Krampus: Saint Nicholas’s Enforcer

The devilish Christmas demon that comes for your children.

In Central to Eastern Europe, from Northern Italy up through the Czech Republic but with particular emphasis on Austria, there is an Advent tradition of a demon creature named Krampus. He arrives the night of December 5th to punish misbehaved children. His physical appearance varies but the essentials are that he’s hairy, has cloven hooves, he’s horned, fanged, and usually has his tongue out. He sometimes wears chains or bells but he always has a birch stick to hit children with. For the especially bad kids Krampus has a sack / basket / cart he uses to kidnap them and take them off to be eaten.

Krampusnacht (“Krampus night”) is the night before Saint Nicholas’s day, December 6th. So right before Saint Nicholas comes to reward the good boys & girls with gifts, the “Christmas devil” comes to town to punish the misbehaved children. Towns and cities have parades and Krampusnacht Festivals the night of the 5th where men, dressed as Krampus demons, carry torches and move through the streets intimidating children (and adults, although they sometimes hand out schnapps to the adults). In more remote towns there is less of a “parade” and more of a “mad dash” (the Krampusflauf or “Krampus run”) of demons running through the streets.

While some claim that Krampus is part of an ancient pagan tradition, this is unlikely. There are no records of Krampus before the 16th century. The earliest known Krampus nights took place in 1582 in the Bavarian town of Diessen featuring a precursor to Krampus known as Perchta. Over time the Perch’s evil form known as Schiachperchten most likely transformed into Krampus. By the mid 19th century Krampus became associated with Saint Nicholas (as something of a tamed devil – all of which was against the wishes of the Catholic Church) and as Saint Nicholas morphed into being Santa Claus, Krampus has come along for the ride.

Krampus comes in various styles, but when he comes … it’s trouble.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Part of the allure of Krampus is that he’s a monstrous entity who appears during a season that is generally wholesome and friendly. He’s a bit of Halloween during Christmas. His role as an enforcer, here to punish children, is not uncommon. Santa Claus traditionally has a list of naughty or nice children, doing double duty rewarding the good children and leaving coal for the bad ones. In several European countries however the duty of doling out punishment is outsourced to a companion character. Belsnickel, Père Fouettard, Knecht Ruprecht, and (the very problematic) Zwarte Piet are all varying folk traditions of someone other than St. Nicholas / Santa Claus punishing bad children before Christmas. Evil punishes evil, good rewards good.

Krampus is the bad cop to Saint Nicholas’s good cop. Good vs evil, light vs dark, the duality of life, he’s a dark counterpoint to the positive happy qualities of the season. It’s a carrot and stick approach to raising well behaved children. The Krampus tradition also lets the steam out a bit, it rebels against the conformity of the polite family-friendly Christmas and the increasing commercialization of the season.

Learn more about the Austrian tradition of Krampus and see some Krampus demons in action.

Poinsettia

The Mexican plant that has become a standard part of Christmas (and isn’t poisonous).

The poinsettia comes from Mexico & Guatemala and, in its untamed form, grows to be fairly gangly and around 10ft tall. Over the centuries it’s been selectively bred to be about 2ft tall with very dense foliage. The most well-known characteristic of the poinsettia is of course the bright red leaves along the top of the plant. These red leaves are not flowers but are the bracts of the poinsettia – specialized leaves that are different than the rest of the plant (the actual flowers, aka. the cyathia, are the small buds at the center of the red bracts). These special leaves are green until late autumn when, in the cooler shorter days, they turn red.

Poinsett to Poinsettia

The plant had already been known & used by the Aztecs for dyes and medicine but it came to the attention of the Western world through US Minister to Mexico (and amateur botanist) Joel Roberts Poinsett. Specimens had already been collected around 1803 by German scientific superstar Alexander von Humboldt, but it was re-discovered by Poinsett who introduced the plant to the US.

In 1828 Poinsett sent plants & seeds to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (contrary to internet rumoring, there is no definitive proof that he sent poinsettia plants home to his native South Carolina). In 1835 Scottish horticulturalist and active member of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society Robert Buist named the plant the Euphorbia Poinsettia in honor of Poinsett. Buist also helped introduce the poinsettia to Europe.

Named for US Minister to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett, the poinsettia has been a standard part of Christmas for over a century.

Paul Ecke Ranch

Over the next century the poinsettia was cultivated into different varieties – shorter, taller, different colors, different patterns. The Paul Ecke Ranch of California have cultivated and sold poinsettias since the early 20th century. Having successfully produced cultivars which were more beautiful, more compact, and sturdier than other varieties, the Ecke family began to create and then dominate the market.

For decades they would send free poinsettias from November through December to a variety of media outlets. Ecke Rach poinsettias appeared on the Tonight Show, Bob Hope Christmas specials, the Dinah Shore Show, in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens – all of which furthered the popularity and demand for poinsettias at Christmas. Today the Ecke Ranch (who were sold to the Agribio Group in 2012) is the largest poinsettia producer in the world with about a 50% share of the global market and around 70% of the domestic US market.

That Plant is … Safe

Poinsettias are not poisonous. While you or your pets probably shouldn’t eat the leaves of a poinsettia, you wouldn’t be struck dead if you did. The myth that they are deadly most likely goes back to 1919 when a child in Hawaii died of poisoning which was wrongly attributed to the poinsettia leaf. Research has shown that you would have to eat hundreds of leaves to produce mild irritation or vomiting at most. Given that the leaves are unpalatable and very bitter it’s unlikely you would eat enough to suffer the consequences.

Christmas Ghost Stories

Stemming from ancient pagan traditions, it used to be customary to tell ghost stories at Christmas.

In the northern hemisphere, Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. Knowing that Jesus was not born in December, the date of December 25th was chosen for multiple reasons but not least of which was to usurp various pagan winter solstice holidays. Before people gathered together for Christmas they would gather together around fires (such as the Yule log) for various pagan winter holidays on the longest nights of the year during which they would tell stories. Similar to Halloween it was thought that in these long nights the veil between this world and the next was thin allowing spirits to pass back and forth. As such many people told ghost stories of revenants back from the dead, spirits, and other supernatural creatures.

As people adopted Christianity, winter ghost stories went from being a pagan tradition to a Christmas tradition. By the 17th century the Lord and Protector of England Oliver Cromwell tried to eliminate Christmas ghost stories because of their pagan origins. Cromwell also outlawed a host of other Christmas traditions including caroling and feasts (and that’s not even the worst of Cromwell’s legacy). These traditions eventually came back post-Cromwell but by then some were seen as old-fashioned.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol became the most famous Christmas ghost story of all time.

A Christmas Carol

Christmas ghost stories achieved a new kind of popularity in the Victorian Era through the Industrial Revolution. As the oral tradition of Christmas ghost stories moved to print, old traditional stories as well as new Christmas stories saw a surge in popularity through magazines, novellas, and book collections. Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol took the tradition to a new level.

A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. It’s easier to see it as a ghost story if you remove the Christmas trappings by placing it in another time of year. Unlike the traditional Christmas ghost stories Dickens reinvented the genre by including moral lessons of forgiveness, good deeds, generosity, etc. His ghosts served as a catalyst towards redemption which was very different than the ghosts of other stories which were primarily used for a good scare. Soon the redemptive, somewhat saccharine, aspects of A Christmas Carol were adopted by other authors and the scary ghost portions of Christmas stories slowly fell by the wayside.

Today we rarely associate scary ghost stories with Christmas. Similar to how Santa Claus and Krampus are a seasonal version of good cop/bad cop, we’ve mostly relegated our scary stories to Halloween while telling our hopeful happy stories at Christmas. Still, if you were to put aside the modern concept of Christmas, this dark cold time of year is the perfect time to gather around the fire and tell scary stories in the darkness.

Added info: take a trip through time and read some collections of Victorian Christmas ghost stories.

The Caganer

The Catalonian tradition of including a man pooping in the Christmas nativity for good luck.

In the Catalonia region of Spain, in the northeast corner of the country, there is a Christmas tradition of including the statue of a man defecating in the nativity scene. The caganer (aka “the pooper”) is typically a man wearing the traditional Catalan clothes of a red cap, white shirt, and black trousers crouched down pooping.

While Jesus, Mary, & Joseph are at the center of the nativity scene the caganer is usually off to the side. He can also be moved around each day in a little game of hide and seek. The purpose of the caganer is that he brings good luck by fertilizing not just the land but also the future of the family who owns the nativity. It also shows that everyone is truly equal, that everyone poops. Caganer statues are available in shops around Barcelona and aren’t just limited to the traditional style. You can find caganers modeled after world leaders, celebrities, movie characters, the pope, Disney princesses, and more.

Today you can find a wide variety of caganers, from world leaders to comic book characters.

Learn more about the caganer tradition.
Caga Tió, the “poop log” is fed and later beaten to produce gifts for children.

Caga Tió

The caganer isn’t the only Catalonian Christmas pooping tradition. The Tió de Nadal (aka the “Caga Tió” aka the “poop log”) is a wooden log frequently with a smiling face painted on the one end and little legs to prop it up. The tradition is that children will leave little bits of food for the tió during Advent and on Christmas Eve or Day they beat the log with sticks while singing. This ceremony induces the log, which is partially covered by a blanket, to poop little gifts for children (which have been hidden under the blanket). Once it has served its purposes the log is burned in the fire or thrown out.

Added info: The Catalonians have several traditions associated with pooping. One expression sometimes said before eating is “Menja bé, caga fort!” or “Eat well, poop hard!”

Santa’s Reindeer

Santa’s reindeer are all female and possibly on drugs.

Our primary source of information regarding Santa’s reindeer is the 1823 Clement Clarke Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas). As one of the most influential cultural artifacts regarding Santa Claus, the poem tells us that Santa’s sleigh is pulled through the air by eight reindeer. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, is optionally added to the front of the team based on the Robert Lewis May 1939 story.

All Female Crew

Reindeer are a species of deer native to the northernmost regions of the planet. As an Arctic and sub-Arctic animal they are well-suited to assist Santa at the frigid North Pole even though they are not naturally found at the pole. Reindeer (or caribou as they are known in North America) graze primarily on lichen which is found a bit south of the North Pole. Their ability to see ultraviolet light, an ability beyond our human visual spectrum, allow reindeer to spot food, predators, and mates more easily amongst the highly reflective snow.

Christmas greeting card from 1921 featuring Santa and his flying antlered reindeer.

In pop-culture Santa’s reindeer are almost always depicted as having antlers. Both male and female reindeer grow, shed, and regrow their antlers. Male reindeer shed their antlers around November, female reindeer in late May. Given this time frame, all of Santa’s antlered reindeer must be female.

As for Rudolph, who would confusingly be a female reindeer with a male name, his/her red nose could be attributed to the reindeer nasal system which contains nasoturbinal bones. This system of curled bones increases the surface area with thin tissue inside reindeer noses which helps to warm air on the way in and recapture moisture when breathing out. It may not be glowing red, but for ordinary reindeer their noses are an evolutionary feature that enable them to live in harsh winter conditions.

The Amanita muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric mushroom, is the iconic mushroom featured throughout pop culture, which is native to Northern Europe.

Magic Mushrooms

In any of the original stories of Saint Nicholas his mode of transportation would have been a horse or a donkey. The introduction of reindeer moves the story, and Santa Claus, to the frosty areas of Northern Europe/Asia. As for flying reindeer, the ability to fly is not commonly found in reindeer. One theory for this association comes from the shamanistic religions of these northern cultures.

Due to the historically migratory nature of Laplanders they did not have a regular supply of alcohol until the recent past. It would have been fairly cumbersome to move alcohol production on a regular basis, let alone the challenge of keeping the yeast alive & active in the extreme cold. So instead as a way to come closer to God, or just go out of their minds, they had the Amanita muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric, aka hallucinogenic mushrooms.

On its own the Fly Agaric is hallucinogenic but poisonous. To reduce the toxic poisonous effects, but still get the hallucinogenic benefit, you have to process them. Outside of just eating lichen, reindeer will also eat the Fly Agaric mushroom. The people of these northern regions learned you could “process” the mushrooms through the reindeer. After the animals had eaten the mushrooms people would collect and ingest the reindeer urine to receive the psychoactive benefits of the mushrooms with less of the toxic effects. Interestingly they would also “process” the mushrooms through other humans, which has a long (and fairly disgusting) history of people drinking the urine of others to get high.

As for flying reindeer, when the reindeer are high on the mushrooms their movements are erratic (but not flying). When humans are on the mushrooms however, they have reported taking shamanistic journeys with winged reindeer transporting them to the highest branches of the World Tree. Less dramatically, sitting around high on mushrooms, people thought their reindeer were flying before their eyes.

Added info: The reindeer ability to see ultraviolet is a feature shared with their deer relatives. As such, for hunters wearing new blue jeans, deer probably see you coming long before you see them, negating any orange or camouflage you may be wearing on the rest of your body. The blue hues of new jeans stand out as especially vibrant for animals who can see ultraviolet.

Charles Dickens and the Little Ice Age

Charles Dickens spent most of his life in the “Little Ice Age” where his earliest Christmases were snowy, which influenced later pop culture.

The Little Ice Age was a several hundred year period of unusually cold weather around parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Depending on how you want to define it, the period ran from either the 1300s or 1500s to around 1850. There are various suggested causes for this cold weather, but the result was cooler summers and especially cold winters.

In England the winters could get so cold that the River Thames would freeze. Over the centuries there were 24 times when the river was solid enough to host the River Thames frost fair, a winter celebration on the frozen river complete with vendors, dancing, sports, and more. The last such festival was in 1814 during which they walked an elephant across the frozen river.

Bob Cratchit carrying Tiny Tim in a snowy London from A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens

Born in 1812 in the south of England, Dickens’s family moved to London in 1815. As part of the Little Ice Age, the first 8 Christmases of Dickens’s life were snowy white Christmases. At a developmental stage in his life these white Christmases had a significant influence on Dickens’s idea of what Christmas should be. Dickens included a white Christmas in several stories, the first of which was 1836’s The Pickwick Papers and later, and most famously, in 1843’s A Christmas Carol.

The enormous popularity of A Christmas Carol, and the popularity of Dickens in general, greatly influenced our western cultural idea of what Christmas should be. It helped revive the celebration of Christmas in Britain, which had been on the decline during the Industrial Revolution. Snowy white landscapes, crackling fires, hot meals, mulled wine, mistletoe, wrapped packages, carols & merriment, it all became part of the ideal Christmas.

The 1942 movie Holiday Inn gave us the hit song White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby. The 1954 movie White Christmas (seen above) also featured Bing Crosby singing White Christmas.

Our idea of a snowy white Christmas is directly linked to the staying power of Charles Dickens and that, for a young Dickens, Christmas was always white. After the Little Ice Age ended southern England has not see many white Christmases. Today there is around a 9% probability of a white Christmas in London, but the idea of a snowy Christmas persists. The 1942 movie Holiday Inn, which gave us the hit song White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby, only furthered the Dickens idea of a snowy Christmas.

Jingle Bells

The hell-raising sleigh song that became a Christmas standard.

Jingle Bells was published in 1857 under the title One Horse Open Sleigh. It wasn’t until it was reissued in 1859 that it got the title we know today. It was written by James Lord Pierpont, the uncle of Wall Street titan John Pierpont Morgan (aka. J.P. Morgan). By all accounts James Pierpont was a pretty awful person. He lived for adventure, traveled the world, abandoned his family, didn’t attend his first wife’s funeral nor did he care for their children after she died, he fought for the south in the Civil War despite being from an abolitionist family in Massachusetts, etc. That said he did write one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time despite the fact that the song isn’t about Christmas.

Risqué High-Speed Sleigh Riding

Jingle Bells is one of several Christmas favorites that have nothing to do with Christmas. The lyrics & melody changed within Pierpont’s lifetime but in general the song is about a sleigh ride. Looking to the lesser known additional lyrics the song is specifically about getting away from the watchful eyes of the people in town and a boy taking a girl out for a secluded sleigh ride. The song then has the protagonist relaying his story to other guys and telling them to pick up girls in their sleighs and have a good time while they’re young.

These lyrics were most likely influenced by where & when Pierpont wrote the song. At the time the town of Medford, Massachusetts (where he wrote the song) had a strong winter sleigh racing scene. It was also a rum producing city. People would race their sleighs at top speed (frequently while drunk) down Salem Street. It was like a drunker 19th century version of American Graffiti. Today the town of Medford has a plaque commemorating the song and says the song is about sleigh racing. None of this is very Christmasy.

The Sleigh Race“, Currier & Ives, lithograph, 1859

Jingle Bells … In Space

While in space for the 1965 Gemini 6 project, astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra snuck sleigh bells and a harmonica aboard the capsule. Alluding to Santa Claus, on December 16th they reported seeing “… a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit.” They then proceeded to play Jingle Bells to an initially very confused mission control. Their instruments were the first every played in outer space and are now in the Smithsonian.

During the mid 1960s the song began to take-on alternate lyrics, the most famous of which is the Batman themed parody. The Batman Smells version seems to have started around the time of the original Adam West television show. Australia has Aussie Jingle Bells to better align to the summer heat of Christmas down under.

Added info: the titular “jingle” doesn’t refer to a type of bell, but rather it is a verb telling you to jingle/shake bells. Sleighs can run fairly silent on snow and so jingling bells are a safety feature serving as an audible signal that you are approaching.

Real or Plastic Trees?

Real pine trees are environmentally friendlier than artificial plastic trees unless you reuse an artificial tree for many years.

The case for real trees

Christmas trees are grown on farms like any other cash crop. These trees provide environmental benefits such as cleaning the air, and the very presence of these farms prevents commercial development of the land. Also, once a tree is cut down, another will be planted to replace it keeping plants in existence. Tree farms, unlike manufactured artificial trees, provide local jobs helping the immediate community.

After the season is over pine trees can have a second life as a host of things. Some zoos take Christmas trees because the animals enjoy playing with, and eating, the trees. Most municipalities have some sort of recycling program for trees. NYC has a mulchfest where they recycle old trees providing the city with valuable mulch. Even the Rockefeller tree gets recycled into lumber for Habitat for Humanity homes.

The case for artificial trees

As of 2017, 95 million US households displayed a Christmas tree, and of those 81% were artificial. Artificial trees are frequently made in China with PVC plastic and metal. In addition to the petroleum they are made from, petroleum is burned to ship them to a store near you, and you burn even more petroleum to drive to that store. Even worse, if you decide after a few years you don’t want it anymore, the “tree” becomes that much more plastic in a landfill since most plastic is never recycled. None of this is environmentally friendly.

The primary benefit of an artificial tree, is that its environmental cost goes down the more years you use it. Once you own it there isn’t any fossil fuel involved in getting it out of storage every year (unlike the annual drive to go get a real tree). How many years you need to use an artificial tree for its benefits to outweigh its detractions is debatable. The low-end estimate is 8 years but the high-end estimate is more than 20 years – so it takes 1-2 decades for an artificial tree to become more environmentally sustainable than a real pine tree.

The verdict

The best tree is the real tree you can buy close to your own home from a local tree farm in your region. Only if you plan on using an artificial tree for many years will it become the more sustainable option.