The season is nearly upon us, when people everywhere cast their troubles aside and embrace the holy trinity of crass commercialism, wanton greed and an unfathomable urge to allow some beardy, work-shy pensioner into their homes. We may be about to bomb the shit out of Syria, in another vain attempt to justify a lack of empathy with our fellow humans, but that isn’t going to stand in the way of spending countless billions on an array of unnecessary crap that will be out of date by Easter…Yes, it’s nearly Christmas.
But before you get too carried away with the mince pies and brandy, you may want to reconsider the idea of letting the corpulent old gent down your chimney this year. Don’t be fooled by the fluffy white beard and jolly demeanour – Santa is not the jovial bringer of joy and Christmas cheer that we were brought up to believe…
Growing up on the mean streets of Birmingham, I was always led to believe that the worst that was likely to befall an errant child over Christmas was a possible substitution of coal for that shiny wrapped present under the tree. To the best of my knowledge, cannibalism, kidnapping and the harassment of livestock was never mentioned! It is little wonder that Santa spends his time holed up in some remote and frozen corner of legend…the man is a magnet for the dregs of medieval folklore!
Take the Krampus for example, a bloodthirsty and slightly unhinged member of the entourage who, if you were lucky, would dish out medieval beatings with a birch rod. This was when he wasn’t kidnapping children in a burlap sack and throwing them in the river. This less than festive behaviour proved too much even for the Catholic Church – the people who brought you the Spanish Inquisition! – and the Krampus was outlawed in the 1800s. Undeterred, Santa turned to Belsnickel, who accompanied him across the Rhineland and the Dutch communities of Pennsylvania, ‘coercing’ naughty children into being good. Ragged and disheveled, the Belsnickel would roam the wilds of German-speaking Europe, handing out beatings, cakes and sweets. Now if that isn’t sending out mixed messages, I don’t know what is!…I mean, how much coercing did the children of southwestern Germany need?!
Not to be outdone by their Teutonic neighbours, Santa’s French franchise turned up with their very own Gallic enforcer, in the form of La Pere Fouettard (The Whipping Father), a suitably gastronomic bully whose impressive resume included kidnapping, murder and cannibalism. Then there is Black Peter, a Moor of somewhat dubious antecedents, who apparently arrived by boat from Spain every year with Sinterklass, only to be sent down Dutch chimneys to leave presents and, in some cases, kidnap bad children and take them back to Spain for punishment. Slave, servant or demon, Peter’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards progressive childcare, along with the sensitive matter of his racial stereotyping, has seen him in more enlightened times transformed into a chimney sweep. Political correctness wouldn’t seem to have mellowed his penchant for child kidnapping though.
My personal favourites are the Yulemen from Iceland. Numbering thirteen in all, these mischievous creatures are relative newcomers to Santa’s malevolent horde, having worked their way up through the ranks of Icelandic medieval folklore. They first arrived on the scene back in the 1930s and over the intervening decades have been portrayed as everything from loveable rogues and annoying miscreants, to child-eating demons who hang around with a particularly large and obnoxious black cat. The offspring of a wizened old crone called Grýla, for the most part they seem to spend their time these days leaving gifts in children’s shoes, hassling sheep and peering in through windows to see what is worth stealing. A far cry from their glory days as the bogey men of Icelandic folklore, when tales of their deeds were even outlawed by Iceland’s usually less than sensitive Danish overlords.
So, still want to leave Santa that mince pie? Personally I would be more inclined towards laying a few man traps around the house. And kids, when Santa asks whether you’ve been naughty or nice, you might want to give some serious consideration to your answer…