Scary Facts about Christmas!
Christmastime is nearly upon us, and to help celebrate I’ve dredged up some macabre facts about the most “wonderful time of the year” that you might not be aware of.
The Santa-Satan Connection
Is Santa really an anagram of Satan? Many people think so, citing the fact that Santa is often referred to as “Jolly Old St. Nick,” just as the Devil was once known as “Old Nick” (never mind that Saint Nicholas was a real historical figure, as outlined below).
Others claim Santa hails from the opposite end of the spectrum, as exemplified by his similarities to Zeus, or Odin, identified in Norse mythology as the “God of the sky.” Like Santa Claus, Odin ruled from the far North, had an “All-Seeing Eye” (“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake...”) and gave gifts at Yuletide to those who honored him. Those honorees, BTW, did so at the site of a sacred fir tree not unlike the ones under which we lay gifts each year.
This latter interpretation inflates Mr. Claus to literal Godlike status, which would have him battling Satan (as he does in the bizarre Mexican fantasy film SANTA CLAUS). Makes sense, as in some cultures it’s believed that Santa actually made the Devil his Christmas-time slave. Note also Santa’s alternate moniker Kris Kringle, said to be taken from the German Christkindel, which means, literally, Christ child.
Another possible forerunner of Santa Claus is the Biblical figure Nimrod. After his death Nimrod’s mother Ester (the source of the holiday Easter), allegedly had an evergreen tree planted at his burial site and ordered everyone in the kingdom to decorate it on Nimrod’s birthday.
Nimrod was described as a “Mighty hunter before the lord,” but was also known for less-than-honorable acts like attempting, and failing, to construct the giant Tower of Babel (which pissed off God to no end) and impregnating his own mother!
While on the subject of Santa’s origins, I’ll have to give a shout out to Jouluppukki, or Yule Goat. According to a very old Finnish legend, this figure was a supernaturally endowed gnome who rode atop some sort of beast from out of the North to demand gifts from people--and if they failed to cough up he’d wreak all sorts of horrific mayhem. Somehow or other this monster seems to have morphed into the jolly fat guy we know today.
A related tradition from Iceland posits that a family of thirteen ogres called Jolasveinar, or the “Yule Lads” (each with his own distinct personality) would actually devour children if the gifts offered weren’t to their liking. The Yule Lads are still spoken of in some cultures, although the rough edges have been sanded down considerably.
Have Yourself a Pagan Christmas
It’s a widely known fact that the tradition of Christmas is descended from ancient Pagan rituals, notably the Fertility Festival. This celebration, involving copious food, drink and orgies a‘plenty, fell on the 24th of December, the shortest day of the year. December 25 was venerated as the “birth” of the sun, or the start of the days growing progressively longer.
As I’m sure most of us are now aware, December 25 was NOT the actual birth of Christ (which is believed to fall somewhere in July), yet in 350 A.D. Pope Julius I decreed that it would be celebrated on that date. A shrewd decision, as it combined the Pagan and Christian festivals (essentially making the Sun and the Son one and the same) and appears to have succeeded in inspiring people to join the Catholic Church--apparently the Pope’s main goal all along.
Incidentally, the tradition of Yuletide cookie making reportedly began in Finland with eight carefully cut cookies, including one whose shape (representing the power “Hel”) corresponds directly to that of the present-day swastika!
The True Spirit of Christmas?
One of the wilder accounts of the origins of Santa Claus, along with his eight reindeer and practice of entering homes through chimneys, comes from the Sami People of Lapland. In this region grows a poisonous mushroom that local shamans once fed to reindeer. The animals’ intestinal tracts filtered out the poison so that the 'shroom’s remains, in the form of reindeer urine, were fit to be imbibed. The resulting hallucinogenic trips had the shamans reportedly flying through the sky and returning to their bodies via cottage chimneys.
I have no idea how much of this account is true, or what degree of influence it actually had on modern Christmas traditions, but I really, really want to believe it!
Saint Nicholas, Patron Saint of Pawn Brokers
St. Nicholas, as stated above, was an actual historical figure who lived in the region of modern-day Turkey during the Third Century A.D. A man of deep faith known for his boundless charity and generosity, St. Nick established many of our most cherished holiday traditions, including the name Santa Claus, which began as a mispronunciation of Sinterklaas, a Dutch contraction of Saint Nicholas.
The tradition that most concerns us is that of leaving out stockings on Christmas Eve, which emerges from a (probably apocryphal) story of how St. Nick helped out three poverty-stricken sisters by tossing bags of gold through each of the girls’ windows at night. This is indeed how the stockings-on-the-mantelpiece tradition got started, but it’s also the source of the three gold balls symbol adopted by pawn-brokers the world over, for whom St. Nick was the patron saint.
Christmas in Hungary
In Hungary Santa Claus is known as Mikulas, or “Winter Godfather,” and celebrated via an elaborate series of rituals beginning on December 5, when children take special baths so they’ll be extra clean for Mikulas’ arrival. They also put out shoes for him to fill with goodies (in observance of the “three gold bags” tale outlined above). But here’s the thing: only good children get the goodies. The bad ones get a golden birch so they can be beaten!
Speaking of which...
Santa’s Evil Companions
European folklore has it that several companions travel with Santa on Christmas Eve. These not-so-nice helpers carry a rod (with which to beat unruly children) and a sack (to kidnap especially bad kids). These include Knecht Ruprecht, or Servent Ruprecht, and the horned incubus Krampus. It’s apparently a tradition in Germany for young men to dress up like Krampus and scare people during the first two weeks of December.
And we mustn’t forget Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. Perhaps the most famous of Santa’s companions, this personage is especially prevalent in the Netherlands and Flanders. The Black in his name isn’t accidental, as Black Peter was originally rendered according to bug-eyed, big-lipped “Darkie” stereotypes. Some traditions depict BP as a devil and others a loyal helper, but most of them appear to agree on the fact that Black Peter is a profoundly evil individual.
I’m sure most if not all of us have suffered through a lifetime's worth of obnoxious sugar-coated holiday themed songs, books and movies over the years (“Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, etc). For those of you desiring holiday-themed entertainment with a little more bite, there exist quite a few viable alternatives.
To every Yin there is a Yang, as proven by Christmas horror movies like BLACK CHRISTMAS, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT and DAY OF THE BEAST, all of which provide a solid tonic to the likes of FROSTY THE SNOWMAN and HOME ALONE. So too books like Robert Devereaux’s SANTA STEPS OUT and Thomas Canty and Phil Hale’s unforgettable illustrated poem A MONSTER AT CHRISTMAS.
Christmas ain’t all sweetness and light, as the above should conclusively demonstrate. I feel confident that between the Devil, pagan rituals, magic mushrooms, corrupt Santa figures, child abuse, incest and scary movies, the Christmas holiday truly offers something for everyone!
Sources: associatedcontent.com, wikipedia.com, efl.htmlplanet.com/xmas.htm, livinginblack.ning.com/forum/topics/on-nimrod-christmas-and-easter, and Adam Parfrey’s article “Jesus/Lucifer, Santa/Satan” in APOCALYPSE CULTURE II (Feral House; 2000).