Christmas Myths and Festive Gods
Like most Christian festivals, Christmas is a Frankenstein's monstrosity assembled from whichever pagan myths were available at the time. These were stitched together over the centuries to make a serenely joyous worshipful occasion suitable for all the family. But if you know where to look, the devilish side of everyone's favorite shopping holiday pokes through the seams.
So, with many festive merrities, we take a quick peek down the chimney of legend to bring you the Godchecker Christmas Collection. Remember, a God is for life, not just for Saturnalia.
Beware the Anti-Santa!
You'd better watch out. You'd better not cry. You'd better not pout. And the reason why is that you are likely to be savaged by a monstrous demon goat. Allow us to introduce Satan Claus. KRAMPUS is a legendary figure from Germanic tradition who accompanies Santa Claus on his Christmas travels. But there's no mistaking the two. One is a jolly rotund fellow with a fluffy white beard. The other is a menacing shaggy-haired Eastern-European monstrosity with hideous curling horns and a long red evil tongue. They do both carry a sack though. Not for the same reason. Oh no. KRAMPUS is Santa's evil accomplice.
Together they enforce a carrot-and-stick approach to children's behavior. Good kids are rewarded with lovely toys and gifts from Santa's magic sack. Naughty kids get a visit from KRAMPUS who stuffs them into a sack. With much malicious glee.
This legend is clearly designed to frighten the marrow out of wayward youngsters. "That's right Frederick, if you have not been good all year, Mr Krampus will pay you a visit. He will cart you off to his lair where all the naughty children go." At Krampus HQ the kidnapped kids are whipped severely and then eaten alive. Nobody calls the police. KRAMPUS seems to have a license to be horrific. In fact the grown-ups encourage the monster in his repulsive activities.
But he's not all bad. In some versions of the tradition, KRAMPUS does actually bring gifts. Okay, these are evil gifts for horrible people, but it's the thought that counts isn't it? If you are an adult who despises children, he can supply such practical gifts as whips, chains, big sticks, lumps of coal and possibly even hideous homework with which to punish the little'uns.
The origins of KRAMPUS are lost in the wintry gloom of ancient myth. He may have been a Norse demi-deity who went AWOL. On the other hand, goats feature more prominently in European winter celebrations than you might imagine. See YULE-GOAT. It could be a coincidence, but KRAMPUS bears more than passing resemblance to the devilishly horny Greek god PAN.
The Christian church was very cross about all this apparent devil-worship going on. But for once a pagan beastie managed to get the better of Jesus. Despite the severe warnings of priests and saints, the idea of KRAMPUS was just too deliciously horrible for people to abandon. He was immune to taming, evaded bans and dodged every decree that the church could throw at him. A very rare instance of an ancient pagan legend surviving Christianiy unscathed.
KRAMPUS shenanigans continue to this day. December 5th is Krampusnacht, a sort of Hallowe'en redux featuring groups of often inebriated Krampuses (Krampi?) roaming the streets and frightening people. The Night of Krampus is a glorious shlock-horror costume parade where participants delight in running around with shockingly ugly make-up and props such as rusty chains and whips. Tradition dictates that these part-time Krampuses may only be warded off by a token offering of schnapps. This slightly unsavory habit has now passed across to the USA where it now enjoys a bizarre notoriety. Krampus costumes are now available from all festive retailers.
Godchecker rating: Much more fun than dressing up as Santa.
The God of Christmas Parties
He is basically an Agricultural God who made good. SATURNUS was an old Italian deity in charge of crops and harvests, with a winter feast day in December. When Greek culture started to influence the Romans, SATURNUS found himself being mistaken for CRONUS, one of the Greek Titans. It was no use denying it — those excitable Romans would not take no for an answer. He was a dead ringer for CRONUS, they said, and his backstory would be updated accordingly. SATURNUS was soon promoted to Father of the Gods and given superpowers such as the ability to eat his own children without being thrown in jail.
His old winter festival was recycled and expanded it into a huge event, fit for this new improved deity. As usual with the Romans, it was any excuse for a party and the Saturnalia Carnival came to dominate their calendar. This outrageous holiday celebrated not just SATURNUS but life in general. The bleakness of the winter season turned into an extravagant week-long festival of fun. All the normal rules were flipped upside-down. Slaves exchanged places with their masters. Boring senators cracked jokes. Silly hats were worn to formal occasions. Rudeness and lewdness were encouraged and much fun was had by everybody.
Saturnalia included many rituals you may find suspiciously familiar. Gifts were swapped with frenzied good humor. People sang festive songs in the streets. Seasonal greetings were exchanged via slightly embarrassing poetic verses. Copious quantities of food and drink were consumed in an orgy of banqueting excess. And everywhere was heard the festive cry "Yo! Saturnalia!" — a kind of Roman equivalent of "Happy holidays."
Over time, the climax of Saturnalia merged with other December godfests, culminating in the Sol Invictus shindig on — you guessed it — December 25th. There's a blow for church nativities. Christmas Day was invented by pagan party animals.
Or was it? Scholars are still bickering about this. The Bible says a lot of things, but it doesn't mention a peep about when JESUS was born. It could have been the Fourth of July or Groundhog Day. Some experts claim that early Christians calculated a December 25th date by counting backwards from the date of the crucifiction. But if so they kept pretty quiet about it, as the birth of Jesus was not celebrated until after the Roman Empire became Christian.
The early church was far more interested in celebrating Christ's death than his birth. More to the point, we think, the church was horrified by Saturnalia and similar pagan celebrations. Far better for Jesus and Co to hijack the naughty Roman frolics and rebrand them. With the minimum of calendar fudging, December 25th miraculously transformed into Christ's Mass, the birthday of Our Lord.
Godchecker rating: Never mind Jesus — SATURNUS should be the King of Christmas.
Festive Festival of the Winter Solstice
If you're looking for an alternative to Christmas, this festive holiday is the real deal. It is an ancient winter solstice celebration involving VELES, dead spirits and the cyclical nature of time. There is a great deal of fun and entertainment, with dressing up, dancing and much bonhomie. Adolescents travel door-to-door greeting their neighbours, singing songs, receiving candy and pocketing gifts of small change. Which sounds a bit like Hallowe'en to us, complete with the connotations of dead spirits returning to the mortal world. All treat and, so far as we can see, no tricks.
Many cultures attributed the seasonal cycles of the sun with death and rebirth, particularly in places so far north as to experience a polar night. This is usually a cue for parties and frolics.
There is an imprenetrable layer of obscurity covering the origins of the KOLEDA festival but it appears to be named after KOLJADA, the barely-attested goddess of time. Perhaps she was once an important deity, but it seems her festival became far more important than her. Everybody seems to have had so much fun partying that they forgot to pay her any attention. She became little more than a personification of the winter holidays. We are awaiting further info from our roving reporters in Poland. Perhaps after enough festive noggins inspiration will strike.
In some traditions she represents the sun's cycle from one year to the next. And in others she doesn't. There is even speculation that she may be named after the Roman Kalends, which would surely make her a deity of Calendars. Very useful.
Whatever her exact origins, KOLJADA's winter festival was popular long before Christianity came along to gatecrash the party and borrow her ideas. So raise a glass to KOLJADA the next time Christmas rolls around.
Godchecker rating: Bonhomie through obscurity.
Patron saint of Christmas
Born in the third century, Nicholas became Archbishop in Lycia (in modern-day Turkey). He also became Father Christmas. Oh yes, Santa Claus definitely exists. At least, he did. But you may have to abandon a few preconceptions.
A true believer in Christian charity, Nick had a fondness for making anonymous donations. The romantic legend is that he secretly provided dowries to help three sisters whose father was destitute. Without money they would be forced into prostitution. Our Saint hit upon the scheme of clandestine gift-giving. He sneaked up a drainpipe on three consecutive nights and lobbed small bags of gold coins through a bedroom window. These landed neatly inside the girls' stockings, which happened to be hanging up to dry over the fireplace.
You can see where this is leading can't you? Come the morning: "Oooh, look what I've found in my stocking. I'm rich! Just what I always wanted!"
Of course this was all done in the strictest secrecy. That is why you mustn't peep on Christmas Eve. It is said that the father peeped on the third night, jumped to the wrong conclusion, and blew the whistle on our hero. So much for Secret Santa.
From stories such as this grew Nicholas's reputation as a selfless gift-bringer. His legend grew in popularity. Any miracle of any sort was attributed to him. He restored a girl burnt to ashes back to life. He saved innocent victims by staying an executioner's sword at the last second.
He was so venerated that after his death he became part of the Holy Relic trade. His bones were found to give off an oily goo. This was very marketable. It turned out that Oil of Nicholas could cure anything. By miraculous chance it also smelt of fragrant roses — ideal as a perfume.
All these miracles made him a fantastic symbol for Christianity. With a feast day in December and some gentle nudging by the church, it's easy to see how St Nick gradually replaced WODEN or JOULUPUKKI as Europe's Yuletide character of note. Old traditions blended together and St Nick became the definitive Father Christmas aka SINTERKLAAS, SANTA CLAUS, Pae Natal and so on. If you are worried about the red suit and the flying reindeer, do not panic. This is all to do with Finland and is sustained by another substance altogether — not oil, but hallucinatory fungi. Consult our entry on JOULUPUKKI.
St Nick's reputation as a gift-bringer was assured, but perhaps his best gift was to the church itself. The little Orthodox Church in Myra enjoyed a massive boost from the pilgrim tourist trade. It was still reaping profits in 1087. But this caused jealously and concern to unscrupulous traders from elsewhere. One day, a gang of sixty-three mafia-style commandos sneaked into Myra harbor, smashed their way into the shrine and stole his sacred bones. They whipped them away to Bari in Italy — where they reside to this day inside the Basilica di San Nicola.
There the bones of Santa Claus rested, more or less in peace, until modern times. In the 1950s, renovations to the crypt meant that Nick's bones had to be moved. The Vatican took the opportunity to call in a professor to X-ray and measure them. Forty years later a forensic scientist armed with pinhole cameras and the latest tech was given the opportunity for an up-to-date check.
The resulting forensic reports have given us more than the bare bones of his appearance. Saint Nicholas was five foot six inches tall, thickset and short with a bulldog jaw and a broken nose. Not quite the jolly 'Ho Ho Ho' appearance of his festive reputation. Physically he was more like a boxer.
That makes perfect sense — at one point in his career he is reputed to have been imprisoned for biffing a bishop. He must have been as pugnacious as his mortal remains suggest. The good news is that beneath his rugged exterior he really did have a heart of gold.
It was also found that some small fragments were missing — finger bones and so on which had apparently been sold off to raise cash.
Sadly Nick's tomb is below sea level and his bones are slowly deteriorating. But the oil is still collected once a year (don't ask us how). It's diluted with seawater before going on sale to pilgrims. Oh yes, the trade still continues! Why not buy a small bottle of Santa Oil — the perfect gift this Christmas...
Godchecker rating: The original and best, but you wouldn't want to sit on his knee.
THE MANY FACES OF SANTA CLAUS
Ho ho ho! The perfectly mixed-up Spirit of Christmas
He needs no introduction. This jovial Christmas figure is familiar to all, in one form or another. From his home at the North Pole (or Lapland) Santa's elves (or to be more accurate, gnomes) toil endlessly to replicate the latest in toys and games. Meanwhile he sits at his laptop and consults his modern oracles to see who has been naughty or nice. Must be a whole lot easier these days when he can just check Facebook. Is Project SANTA some secret initiative of the NSA?
We are not completely sure how he gets around the world in one night so fast, but numerous organisations are able to track him online via satellite so he must be doing it somehow. Presumably his faster-than-light reindeer are fitted with rockets and dimensional stabilizers to prevent his impossible antics turning him into a festive black hole.
The legend of Father Christmas is a wonderful example of mythological evolution. He is a Frankenstein's mish-mash of myths, from ancient tales of mysterious winter goats to fleeting glimpses of Norse gods hunting across the sky. Almost every country has contrbuted a snippet to Santa's DNA, and all have their own take on the myth.
You might have heard the evil rumour that SANTA-CLAUS is really a creation of the Coca Cola Company. This is a lie. He just freelances there now and again. But it's true that our modern image of Santa comes straight from old Coca Cola Christmas adverts. These were created by one Haddon Sundbolm, son of a Finnish immigrant, who based his designs upon Finnish folklore.
In Finland the traditional winter figure is JOULUPUKKI, the Yule Goat. He seems to be a seasonal remix of WODEN, the top god of the Germanic pantheon, who was in the habit of riding his trusty goats across the sky. As you do.
With the addition of a red leather suit and some white furry accessories, WODEN aka JOULUPUKKI brings gifts from his workshop in Lapland. Unlike his Americanised equivalent, JOULUPUKKI does not fly, as Finnish reindeer prefer their feet firmly on the frozen ground. Also, he knocks politely on the door and doesn't get involved with all that furtive nonsense with chimneys.
Another big influence as the modern Santa evolved was the Dutch SINTERKLAAS, an interpretation of old Saint NICHOLAS with some rather unusual twists. For one thing, he had the bright idea to call Spain his home rather than the frozen North Pole. And instead of a legion of gnomes under his command, SINTERKLAAS has the Zwarte Pieten. Black Peters, as they are known, originated as SINTERKLAAS's exotic oompa-loompa-like assistants. But by the early 20th Century, perhaps due to cultural tensions, they evolved into something of a racist caricature with a role reminiscent of KRAMPUS, the terrifying monster who stole naughty children.
That idea has largely been excised in today's culturally sensitive times. Nowadays the Peters' black faces are cunningly explained away as chimney soot. Such mythological rewriting is as old as the hills, but we cannot totally approve. We would much rather see a black Santa.
Whether you are a believer in the jolly gift-giver or not, why not leave out a mince pie this Yuletide in recognition of one of the most enduringly mixed-up myths humanity has.
Godchecker rating: Who says there ain't no Sanity Clause?
That's all for this Christmas. And a very merry winter solstice to you all.