From the Christian celebration to elements of Yule and images drawn from advertising art, literature, and more, the idea of Christmas in America comes loaded with its own set of stories and symbols. However, one bit of lore that hasn’t quite made the transition to the States is the existence of an entire class of Christmas monsters. That’s right; to you, it might just mean Santa and elves and reindeer, but in many other countries, Christmastime means Monster Time. Here’s a bestiary of beings that lurk in the silent night.
1. The Krampus
The trailer for Krampus (2015) (Uploaded to YouTube by Legendary)
The Krampus has become the king of the Christmas monsters. He’s broken in America in a big way in the last couple of decades, notably with comics and a handful of horror films. A counterpart to Santa who punishes bad children, Krampus has his roots in the eight Alpine countries (Germany, Austria, Italy, etc.) stretching back to at least the 1500s. Represented as a demonic humanoid with goat horns (recalling the pagan “Horned God”) and cloven feet, Krampus frequently carries chains, bells, and branches (which are used to whip the bad kids). Krampusnacht, December 5, is the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas; this is recognized in a number of European communities with activities like parades. “Krampus Walks,” featuring attendees in costume, are becoming more popular in the U.S.
2. Knecht Ruprecht
Not so much a monster as another thrasher of naughty children, Knecht Ruprecht is a sidekick of Saint Nicholas in German tradition. Varying versions of the story have Ruprecht leaving nuts or treats for good children, while leaving switches (for their parents to beat them with) for the bad. Still other versions cast him as more of a helper than a punisher. He’s usually depicted in dark robes and carrying a bundle of sticks. The similar character of Belsnickel appears in other traditions, and has many traits in common with Ruprecht.
3. La Befana
Sometimes called The Christmas Witch, Befana rises from Italian folklore to give gifts to kids on Epiphany Eve (January 5). Befana is said to fly on a broomstick and leave treats and presents in stockings, while leaving behind sticks or coal for bad children. Interestingly, while the story has been known for some time, the Befana traditions weren’t really subject to widespread practice in Italy until the 20th Century. Frau Perchta is a similar personage that may have been inspired by Norse myths; she fulfills the same function as Befana while alternately appearing as either a beautiful maiden or old woman (although she’s given to sometimes cutting open bad kids and stuffing them with straw).
4. Gryla, The Yule Lads, and The Yule Cat
Iceland brings us one of the more elaborate Christmas monster mythologies, which stem from Yule lore. Grýla is a trollish giantess who lives in a cave with her large (and LARGE) family. There’s Jólakötturinn, the monstrous Yule Cat. There’s her lazy husband, Leppalúdi, who mostly doesn’t leave the cave. And there’s her 13 sons, the Jólasveinar, popularly known as the Yule Lads. On the whole, their reputation rests on their willingness to devour people, including children. Jólakötturinn, specializes in eating people who didn’t get new clothes before Christmas Eve (which ties back to a tradition of people getting new clothes as a reward for being good). Each of the Yule Lads has a particular prank or form of harassment associated with them that they perpetrate on the people, from stealing food to candles. Stories of the family go back centuries, but the 1932 poem Yule Lads by Icelandic poet and politician Jóhannes úr Kötlum set the canon for the names and behaviors of the Lads as they’re perceived today.
5. Père Fouettard
His name means Father Whipper in French, and he comes by it for good reason. Another companion of St. Nick, Fouettard is said to journey with the jolly man on Saint Nicholas Day and dole out beatings to the bad children while Nick rewards the good ones. Usually depicted with sticks and reeds, Fouettard is also described as frequently wearing a wicker basket on his back for the capturing of naughty children. He’s also traditionally shown as bearded, bedraggled, and dirty, as if having soot on this face. Unfortunately, the soot in recent years devolved in the use of blackface by cosplayers and parade-goers, stirring controversy in a manner similar to Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).
6. Zwarte Piet (Black Peter)
Black Peter first appeared in a Dutch book in 1850 and became a popular companion for Sinterklaas (aka Santa). In the book and later writings, the character is a Spanish Moor that becomes Sinterklaas’s assistant, occasionally punishing or even stealing naughty children. While it was quite common to see people don colorful costumes and blackface to depict Peter for many years, recent decades have seen a rise in controversy as various groups and celebrities have spoken against the practice. Some parades and programming have changed the appearance and the style of the character, while others doggedly adhere to what they see as tradition. Some communities and school corporations in Europe have taken to phasing the character out entirely.
7. Hans Trapp
Hans von Trotha was a real German knight in the 1400s. His story in folklore has become that of Hans Trapp. Over time, Trapp grew to be depicted as the “Black Knight” that stalked the Wasgau hills, frightening children and appearing in other legends. In the Alsace region (in northern France that borders Germany and Switzerland), Hans Trapp merged with the St. Nicholas story, replacing Knecht Ruprecht as Santa’s punisher.
8. Mari Lwyd
Yes, Virginia; there is a zombie horse of Christmas. This is a specific outgrowth of the wassailing tradition in Wales. In the States, we think of wassailing as simply caroling, but it’s more of a mix of caroling and trick-or-treating; in wassail, groups moves from home to home and sing in exchange for a drink (frequently, wassail itself, which is a hot mulled cider). In the Mari Lwyd tradition, one member of the group hoists a horse’s skull on a pole that is draped with a hood and leads the wassailers about. The Mari Lwyd group would sing and the home dwellers would respond in song; this went back in forth until the Mari Lwyd-bearers got their drink or moved on. The practice fell out of favor in the early 20th century, but experienced a revival before the year 2000. That year, Aberystwyth in Wales put together “The World’s Largest Mair Lwyd” for millennial celebrations.
Featured image: Nicola Simeoni / Shutterstock.com.
Three Movies You Should Watch
Yes, it’s December, and the holiday season has officially begun. We all know what the greatest Christmas movies are. They’re the ones we’ve all watched a million times and watch every year: It’s a Wonderful Life (my favorite movie of all time), Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, Holiday Inn, the 97 versions of A Christmas Carol, and all of those TV specials where noses glow red and grinches steal. But I’d like to point you to three Christmas movies that are pretty terrific that you might not be aware of:
- Christmas in Connecticut (1945). This film, like all of the films on this list, is starting to become more known and popular thanks to annual showings on Turner Classic Movies. It stars Barbara Stanwyck as a Martha Stewart-ish columnist who actually knows nothing about the home or cooking and is only pretending to be married with a child. When her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) and a war hero (Dennis Morgan) come to her home for Christmas, chaos ensues! A really fun film.
- Holiday Affair (1949). A Christmas movie with hard-boiled Robert Mitchum might not scream “festive” at first, but he’s actually quite good in this comedy-drama. He plays a department store salesman who falls in love with customer Connie (Janet Leigh), which is a problem because she’s engaged to someone else. (Gordon Gebert, who plays Leigh’s young son, talked about his role at a screening in 2014).
- It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947). Wouldn’t it be fun to break into a mansion owned by a millionaire who spends the holidays someplace else and have complete run of the place with your friends and your dog? That’s the premise of this comedy starring Don DeFore, Victor Moore, Ann Harding, and Alan Hale, Jr.
You can find out when these movies will be shown this month by checking out TCM’s schedule.
In This Corner …
I’ve been keeping you up to date on what’s going on with former America’s Test Kitchen host Christopher Kimball and his new venture, Milk Street Kitchen. The latest news is a plot twist to say the least.
The company that owns America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated has filed a lawsuit accusing Kimball of many things since he left to form the new company, including the poaching of employees and transferring to himself relationships with vendors. Now, lawsuits happen every single day, and it’s not really surprising. What is surprising, however, is that ATK has created an entire website devoted to the lawsuit! It explains why they’re suing, has the text of the complaint, and even has a chronology of what transpired, with copies of Kimball’s emails that supposedly show he did something illegal. This is all pretty stunning (I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before), and like a lot of people I’m curious about how the site will affect the legal proceedings. It must be doubly odd because Kimball still hosts the weekly ATK radio show.
By the way, if you noticed, the URL of the lawsuit’s site is WhyWeAreSuingChristopherKimball.com. It can’t be a good feeling to see a website address that has your name and the word suing in it.
RIP Ron Glass, Fritz Weaver, Ralph Branca, Grant Tinker, and Jim Delligatti
Ron Glass had a lot of roles over the years but is probably best known for playing nattily dressed Detective Ron Harris on Barney Miller. He also had roles on Firefly, All Grown Up, Mr. Rhodes, Amen, and an ’80s reboot of The Odd Couple. He also guest-starred on shows like Murder, She Wrote, Friends, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Glass passed away last week at the age of 71.
Fritz Weaver was an acclaimed actor on the stage, in film, and on television. He appeared in such stage plays as Baker Street (playing Sherlock Holmes), Child’s Play, The Chalk Garden, and Angels Fall. He made his film debut in 1964’s Fail-Safe and also appeared in Marathon Man, Black Sunday, Creepshow, and the Pierce Brosnan remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, along with TV shows like Armstrong Circle Theatre, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Mannix, The X-Files, Law & Order, and the miniseries Holocaust. He passed away last weekend at the age of 90.
Bobby Thompson hit “The Shot Heard ’Round the World” in the final game of the 1951 National League championship series in which the New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers. The pitcher who gave up that famous home run, Ralph Branca, passed away last week. He was 90.
Grant Tinker was the head of MTM Enterprises in the 1970s. MTM stands for Mary Tyler Moore, whom Tinker was married to for several years. As head of the production company, he was responsible for shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis.
As if that wasn’t enough, in the 1980s he helped save NBC by bringing us The Cosby Show, Cheers, Family Ties, The Golden Girls, Miami Vice, Remington Steele, and Night Court. He was also in charge of the TV department of the advertising agency McCann Erickson (which you might remember from Mad Men) in the ’50s and later was an executive with Benton and Bowles, where he got a sponsorship for his client Procter & Gamble on The Dick Van Dyke Show, where he met Moore. I should add that over the last five decades, he also had a hand in shows like Marcus Welby, M.D., I Spy, It Takes a Thief, Dr. Kildare, and Get Smart. That’s quite a track record.
Tinker passed away Wednesday at the age of 90.
Jim Delligatti? He invented the Big Mac! He passed away this week at the age of 98.
What Does Your Smartphone Say about You?
Do you use an iPhone? You might be a liar.
That’s one of the findings of this study from England’s Lancaster University. Researchers concluded that iPhone users tend to be female, younger, and extroverted, while Android users tend to be male, older, more honest, and more agreeable.
In related news, an ex-Google exec says that we’re all addicted to our phones and it might be time to kick the habit. If any of these cartoons look like a scene from your life, you might have a problem. Another good way to check if you’re addicted: Do you keep your phone with you all the time, even when you’re eating holiday dinner with your family? There you go.
La La Land
Sometimes a film comes along and people say, “They don’t make movies like this anymore.” But it’s usually not true. Whatever movie they’re talking about has probably been done a dozen times recently.
La La Land, the new film starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, can really be described that way, though. He plays a pianist who falls in love with an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. That makes the film sound rather dull, so here’s a trailer that shows what the movie is all about. It seems to be a modern-day homage to the musicals of the ’40s and ’50s. I can imagine this being shown on Turner Classic Movies in 40 years.
I’m looking forward to this more than I am any Star Wars or Marvel movie. It opens in selected cities on December 9 and elsewhere later in the month.
This Week in History
Samuel Clemens Born (November 30, 1835)
Was the young Clemens — a.k.a. Mark Twain — an amusing scoundrel, a storytelling genius, or both?
Rosa Parks Arrested (December 1, 1955)
The National Archives has a fascinating record of the arrest of the civil rights icon after she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Senate Votes to Censure Joseph McCarthy (December 2, 1954)
The senator’s attack on the U.S. Army was too much for his Congressional colleagues.
National Comfort Food Day
Comfort food is a form of nostalgia. It’s the food that reminds us of our childhoods or a good time in our lives. It’s a memory that figuratively warms us and foods that may literally warm us (even if those foods happen to be cold). Music and movies and TV shows and relationships can take us back to certain times in our lives, and so can food.
This Monday is National Comfort Food Day, and since it’s the holiday season, it’s a food holiday whose placement on the calendar actually makes sense. I don’t know what your personal favorite comfort foods are, but maybe they could include this Cowboy Beef and Black Bean Chili or this Rich Roasted Tomato Soup. Or maybe it’s a Red Velvet dessert that warms your heart. Or maybe a Classic Chicken Soup is all you need.
I like all those things. Which probably says a lot more about me than any smartphone could.
Next Week’s Holidays and Events
Pearl Harbor Day (December 7)
It’s the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Here’s an excerpt from a feature that ran in The Saturday Evening Post in October 1942, part of our Pearl Harbor special edition available in bookstores now.
Christmas Card Day (December 9)
Facebook may be hurting Christmas card sales, but maybe it’s something you should start doing again. I still send them out every year. So go out and buy some real cards and actually mail them to those you love, instead of sending a text or social media post to wish someone happy holidays.