In the bleak midwinter

"Winter", by Ivan Shishkin
"Winter", by Ivan Shishkin (1890)

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

— Christina Rossetti, 1872

The Christmas season is over, and with it my temporary but rich television diet of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman — shows both necessitated and once or twice elevated into rituals of repeated viewings by the involvement of an excited young child. It is all cuddly and positive stuff, of course, with the possible exception of the Grinch, who, despite his alleged role in the “stealing” of Christmas, turns into a benevolent old fellow by the end of the tale, and who is, even at his worst, nothing more dangerous than a grumpy but efficient con-man.

Modern Christmases taste like sugar all the way through, and for children equivocating on whether to be naughty or nice, the most horrifying ultimatum made to them today is that Santa Claus won’t bring them any presents. Even that mild threat may be a hollow one; the famous song asserts that “he knows if you’ve been bad or good” but fails to directly tie the former behaviour to any explicit punishment. So what if he knows you’ve been bad? It seems more likely that he brings presents to everyone, naughty or nice.

It wasn’t always this way. In the middle ages, the Christian celebration of the Messiah’s birth claimed that area on the calendar formerly reserved for heathen myths of midwinter. Over the centuries, the partial merging of the two traditions meant that in places like Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, Yuletide (a pagan festival later assimilated into Christmas) and the handful of weeks on either side of it saw a range of supernatural northern European beings paying visits on medieval villagers who were simultaneously doing their best to worship the Christ child in his warm Levantine manger. But being both pagan and medieval, there was a dark side to these creatures that the thoroughly good and holy Jesus Christ lacked; they were far closer in spirit, if one must make the comparison, to the stern and jealous god of the Old Testament than to the loving god of the New. Do right by them, and perhaps you’d end up with a modest reward. Do wrong by them, and you’d soon regret you’d ever lived.

The Christian side of the season, of course, is represented by both Christ himself and by jolly old Saint Nicholas, who, as his name implies, was indeed a 4th-century Christian saint (and bishop). The historical facts about his life are sparse, but over time his legend grew to encompass a range of purported miracles, and in Germany he became associated with the secret giving of gifts to children. He is celebrated there each December 6th.

But Saint Nicholas did not travel alone. Those attuned to cultural history will immediately think of Black Peter (Zwarte Piet in Dutch, where the name and tradition originates), a mischevious but not evil assistant who was assigned the task of punishing bad children so that the saint did not have to. Yet Peter represented only the 19th-century tail (and a rather racially-charged one at that) of a much older, pre-Christian belief in a being called a Krampus — the fact that the name originates with the Old High German word for “claw” should give you an idea of just how far away we’ve travelled from Santa Claus and your local shopping mall.

Like Black Peter, the Krampus was believed by alpine Germans and Austrians to accompany Saint Nicholas on his rounds, but rather than just stuffing lumps of coal in a naughty child’s stocking, the Krampus — who, by the way, was depicted as a very tall, very shaggy, goat-like man — would inflict corporal punishment on the boy or girl with a cluster of sticks. If the child was particularly naughty, he or she would simply be thrust into a basket and taken away, one supposes, to whatever horrible place the creature came from — a place we can be quite sure was not Christmastown. Such a fate must have been one of the more effective threats levelled on a badly-behaved medieval child by his angry parents. Better than the “no presents” approach, certainly. (Although in fairness, one must wonder exactly what presents a poor village child would have been expecting. Perhaps imagining terrible punishment from an other-worldly goat creature, and the avoiding of the same through good behaviour, was simply a natural anthropological response to having no upside at Christmas.)

Unfortunately, surviving the time of the Krampus would not get your family off the hook for the season, for it was also believed that during the twelve days following Christmas, a goddess would make her rounds of the countryside, inspecting homes and spinning rooms for any signs of disorder or laziness. This was, to the northern Germans, frau Holda, an almost entirely benevolent divine being who taught humans the household arts of spinning, weaving, and reaping, but who was no softy: she was believed to ride with Wotan’s ghostly army (into which host the spirits of unbaptized infants were incorporated when they died), and was fond of setting on fire the spinning distaffs of any girls she thought had been unproductive and slothful that year.

Frau Holda‘s wrath, however, was mild compared with that of Perchta, the south German variant of the same goddess. On her festival day, she expected celebrants to eat only fish and gruel, which was considered fasting fare. The penalty for failing to do so, wrote Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Myths, was ghastly: “whoever has partaken of other food on her day, she cuts his belly open, fills it with chopped straw, and sews up the gash with a ploughshare for a needle and an iron chain by way of thread”. In Swabia, her role was believed to similar to that of the Krampus — though more lethal — as “with hair all shaggy she walks round the houses at night, and tears the bad boys to pieces.”

Festivals based on both of these traditional beliefs are still celebrated today, although, as with many formerly authentic traditions, they have become more of a show put on for curious tourists — in this instance also serving as an excuse for young men to put on scary costumes, get drunk, and run after young women with birch sticks. Indeed, as memories grow vaguer and the demand for strict accuracy vanishes, the traditions of both the Krampus and Perchta have begun to merge. Perhaps this is all the proof we need that the old gods are no longer believed in, because if I was a worshiper of the goddess Perchta — she of the ploughshare and iron chain surgery kit — I know the last thing I would want to do is to make her angry by confusing her followers with St. Nick’s.

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