We take Santa Claus for granted these days. Those classic Coke and Macy’s images are burned into our global consciousness so that no matter where you are, since childhood you’ve heard the story that Santa is a guy who lives at the North Pole with a bunch of elves who build toys. He flies around in a sled. He wears a red suit to compliment his fat-ass appearance and gigantic white beard but what is downplayed or outright forgotten is that Santa also has a dark side. Kids love the presents and parents don’t want to scare the shit out of their kids these days so gradually over time, the notion of Santa’s travel companions was phased out of the mythology. Thankfully, a legion of fiendish horror bloggers like myself have been hard at work over the last few years celebrating these morbid corners of myth.
Being a parent can be really hard and a time honored tradition of child-rearing is scaring your kids into submission. Kids don’t give a fuck about anything and without a solid grasp on concepts like consequences, you have to be pretty creative if you want them to do what you need them to do. Just as hard as it is for kids to understand consequences, it’s as easy to convince them that something horrible lives in their closets or under their beds so they’d better just shut up and go to sleep or those vague horrors living in the darkened corners of their bedrooms will come for them. So it goes if they also intend to reap their Christmas-y rewards. As the song goes, You better watch out, you better not cry. Santa Claus is, indeed, coming to town, but if you hail from Western Europe, he’s not coming alone. The good kids will get toys. The bad kids will be tossed in burlap sacks and dragged off by some kind of horrible monster, barely kept under control by Santa’s wicked hand.
Most of the Santa mythology derives from the ancient Germanic tribes of Europe in the colder parts of the continent. It’s a reasonable assumption that a lot of the Santa story is attributable to Odin, who is pretty much Soul Brother Number One if you’re into the whole Viking thing. Vikings bought into some appropriately heavy shit when it came to their Godstuff so it comes as no surprise that the very region that spawned the legend of their god-king flying around in the sky also spawned the legend of The Krampus, a horned troll that scooped up the kids that didn’t watch out, cried and pouted, threw them into the basket on its back and carried them away to be cast into a pit where they suffered for all time. It sounds a little heavy handed, if you ask me, but we’re also talking about a people known to have rushed into battle after eating a quarter ounce of magic mushrooms, wearing wolf-pelts.
As the mythology and the entire region was Christianized, the legend of the Krampus remained and took on the characteristics of Halloween, which is fine with me. Any way to milk every last scare out of that holiday is cool. Dudes in Germany, Austria and Hungary dedicated the 5th of December to Krampusnacht and ran wild in the streets in elaborate Krampus costumes banging on doors, threatening people and jangling bells and chains in one last effort to frighten the kinderfolk into being good little kids.
On the other hand, you have Black Peter, actual name Zwarte Piet, the completely insane flip-side of The Krampus. In some regional folklore, Santa operates with a traveling minstrel in black face who doles out the sweets and gifts on behalf of the fat man. In some variations of the myth, Black Peter is a devil – like The Krampus – that Santa wound up fighting and enslaving, and now works for Santa against his will. In others he comes from either Turkey or Spain. They differ in that The Krampus is a roving machine of horror. Black Peter can go either way. The image was softened over the years until he disappeared completely, but in early versions, he dropped off gifts and kids loved him but if they were bad kids, The Krampus characteristics came out and Black Pete would either throw them in a bag and spirit them away to suffer in Spain(?) or would kick their ass with a long-bundle of sticks. David Sedaris tells a pretty funny story about it.
Le Pere Fouettard
In France, Santa Claus plays good cop bad cop with the children and a horrible story emerged in 12th century about Le Pere Fouettard, The Whipping Father. Fouettard begins as a wicked innkeeper who drugs, murders and then cooks the bodies of three children on their way to a boarding school. Saint Nick catches wind of this wicked deed and swoops in to resurrect the children. Le Pere Fouettard is then forced to repent and is then bound by chains by Santa who then drags him around France while he hands out gifts, having La Pere Fouettard either deliver coal to children or outright flog them for their regrettable disobedience to their parents. Parents came up with some fucked up boogeyman stories back in the day, no? A similarly themed story found its way from Germany to the United States in the form of Belsnickel, a figure common to the German settlements in Pennsylvania.
So that’s that. You got kids? Are they acting up this Yuletide season? Tell them these forbidden stories about the dudes who roll tight with Santa Claus and all the horrible things that will happen if they don’t get in and stay in bed when they’re supposed to.