrated Jan. 6 with a mass drunken fistfight, cautioning that “outsiders get hit first.” An unsigned staff article in the Jan. 4, 2012 issue of the Outer Banks Sentinel titled “And now it is time for Old Christmas celebrations” suggests this pugilistic tradition was dying out when Olan told me that story and gone by 1980.
Please don’t get in a Christmas fistfight, no matter how awful some of your relatives are, but it’s easy and fun to celebrate several of the less violent traditions I’ve described. Tell a ghost story by candlelight or read one in bed with only a small night light illuminating the pages. Read one in e-book form on your tablet with all the lights out, or watch one of 1970s episodes of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas on YouTube. Book a downtown ghost tour (they offer them year-round) at carolinahistoryandhaunts.com. Go to a Christmas party in horns and a furry suit (costumes are much cheaper this time of year than at Halloween). Or visit Rodanthe on Jan. 6 and see Old Buck.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.