I’m no fan of Halloween. If you’re going to commercialise an old festival, make it positive and charitable and familial like Christmas, not shopsful of blood, guts and inappropriate fancy dress outfits, resulting in sweet-begging children and students resembling an out-of-control stag party.
I know. I’m a Halloween Scrooge. Humbug. (That’s another sweet they’ll be after.)
I clearly prefer Christmas (hence this book for you to buy/not buy but give a nice review on Amazon anyway). Except Christmas has its dark side too. While Santa was trying to find his way from being a 4th century bishop to children’s favourite jolly old elf, he made a few stops en route. So across Europe, just as Santa turned into not just a few cul-de-sacs, but he turned into a few of these oddities – and like Doctor Who, gained a few companions along the way. So if you don’t know your Sausage-Swiper from your Belsnickel…
- BELSNICKEL AND KRAMPUS… The Ant and Dec of their day – that day being medieval Germany’s Dark Ages. The masked, long-tongued Belsnickel was said to carry a switch for beating, and had a horned goat-like chum: the Krampus. So you get pictures like the above one, that’s a bit of both. These early Germanic Chuckle Brothers (Chuckel Brothers?) could be kind… but like old Santy Claus, they would also punish. It’s their punishing nature that’s now the stuff of horror films.
- KNECHT RUPRECHT… Germany knew about St Nicholas too, and he picked up some unlikely companions, including this rather frightening elf: a manservant said to have been rescued and fostered by St Nicholas. Knecht Ruprecht would ask children if they could pray; those who could were rewarded with fruit and gingerbread, but those who couldn’t were given lumps of coal, or a beating, or a beating with a bag full of lumps of coal. Knecht Ruprecht was Santa’s little helper – and still is on a certain animated TV show. In the German version of The Simpsons, the family dog isn’t known as Santa’s Little Helper; he’s Knecht Ruprecht.
- JULNISSEN… These Scandinavian cheeky elves were said to live in attics and mischievously hide gifts around the house (perhaps helped out by the odd parent). Cheeky rather than anything too sinister…
- CALLICANTZARI… Drifting into the downright nasty, the Greeks have horrible little creatures who live underground and spend all year gnawing away at the roots of the Tree of Life to try to bring all life crashing down for good. The jawbones of pigs would be hung to ward off these little monstrosities, and fires would burn all season to keep them at bay.
- THE CHRISTMAS LADS… Not a work party gone out of hand – these are thirteen Icelandic trolls, who roam houses for thirteen days before Christmas. Each of their names is a Dahlesque BFG-like wonder: Bowl-Licker hides under beds waiting for someone to put their dinner on the oor, Sausage-Swiper snatches bangers while they’re being cooked, and you might hear Door-Slammer or catch sight of Window-Peeper. But their chief aim? To steal children… but only the naughty ones, so you’d better be good for goodness’ sake.
- ST NICHOLAS… Lest we forget that St Nick himself wasn’t always painted as a generous toy-giver. William Caxton’s 1483 book of saints, Legenda Aurea, noted that Nicholas could be “cruel in correctyng”, whipping naughty children. Jolliness will follow…
…but let’s get through October first. Have a happy Halloween (or an unhappy one, I think is probably the idea) – and then we’ll get into the ‘holiday season’, onto a merrier Christmas and happy holidays. Ah yes, next blog, I’ll try and convince you why we shouldn’t be quite as annoyed about America’s ‘happy holidays’ as we generally are.
For more Christmas stuff, you could: buy my new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas (now back in stock after first print run sold out in two weeks), or let’s have a big-up for James Cooper’s WhyChristmas website (nowt to do with me, but he’s a good chap – and I’m here to treat, not trick…).