Fantastic and Forgotten Christmas Stories
The holidays are always a time for stories of magic and miracles. Whether the stories are told at a place of worship, at home in front of the fireplace, or in a cinema, these stories have been told and retold for generations. “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” or Dickens’s A Christmas Carol are perhaps the closest thing we have to a modern oral tradition. But like much of folklore, the stories we hear today are watered-down Disney versions.
But this smoothing down of the rough edges isn’t solely the work of Madison Avenue and Mickey Mouse. It has been going on for centuries. As Christianity spread throughout pagan Europe, some native winter tales were transformed to fit a new narrative, to speak to a new audience. Other elements were simply discarded. Many mentions of darkness, violence, or wild spirits have been removed from the stories. Shame that. I find stories that contain both darkness and light far more interesting.
Take Santa Claus for example. Most people today would probably picture something along the lines of the Coca-Cola version of old Saint Nick: a bearded fat man in a red suit. He’s probably smiling and carrying a big bag of toys. But that wasn’t always the case. He was traditionally portrayed as thin and dressed in furs. He was often seen as stern and commanding. According to some legends, he carried a birch rod, and he was a symbol of discipline and punishment. In others, he was focused more on merrymaking and drunkenness. Considering Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of, among other things, pawnbrokers, pirates, sailors, thieves, orphans, and New York, this rougher Santa might be more fitting than the jolly old elf.
And these older tales of Santa often portrayed him accompanied not by elves or reindeer, but by other characters. While Santa rewarded the good children, these assistants tormented the bad children. These included Knecht Ruprecht, the elf-like Jacob Grimm, the devilish sprite Robin Goodfellow, and Krampus.
Krampus has his origins in the pre-Christian folklore of the Alpine region of Europe. Krampus was a beastly, goat-like horned creature covered in fur and possessing a forked tongue. He would punish and frighten bad children, kidnapping the worst of them. Despite this, parents would often invite Krampus to have a sip of schnapps. Interestingly, some modern portrayals of Krampus have transformed this devil into a more harmless cupid-like creature.
Although Santa’s demonic best friends have largely disappeared, many pagan symbols and ceremonies survive in one form or another. December has always been a time of celebration, but for different reasons. On the one hand, winter has traditionally represented a time of death, darkness, and growing chaos. The borders between this world and the next grew weak, and the dead returned. On the other hand, the Winter Solstice was also the time when the sun was reborn, and the days grew longer.
One of the oldest pagan celebrations is the Wild Hunt. It was a ghostly group of hounds and hunters led by everyone from King Arthur, to Knecht Ruprecht, Krampas, and Wotan, AKA Woden, Odin, and Jolnir. It’s that last name that is one of the origins of the word Yule, a month-long celebration that included feasting, eating, and sacrifice. Families would enjoy a Yuletide goat or ham. At this time of darkness and death, evergreen trees were also prized. They were brought into the house, and large Yule logs were burned over the course of the month.
Another celebration is the tradition of Koleda. This festival to honor the god of the underworld and the return of the sun involved groups of children going door-to-door singing to celebrate the end of the old year and the beginning of a new year. At each home, they were rewarded with candy or money.
So this Christmas, after you push back from a table loaded with food and drink to sing songs, exchange gifts, and reward well-behaved children, remember you are celebrating a tradition that harkens back to a time when the forest outside was a dark, dangerous, and evil place.
And if you’ll pardon the Christmas pun, compare those Christmas stories to fruitcake. Although the modern ones are too saccharine, the real ones, the traditional ones, include many flavors: dark and light, bitter and sweet. Sometimes it’s better to remember those old recipes and old stories. And when you realize that stories can survive for centuries because they are dynamic and evolving, well, that adds a special bit of magic to the holidays.
This article was originally posted on December 19, 2012.
Title image by Anne Stokes.