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The Monsters Of Christmas Past

December 25, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By RAY CAVANAUGH

Santa Claus has generally been a good deal for kids, who either get a load of presents and sweets or, at the very worst, a lump of coal. Things were far more ominous in the pre-Santa era: Children, instead of anticipating a jolly fat gift-giver, had to contend with a sinister collection that makes Ebenezer Scrooge seem like a cuddly old piker.
Behold this unsavory crew. . . .

Belsnickel

Arriving with gifts in one hand and a whip in the other, Belsnickel was decent enough toward well-behaved kids. But — as related by Bill Toland’s 2012 article, “Meet Belsnickel, the Counter Claus,” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — naughty kids faced threats of being beaten, kidnapped, or even drowned. A disheveled-looking creature wearing furs, Belsnickel was known to arrive shortly before Christmas and remind children about the importance of proper behavior. As a test, he might throw candies and nuts on the floor, and if children were too eager in pursuing these “gifts,” he would beat them.
He also might quiz children on Bible verses or even mathematics, according to Kathy Lauer-Williams’ 2013 article, “The history of Belsnickel: Santa’s cranky cousin,” in the Allentown Morning Call.
Well into the nineteenth century, in many heavily German regions of Pennsylvania, Belsnickel was every bit as popular as Santa. In fact, some persons — at least in Pennsylvania — dressed up like Belsnickel and spent Christmas Eve prowling their community and scaring people with their wild appearance. Taking things further, they might perpetrate acts of vandalism or even show up in groups on the doorsteps of wealthier citizens with the implicit demand to be given free stuff.

Perchta

Another character with a high capacity for both giving and punishing is Perchta. A former pagan deity in the Alpine region, Frau Perchta could show up during any of the twelve days of Christmas. She was willing to reward the worthy, but her approach toward those who misbehaved was to disembowel them, as described by John B. Smith’s 2004 article, “Perchta the Belly-Slitter and Her Kin,” in the journal Folklore. Laziness, above all else, was the character trait Perchta could not stomach. Any idle youth was at great risk of igniting her sadistic wrath.

Krampus

Half-goat and half-demon, Krampus — likely more than any other creature — was the antithesis of the lovable Santa. Krampus, whose name came from the German word for “claw,” beat naughty children with bundles of sticks, before dragging them into the underworld. Often depicted as hairy, horned, and fanged, with a long pointed tongue, this fiendish entity was also known to pursue buxom females.
Having wreaked havoc for many centuries in parts of northern Europe, Krampus is enjoying a current-day vogue in other parts of the world, particularly among persons who wish to engage in anti-Christmas festivities, as stated in Tanya Basu’s 2017 article for nationalgeographic.com. Though Krampus enjoys rising popularity in the U.S., the most extravagant events in his name take place in Austria, near where his legend began.

Gryla

Having existed in Iceland since before the ninth-century arrival of Christianity, Gryla would emerge from her cave in the mountains and venture into cities and towns in search of disobedient children, whom she stuffed into her giant bag. Upon returning to her cave, she used her bagged children to make a stew, as told by Lucy Proctor’s 2012 article, “Bogeymen: Five scary visitors in the night,” for the BBC.
Gryla devoured her stews, but no amount of sustenance could end her hunger. She even devoured her two husbands, though not before giving birth to 13 sons, known as Yule Lads. Taking after their mother, these sons would menace Icelandic families in the days leading up to Christmas.

Père Fouettard

This French name translates to “Father Whipper.” Not much readily accessible English-language information exists on him. But, just by considering the name, one can imagine the nature of this Christmas visitor. . . .
Such characters as Belsnickel, Perchta, Krampus, Gryla, and Father Whipper were not likely the inventions of contented minds. Writing in the mid-1600s, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes used the phrase “nasty, brutish, and short” to describe the overwhelming lot of lives.
The old days were rarely a picnic, particularly for children, most of whom were expected from a very early age to spend the majority of their waking hours at tedious and often dangerous jobs.
And so, even on Christmas, the harsh reality of most lives manifested itself through such abominable beasts — ones who engaged in behavior almost invariably far worse than the juvenile misdeeds they sought to punish.
Fortunately, the modern era has brought a reduction in the percentage of “nasty, brutish” lives. Also fortunate is that the jolly benevolence of Santa has overtaken the monsters.

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