December 6 is the feast of Saint Nicholas, a Christian saint associated with sailors, children, and giving, tradition suggests that he brings gifts to good children on the eve of his feast day. As he is supposed to be good, he is often accompanied by another magical being who punishes, while he rewards. In recent years the tradition of Krampus has been gaining popularity. He is one of Santa’s helpers from central Europe, where Krampus- a hairy monster(s) with horns, wearing belts of chains and bells, armed with switches and whips, and bags in which to carry away naughty boys and girls, often accompany the saint in parades and other pageants. Nicholas has various helpers in that role around the world, in the Netherlands, he is said to come from Spain, so his helper was a moor, known as Svart Piet (Black Peter), who was depicted in blackface because moors were hard to come by in Holland, but that tradition has fallen into disrepute as world travel is more common. Once on shore, he rides a white horse. In Switzerland and Luxembourg, his helper(s), Schmutzli , wears a monks habit. In Poland he is accompanied by both an angel and Knecht Ruprecht. In France, the saint rides a donkey, and is accompanied by Père Fouettard, the butcher who killed 3 boys and chopped them up, and Nicholas brought them back to life. Belsnickel (from belzen, German for to wallop or to drub) was more of a combination of both the carrot and the stick- he is one of the older versions of the nocturnal visitor, going back to the Middle Ages. He was portrayed as thin, wearing black, often fur, and carrying a switch (but with treats in his pocket). Most of these characters were disguised with masks or face paint- probably as they were family or neighbors dressed up to fool the kids (and delight the adults). My favorite version of this was when the visiting St. Nicholas (having been prompted by parents) was able to tell each child of some misdemeanor that they thought no one knew about. (“He knows if you’ve been bad or good!”)
I first heard of Krampus about ten years ago in the Krampus Christmas. I was instantly enchanted and prowled the internet and youtube enjoying videos about Krampus runs, and how craftsmen carve the wooden masks, fit in animal horns, and make the hairy costumes. Apparently so have others because Krampus figures have gained in popularity since then, including a Krampus movie, Krampus tree ornaments, and Krampus nights in America. There are many versions of processions during this time of year where drinks or treats are given the wanderers in exchange for their blessings (or entertainment). The most sedate version of this is singing carols or Wassailing, which combines both entertainment and blessing, and could often bring needed supplemental food or income to the poor. A weird variant is the Mari Lwyd where the singers brought a hobby horse made with a horses skull on top of a pole with a sack covering the man carrying it; this is more likely to take place during the Christmas season rather than Advent (pre-Christmas). As with many “traditional customs”, often we cannot find reference to them before the 17th century. The folks in the 1800s had a delight in studying and resurrecting (inventing) folk customs; and many cards both Christmas and Valentines, depicted Krampus and the horrors coming to naughty children!
The Yule season starts on December 6th as this is the day of the earliest sunset (4:11 in Boston, MA). After this date the sunsets start getting later. But, isn’t the Solstice the shortest day? Yes. January 6th, the 12th day of Christmas, is the day of the latest sunrise (7:13 in Boston- if you go to Trondheim, Norway, the solstice day runs from 10:01 dawn to 2:31 sunset, yowch!). So from December 6-January 6 the days are short, but sunrise and sunset vary. This is probably the reason that this period is considered the prime time for the Wild Hunt and other spirits to visit earth.
There are some who suggest that the Santa legends are associated with the Hunt, and thus that Odin (who leads it in some traditions) was a precursor to Santa. More likely are other early versions of the hunt that were lead by Diana, Holle, and Berchta (depending on region). The Good Ladies led their troop (of dead or souls of sleeping shaman) from house to house, eating and drinking offerings that were left for them, blessing well run households, and creating havoc in poorly run or inhospitable houses. These days tales suggest that Perchta will come during the 12 nights of Christmas and leave a coin for good children, and cut out the internal organs of bad ones and replace them with straw. She is often depicted with a mask and costume with one benevolent face, and one of an scary demonic woman showing both her pre-Christian fertility goddess aspect and her Christian make-over into a demon. When she leads the Wild Hunt it is said to be a troop of the souls of un-baptised children.
Blessings (and the occasional treat) was what one expected from these visitors. Gift giving is a recent development, from the time of the Roman Empire it was more associated with New Year’s celebrations, later transferred to St. Basil’s Day (January 1st). St. Nicholas brought treats like cookies and fruit (and the threat of punishment). I’ll mention more supernatural visitors when the Yul Lads start arriving.
Modern (Wiccan-based) pagans have settled into celebrating 8 major holidays spaced evenly around the year, and based, for the most part on ancient celebrations. There were traditions of having fire festivals (partying around a big bonfire) at Mayday and Samhain, and at the solstice. There were, of course, harvest celebrations, and when the local technology supported it, the summer and winter solstices were noted as special occasions. It is far more likely that seasons were celebrated- harvest, yule, mid-summer, at what ever time was convenient. One doesn’t stop during the harvest to have a party, but is natural to have a blow-out when you have successfully insured that you will have grain (apples, meat, or whatever) for the next year.
After harvesting the grain and beans and fruits and storing those as carefully as one could, there was the animal harvest. Any surplus livestock would be slaughtered to reduce the amount of feed required to get the living ones through the winter, but this wasn’t done until it was cold enough that the meat wouldn’t go bad during the processing. The Saxons called November Blotmonath, the month of meat feasting. (Some meat was salted, some dried, some smoked, some preserved for a while by the cold. In the far north it would freeze. So this time of year was the time for feasts- blots, where you thanked the gods for the meat you were eating. Neighbors could stagger their slaughtering, enabling them to share the labor and the meat while it was still fresh. One didn’t slaughter an animal without thanking the gods, and maybe the animal, for the meat they were providing. Sites like Yeavering have signs if great halls, and collections of skulls, that probably indicate sacrifices and religious feasting. Modern Asatru celebrate Winterfinding as the start of winter- usually at a full moon in October or November (or a weekend near then convenient for the kindred members to get together). We must not imagine that our ancestors did differently- people will always have to negotiate to figure out whose house and what day they are going to get together for the holidays- no matter how they are worked out.
As modern people we have easy access to knowing when the solstices and equinoxes occur. It’s not too hard to watch to find when the sun has set at the lowest spot on the horizon and starts moving back northerly again. People also can set up markers to help them know when these celestial occasions occur- like the sun shining down the passageway at New Grange on the Solstice. Our house has something like that- the rising sun on the equinoxes comes through one bedroom window, through two doorways, and down the hall to hit the far wall of the house only on those days. It’s very cool, and probably totally accidental. But other than something like that, our ancestors probably didn’t have the same precise awareness of the astronomical dates as we have these days. They noticed the various harvests, the first fruits, and other seasons that dictated what they’d be doing for the next weeks- hence Mayday and Samhain (signalling the time of year when spirits would likely be active) as major celebrations. Since we can determine the Solstices and Equinoxes, we have plugged four more holidays between the celestial ones, and there are old celebrations like Candlemas and Walpergis night that fit in those general time frames.
It’s convenient to space the holidays evenly around the year, and many people have worked hard to find out how our ancestors celebrated, but even when we try to reconstruct, the holidays are placed for our convenience. This has been so as long as we have recorded history. The Romans, for example, moved the celebration of the New Year from the logical start of spring, at the equinox, to the Kalends (or first) of January, specifically because their laws settled that elections should take place at New Years. But after they had conquered all the nearby tribes, it took too long for a newly elected consul to get out to wherever the armies were going to attack the next “barbarian” tribe if he couldn’t start until after the Equinox, so they shifted New Year to mid winter. (Who knows why they didn’t change the law about when elections were held instead!) It’s fairly common knowledge that Christmas was switched from the spring (when shepherds are in the fields) to the same day as the Mithraic celebration of the Sol Invictus, so that changing holidays would be easier. There is plenty of precedent for making holidays convenient for the worshipers.
I am thrilled that there is breathing room between most of the major holidays. It’s pretty clear that most cultures think that the beginning of winter is a good time to get together with your friends and celebrate. Since we are still looking around for the site, settling on the date, and looking for speakers, readers and vendors, we don’t have that stuff to announce in December, so I will be posting about holidays this month. I hope you enjoy it, while getting together with your friends (at whatever level is comfortable for you!).
Please join Tchipakkan on the New Normal 8 pm Wednesday, December 13, 2017 (St. Lucia Day), from 8 to 9 p.m. edt. Listen on your computer at http://liveparanormal.com/
If you missed the live show, it’s archived here: http://tobtr.com/s/10461525
By the way, this image is by Sussi1 over on deviantart- available for non-commercial use only. https://sussi1.deviantart.com/art/Tomte-107954573
This week I’ll be talking about the Swedish Tomte, the Danish and Norse Nisse, the Icelandic Yul Lads, English Brownies, and other spirits associated with the winter Solstice holidays. They are generally small, from a few inches to a few feet tall, often with conical or knit caps in red or some other bright color, and look a bit like garden gnomes. Nisse gained popularity during the romantic era and are popular Christmas decorations- along with amanita muscara mushrooms!
These spirits seem to partake both of the ancestral spirit as well as the house or land spirit, and are protective of those whose space and family they share. There are also many tales showing that one shouldn’t disrespect or take the Nisse lightly- for instance the story of the year the farmwife buried the butter in the Christmas porridge, and when the brownie thought he’d been stiffed, he killed the cow. When he ate the porridge, he discovered his mistake and switched the dead cow with a neighbor’s live one. Generally they protected the livestock and often seen with the farm cat.
The Yul Lads (and their mother’s cat) were less benevolent (Mom and the cat were known to eat naughty children) but have been made more safe for company in the modern world. But… I’ll be talking more about these stories on Wednesday and I’d love to have you to call in with questions or stories of your own: 619-639-4606 (live only).
If you can’t make the live show 8-9- and have a question or comment, please feel free to write me a message and I’ll read it on the air.
Want to listen later? Live Paranormal.com archives its shows by date, and I archive them by date, guest, and topic on my website: http://tchipakkan.wordpress.com/the-new-normal/directory-of-podcasts/
Hope you can join us Wednesday night from 8-9 at the New Normal. http://liveparanormal.com/
There’s an amusing interpretation of a nisse here: