'Tis the Season ... (by Rob Manko & Nicole Parish)

November 16, 2015

The holiday season is a time of year that’s packed with tradition and lore. Everyone knows about Christmas trees, stockings, Santa, and so many of these other traditions, but few people talk about the darker side of the Holidays. As the song goes, “be good for goodness sake”, but what happens if you’re not good? Nowadays, it’s a lump of coal in your stocking, but that wasn’t always the case.

Pretty much every culture has their version of foreboding Holiday figure intended to strike fear in the hearts of naughty children. While everyone has moved toward the softer side of the Holiday traditions, we’d like to take a moment to remember some of the figures who used to keep misbehaving children on the straight and narrow.

You stare at the familiar rectangle shaped box and know what’s inside. The disappointment overtakes you as you slowly and unenthusiastically begin to pick at the tape holding the paper to the box. Who wants clothes for Christmas? Why can’t I just get toys and games?

A lot of people don’t realize that getting new articles of clothing for Christmas is a long time tradition. In Iceland they have folklore about Jólakötturinn, or the Icelandic Yule Cat. While the origins of this Holiday fiend are unclear, there are some resemblances to the mythical animal beings in Iceland’s neighboring countries during Advent.

The story goes that the Yule Cat comes around every Advent and prey on those who do not have a new item of clothing before Christmas Eve. The threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. As a reward they would receive a new item of clothing from their masters in order to ward off the vicious Yule Cat. Parents would also use the Yule Cat to threaten the children who were lazy and did not do their chores. The Yule Cat would lurk in the snow peering in the warm hearths to see if people were being lazy or if children were not being good. As a symbol that children were being helpful and doing their work, parents would award them at Yule with new clothes. So the Yule Cat would see the children displaying their new items and move on.

While the threat of being eaten by a big cat seems pretty harsh, there are more twisted holiday folklore. There are even ones that do both rewards and punishments. Well, they are labeled as punishments, but they seem more like something a serial killer would do. Imagine your belly being slit open, spilling your intestines. Then, after your innards have been removed, you’re stuffed with straw like a scarecrow. This is the punishment that would be inflicted by our next mythical figure.

This folklore takes us to Bavaria and Austria. Perchta was a Pagan Goddess of the Upper German regions of the Alps, associated with animals, spinning, and fiber-crafts, and she not only blesses the shepherds and their flocks, but also girls/women spinning yarn during the holidays. She is said to roam the countryside at midwinter, and enter homes during the twelve days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She would know whether the children and young servants of the household had behaved well and worked hard all year, but was particularly concerned to see that girls had spun the whole of their allotted portion of flax or wool. During this time, feasts and traditional processions were held in Perchta’s honor. The traditional food would be fish and gruel and Perchta would even know whether anyone had partaken in this meal. If they had been good, they might find a small silver coin the next day in a shoe or pail. If they had not, she would punish them for their misdeeds as described previously. Some versions of the tale even have her boiling her victims alive!

It seems that the German Alps were a hotbed for these supernatural creatures sent to punish naughty children. Our last, but certainly not our least, folklore is getting a lot of attention lately and is near and dear to our hearts. Known by many names across the continent — Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Perchten, Black Peter, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, Klaubauf, and Krampus, he’s usually portrayed as a classic devil with horns, cloven hooves and monstrous tongue, but can also be spotted as a sinister gentleman dressed in black, or a hairy man-beast. While it’s Santa’s duty to reward the good children with gifts, his dark companion is tasked with punishing the naughty ones. According to folklore, Krampus purportedly shows up in towns the night before December 6, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. December 6 also happens to be Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, when German children look outside their door to see if the shoe or boot they'd left out the night before contains either presents (a reward for good behavior) or a rod (a punishment for bad behavior).

When it comes to punishment, though, Krampus doesn’t stop at mere birch rods. That would be too kind. According to a series of very popular 1800s postcards, Krampus enjoyed ripping pigtails out, leading children off a cliff, sadistic ear-pulling, putting pre-teens in shackles, forcing children to beg for mercy, and throwing youngsters on an Express Train to The Lake of Fire (making no local stops). And then there’s my favorite: drowning children to death in ink and fishing out the corpse with a pitchfork.

These legends, and so many others, have served to give naughty children incentives to change their ways and convince well behaved children to stay on the straight and narrow for hundreds of years. This Holiday Season, we’ll be doing our part by donating a portion of the proceeds from the sales of Krampus, our new seasonal soap and aftershave, to the United Methodist Children’s Fund. Will you be safe from a visit from the Yule Cat, Perchta, or Krampus this year?

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