Category Archives: Austrian
Etymology: “Bright One”, peraht (Old High German meaning “brilliant”). “Hidden” or “Covered,” pergan (Old High German)
Also Called: Behrta, Berchta, Berigl, Bertha (English), Bechtrababa, Berchtlmuada, Berchte, Butzen-Bercht, Frau Berchta, Frau Faste (the Lady of Ember Days), Frau Perchta, Fronfastenweiber, Kvaternica (Slovene), Lutzl, Pehta, Perchta, Perahta, Perhta-Baba, Posterli, Pudelfrau, Quatemberca, Rauweib. Sampa, Stampa, Spinnstubenfrau (“Spinning Room Lady”), Zamperin, Zampermuatta, Zlobna Pehta, The Lady of the Beasts, The Belly Slitter
Perchta has her beginnings and roots as an Alpine goddess worshiped in the Germanic countries where she protected the forests and animals. Later, as Christian influences increased, Perchta would take on a more sinister appearance and role, especially during the dark winter months where she would become a boogeyman type figure used to scare children into good behavior.
This is one of those confusing ones. Is Perchta a goddess, a witch, demon, or something else?
To answer that, we start at the beginning.
Animal: Goose, Swan
Day of the Week: Friday
Sphere of Influence: Nature, Forests, Wildlife, Spinning, Weaving
Symbols: Staff, Knife,
What’s In A Name?
The meaning for Perchta’s name is fairly easy to find, it comes the Old High Germanic words “beraht” and “bereht” meaning bright, light, flame and white. The word percht was meant as a warning for the sin of vanity. Another potential word in Old High German is the verb pergan, meaning “Hidden” or Covered” as the origin for Perchta’s name.
Given the many different eras and regions of Germany, Perchta is known by several different names. In southern Austria, there is a male form of Perchta known as Quantembermann (German), or Kvaternik (Slovene), meaning “The man of the Four Ember Days.” Jacob Grimm holds the idea that Perchta’s male counterpart is Berchtold.
Perchta is notable for a dual nature where she will have one of two forms that people see her in. During the Spring and Summer months, Perchta takes on the form of a lovely, young maiden dressed in white, or during the colder, autumn and winter months, she is seen as an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and tattered, worn clothing as she carries either a knife or scissors to slit open people’s bellies. Some perchten masks showing the ugly crone aspect give Perchta an iron face and beak-like nose.
Jacob Grimm of the Grimm Brothers fame tries to say that Perchta is an ancient goddess. In some stories, Perchta will be described as having a goose or swan foot; this imagery connects her to having a higher nature and the ability to shape-shift. This same goose foot could also be the splay foot that a spinner develops with one foot pumping the pedal of a spinning wheel.
Swan Maiden – It has been noted that in several languages, that Perchta or Bertha is also referred to by her peculiar foot. Berhte mit dem fuoze in German, Bertha au grand pied in French and Berhta cum magno pede in Latin. The idea given by Jacob Grimm is that foot means that Perchta is a Swan Maiden.
Woodcut – There is a notable woodcut from 1750 that depicts Perchta as “Butzen-Bercht.” The word Butzen is noted to mean “bogeyman.” The woodcut shows Perchta as a crone with a wart on her nose as she carries a basket filled with screaming children, all of them girls. Perchta also holds a staff as she stands before a door to a house where there are more frightened young girls.
The earliest depictions and mentions of Perchta, date her to during the Middle Ages, first in around 1200 and then later in the 1400’s when mention of Perchta becomes more prominent. Perchta served as an enforcer of communal taboos. One such taboo is weaving on sacred days or not joining in the feasts enthusiastically enough. Many of Perchta’s punishments stem out of punishing those who are lazy and haven’t done the proper work.
As to Perchta’s retinue that accompanies her, the first reference to them is in 1468, however, these are the souls of the dead. With the passage of time, this retinue would become demons, and then by the coming of the 15th century, they would become the familiar horned figures of the perchten and the first mentions of costumed processions and parades would appear.
In Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”) written in 1411, we have the first illustration of Perchta and more accurately someone in a mask posing as “Percht with the iron nose.”
Counter-Reformations & Witchtrials – It has been noted that the era of history that Perchta first emerges also overlaps and coincides with the Reformations and Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants over how Christianity should be observed and practiced along with trying to stamp out other non-Christian religions and practices through Europe.
Among Wiccans and Pagans, the period between 1450 and 1700’s is called The Burning Times when thousands of men and women, upwards of around 100,000 were executed and burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. Germany had the worst of it with historians reporting that entire villages could see their population of women gone. There’s some sense to Perchta appearing as a dark figure who carried off girls who didn’t behave and the changes to her appearance during this era.
In the southern parts of Germany and Austria, the name Frau Perchta is attributed to a witch who comes during the twelve days of Christmas, spanning from December 25th to January 6th for Epiphany. If a person is naughty or sinful, Frau Perchta is fierce and terrible with the punishment she will hand out. We are talking she will rip out a person’s intestines and other internal organs to replace with straw, rocks, and other garbage. In this terrible, punishing aspect, this image of Perchta looks very similar to that of Krampus, and figures dressed as her, called perchten are known to also appear in the annual Krampus parades held in several Alpine towns.
Before her darker imagery took hold, Perchta was held in a more benevolent light. Many of her positive attributes would be twisted under Christian influence causing many people to associate Perchta as a dark, Wintertime, Christmas entity to be feared. The influence of Christianity also creates a seeming, conflicting goddess with a dual identity.
Given when the change to her darker appearance happens, Winter when the nights are longer, when it is cold, and nature becomes that much more precarious if people haven’t properly prepared for the cold months. When evil spirits are thought to roam.
Protector Of Women & Children
In this role, Perchta is a goddess who protects women, children, and infants. For those children and infants who died, Perchta is a psychopomp who guided their souls to the Afterlife.
Goddess Of Nature
In this role, Perchta was mainly concerned with tending to her forests and taking care of nature. As a nature goddess or spirit, Perchta was known as “The Lady of the Beasts.” In this aspect, Perchta holds some similarities with Holda and Germany’s ancient hunting cultures.
It was only during wintertime and Christmas, the Winter Solstice that Perchta would concern herself with the affairs of humans. During Winter, Perchta will withdraw up into the mountains where she will create snow. In addition, Perchta will protect her followers by removing evil spirits as they travel.
In this role and aspect, Perchta not only governs the mundane arts of weaving and spinning, but she also presides over fate, much like the Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology.
During the Summer months, Perchta is believed to live in the depths of various lakes, during which time she busies herself with spinning flax upon her golden spindle. During the night, Perchta can be encountered walking along the steep slopes of the alps carrying her spindle. Those who approach Perchta with their flocks can get her to bless them.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.
According to Jacob Grimm, Perchta is one potential leader of the Wild Hunt. Given that during Midwinter, Perchta is known to wander around the countryside at this time with her entourage of perchten, it’s no surprise to see Perchta be suggested as a leader of the Wild Hunt.
Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Herne the Hunter has been given as the name for another leader of the Wild Hunt. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.
The arrival of Christianity is about when we see Perchta become a minor deity and then diminished to be some sort of magical creature or spirit. As more time passed, Perchta would then become an evil witch or sorceress. Later, Christian clergy would equate Perchta in official documents as being synonymous with other female spirits and goddesses such as Abundia, Diana, Herodias, Holda, and Richella.
Thesaurus Pauperum – This text and collection of recipes and natural cures was written by prominent Catholic officials for use by the poor. This text mentioned a Cult of Perchta who would leave out food and drink for Perchta on Epiphany for wealth and abundance. This same document would be used to Perchta’s cult in Bavaria in 1468. In 1439, Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis also condemned this practice.
Frau Perchta – Christmas Witch & Bogeyman
During wintertime, especially during the month of December and Yule, as Frau Perchta, she becomes a fierce some looking hag or witch with two faces. Those children who are good and have behaved, have nothing to fear from Frau Perchta. However, for those who are deemed bad and have misbehaved, Frau Perchta is known for slitting open the stomachs of people and pulling out all of their organs to replace them with straw, stones, and garbage.
These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, for the Twelfth Night. The percht are an offshoot of the older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions where she guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. It is in the late 20th century that both Perchten and Krampus appear together in the same processions so that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. The wooden masks worn for these processions are called perchten.
Originally, the term perchten, (the plural for Perchta), referred to the female masks that represent the entourage of spirits accompanying Frau Perchta or Pehta Baba in Slovenia. The perchten are associated with midwinter where they personify fate and the souls of the dead. There are several regional names and variations for the perchten. Their names include: Bechtrababa, Berchta, Berchtlmuada, Berigl, Pehta, Lutzl, Perhta-Baba, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Sampa, Stampa, Zamperin, Zampermuatta, and Zlobna Pehta.
Other Perchten names are:
Glöcklerlaufen – “bell-running” from the Salzkammergut region.
Schiachperchten – Or “ugly Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. They have fangs, tusks and horse or otherwise ugly features. These perchten, despite their appearance, come to drive off evil spirits and demons as they go from house to house.
Schnabelpercht – Or “trunked Percht” from the Unterinntal region.
Schönperchten – Or “beautiful Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. These perchten come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to bestow luck and wealth to the people.
Tresterer – From Pinzgau region of Austria.
Sometimes the spirits that accompany Perchta will be those of children, particularly unbaptized children in Christian beliefs. Food offerings left out for Perchta and her retinue are said to be consumed by these Heimchen.
For many women, before the arrival of modern medicine, there was a high infant and child mortality rate. Having a benevolent goddess who would come and take care of their children was likely very comforting for many women, to think of their child in a better place or in better hands.
This period is also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. These nights are also known as Magic Nights when Perchta leading the Wild Hunt are known to ride.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions during the last week of December and through the first week of January up to January 6th for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas rewarding children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior. People dress as perchten with masks made of wood with brown or white sheep’s wool.
For a while, the Roman Catholic Church tried to prohibit the practice of Perchtenlauf during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its best efforts, the parade and processions continued either in secret or as a result have made a resurgence in later centuries.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Also known as Little Christmas in Italy, Old Christmas in Ireland or Epiphany, this holiday is held on January 6th. The feast held on this day is called Berchtentag. In Salzburg, Austria, Perchta is believed to wander the halls of Hohensalzburg Castle during the night.
In Germany, this is when Perchta will go about collecting her offerings, where she will reward her followers, often with a silver coin or other small gifts, and punish those who haven’t observed certain practices and traditions. This is where Perchta, as Frau Perchta appears in her fearsome guise mentioned earlier to slit open the bellies of wrongdoers and those deemed naughty, only to stuff them full of straw, rocks, and garbage. Perchta would also be interested in making sure that women had spun the wool needed for the year.
In observance of this holiday, there would be a feast held with a ceremonial dance. Several people would dress up, pretending to be evil spirits that someone dressed as Perchta would then chase away, “slaying” the evil spirits in a pageant to invoke a ritual to protect the people of the village.
A special porridge consisting of gruel or dumplings and fish called Perchtenmilch would be eaten during this time. While the family ate, an additional bowl would be left out for Perchta and her entourage. If this traditional meal is forgotten, it is one of the taboos that angers Perchta so that she will cut open people’s stomachs and stuff them with straw.
Note: My earlier section for Frau Perchta gives the time for this celebration closer to Yule in December. Given multiple sources, this change of observances could easily be people conforming old traditions to those of the newer, incoming Christian religion and observance of Christmas along with a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Also known as: Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, Bechtelstag, Bechtle. It is a celebration typically observed on January 2nd in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and has been happening since at least the 14th century. There are various theories about the origin of this holiday. There is a Blessed Bertchtold of the Engelberg abbey who died on November 2nd of 1197. Another theory holds that it commemorates the first animal killed during Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen’s hunt and the naming of his new city.
Like the English practice of mummery, another idea is that this holiday comes from the word: berchten” meaning to “walk around, begging for food.” Obviously, there is also Perchta given the similarity of the names and that when the celebrations of Epiphany were abolished by the various Protestant regions, those refusing to give up the Twelfth Night traditions, simply moved them to the day after New Year’s to gain another day off. There is a “nut feast” where children build hocks of four nuts with a fifth nut balanced on top. Masked parades are held, along with folk dances and families going out to the pubs to eat.
Translating to mean “Fast Night” or “Almost Night,” this is a celebration that is held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and Lent. It is a night where people eat the best foods possible, and yes, the preferred food is doughnuts. A procession of perchten is known for showing up in some modern celebrations.
This is a dominion of Heathenry inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In it, Perchta or rather, Berchta is a major goddess instead of a minor. The eleventh day (Elfder Daag) and twelfth night (Zwelfdi Nacht) are notable days for the Yuletide celebrations that fall on December 31st. In Urglaawe tradition, this feast day is known as Berchtaslaaf.
In this tradition, Berchta is held as either another name for the goddess Holle or is her sister. In this respect, Berchta becomes a goddess of order, notably for one’s own actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Owls are held sacred to her and are her messengers. In the Deitsch lunar zodiac, the Eil or Owl symbol occurs near Yuletide. Like many various cultures, the owl tends to be a symbol and warning of death and danger.
Syno-Deities & Figures
Freyja – Norse
Sometimes a connection of Perchta to this Norse goddess is made, however it’s noted to be rather dubious at best as Freyja and Frigg are often confused together as being the same goddess.
Frigg – Norse
The wife of Odin, placing he as the mother of the Gods, she is associated with marriage, prophesy, clairvoyance, and motherhood along with spinning. Frigg is more likely to be whom Perchta is associated with or stems from.
Holda – Germanic
The goddess Holda has been equated as the southern cousin or a syno-deity to Perchta as they both hold the same function as a guardian of the animals and come during the Twelve Days of Christmas to inspect the spinning.
La Befana – Italy
The Italian Christmas Witch is sometimes compared with Perchta during Winter celebrations. This is more the contrast of where La Befana is portrayed as an ugly, yet good witch and Perchta is in her more monstrous appearance.
Saint Lucy – Germany
A local Saint whose feast day fell near the Winter Solstice. She is primarily known and revered in Bavaria and German Bohemia. Saint Lucy is often equated with Perchta.
A type of fairy or enchanted being, these white women are a variety of light elves. Jacob Grimm saw connection between the goddesses Holda and Perchta in their white forms with these beings.
Also called: Krampusz (Hungarian)
Etymology: Claw (Old High German, Krampen)
Also Known As: Bartl or Bartel, Klaubauf (Austria), Krampusz (Hungarian,) Niglobartl, Parkelj (Slovenian,) and Wubartl
Once more December is upon us with its many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
In the Alpine regions of Austria and Germany, and even to Bavaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, northern Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland, there is the familiar horned and sometimes hairy figure of Krampus who arrives on Krampus Night to punish misbehaving children. Where Saint Nicholas is who gives gifts to good children. Krampus, like Zwarte Piet and other characters of Christmas are seen as the companions of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas.
Krampus is a figure who seems to originate in Germanic paganism before the arrival of Christianity in the region.
While there are a few variations to the appearance of Krampus, many descriptions do agree on this figure being very hairy with brown, black or gray fur, cloven hooves, and horns of a goat. He will have a particularly longer than usual tongue that hangs out.
Krampus will also be carrying or wearing chains that symbolize the binding of the Devil by Saint Nicholas. These chains will be shaken and sometimes have bells on them. The other items that Krampus is known to carry are ruten or bundles of birch branches that he will either hand out to naughty children or beat them with. Sometimes this branch is replaced with a whip instead. Krampus can also be seen carrying a sack or washtub on his back that he uses to carry off naughty children whom he either eats, drowns, or takes to Hell.
Crime & Punishment
On December 5th, Krampusnacht, the figure of Krampus is known for going about and punishing naughty children, similar to the role that Zwarte Piet has in the Netherlands. Unlike Zwarte Piet, Krampus never gives out treats or gifts. They are one of the original Nightmares before Christmas. Or, if we do like with the 2015 Krampus movie, Krampus is who comes when all hope dies at Christmas.
Some of the punishments that children might expect are:
- If a child is lucky, they only get handed a birch branch.
- If said child was particularly naughty, they could expect to be beaten with the birch branch.
- In the cases where children were extremely naughty, they would get carried off by Krampus in either a sack or washtub that he carries on his back. What happens now to the child varies on the legend. In some cases, Krampus might eat the child, drown them or simply carry them off to Hell. These older legends where Krampus carries off a child do make a connection to the time when Moors would raid the European coast and carry off people into slavery. A connection also seen with the previously mentioned Zwarte Piet.
The history of Krampus is a bit murky and many scholars do agree that this figure has to date before pre-Christianity. Some try to make a connection back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Endiku, the original Wild Man. Even if that source is flimsy and suspect, the European traditions of going out in disguises and mummery have long been a part of the Winter Solstice celebrations and have survived in some form or another.
The description of Krampus shows him as being demonic with a half human, half goat appearance for the long fur, horns, and hooves. It has been theorized that Krampus may have been a fertility deity before the arrival of Christianity to the region. At this point, anything that didn’t fit under the umbrella of Christian beliefs or couldn’t be incorporated, tends to be labeled as evil and demonic.
God of the Witches – This connection seems a bit speculative. Maurice Bruce makes a connection of Krampus with the Horned God of the Witches. That the birch branches may have been part of initiation rites into a coven. That the chains that Krampus carries are part of the Christian tradition of “binding the Devil” much like Sinterklaas is to have done with Zwarte Piet with binding the devil. It’s easy to see a connection of the horns and hooves, woodland entity and connect Krampus to satyrs, fauns and possibly Pan. A horned god of the forest is a fairly common image in many of the early European religions and beliefs.
The Son Of Hel
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and was likely introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: Th
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and is introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: The Yule Lord.” In it, Krampus is stated to be the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of death. Even if it’s a recent addition, it does show an expanding and evolving folklore surrounding Krampus that seems to be gaining popularity.
However, do note that many serious scholars of Norse and Germanic mythology do not accept this connection of Hel and Krampus.
Mileage will vary, this is a decent book that expands on the conflict that Krampus and Santa Claus have with each other over Christmas and Yule celebrations.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or if they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. It’s possible that Krampus is a representative or aspect of the darker and harsher winter months.
It does tie in for one legend that the Krampus parades stem from an ancient rite to parade through town and run off ghosts. This seems further tied in as an explanation for the bells on the Krampus’ chains as there are traditions that the ringing of bells at the Solstice would scare off or banish evil spirits.
A Krampus By Any Other Name…
There are a few other figures in the Saint Nicholas/Winter Solstice celebrations who are similar to Krampus.
Bartel – Also called Bartl is a local name or variation for Krampus in Styria.
Hans Trapp – A sinister scarecrow from France that scares children around Christmas time.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Knecht Ruprecht – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Percht – The percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus.
Ru Klaas – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Schabmänner or Rauhen – In the Austrian state Styria, these “Wild Man” figures will appear in addition to Krampus to dole out birch rods and punishments.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
Krampusnacht & The Feast Of Saint Nicholas
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). The celebrations of Saint Nicholas gained popularity in Germany right around the eleventh century. It is also around this time, that the patron saint of children would get paired up with a dark counterpart. With Saint Nicholas giving gifts to good children and Krampus punishing the bad children.
In Germany, things are a little different. The night before Saint Nicholas’ Day is December 5th, all well and good for the most part. However, December 5th though is known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night and is a night of riotous revelry and fear for Krampus is known to come, punishing naughty children, or carrying them away in a basket on his back.
The next morning on December 6th, children will look to see if their shoe or stocking has gifts and presents in it or if a rod or twigs have been left for them.
Austrian Urban Centers – In many Christmas markets, watered or toned-down images of Krampus will be sold, presenting him in a humorous light to tourists. Some people have complained that by softening the image of Krampus, he may be getting too commercialized.
Bavaria – The celebrations surrounding Krampus have seen revivals that include artistic traditions of hand-carved wooden masks.
Croatia – Here, Krampus is described as wearing sackcloth around his waist and chains on his wrists and ankles, not just around his neck. If a child misbehaves too badly, Krampus will keep the gifts that Saint Nicholas would have given for himself and leave a silver birch branch behind.
Northern Italy – In the Udine province of Italy, there is the Cave del Predil. An annual Krampus festival is held here where the Krampus comes out just before sunset to chase children and whip them. To satiate the Krampus’ anger, children and young people would need to recite a prayer.
Slovenia – In many areas of Slovenia, Krampus is called Parkeli and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian name for Saint Nicholas.
Styria – In this Austrian state, Krampus has a few different appearances. Here, Krampus will present a bundle of birch rods, painted gold to families so they can be hung in the house as a reminder to children to be on their best behavior. In smaller, more remote villages, other horned or antlered figures known as Schabmänner or Rauhen, “the Wild Man” will make appearances too in addition to Krampus.
United States –The figure of Krampus is catching on in many places and there are more and more movies and shows that will feature Krampus as a main antagonist, even if for one episode. Some cities will hold their own Krampus Runs and there are parties held celebrating Krampus, even if they are nothing more than an excuse to drink.
“The Great War On Christmas”
In the 12th century C.E., the Catholic Church tried to banish the Krampus celebrations due to their pagan elements and Krampus’ resemblance to the devil. This would prove difficult as people in the more rural areas would keep alive their traditions.
People wearing devil masks and acting riotously with drunken revelries and causing trouble have been recorded since the sixteenth century. It was not uncommon for animal masked devils to appear in Medieval Christian church plays. So, the appearances of Krampus masks at this time may very well have been part of these celebrations and the mummery that happens with many Winter festivals. The 17th century would see a full integration of pairing Saint Nicholas with Krampus. If they couldn’t stamp the Krampus traditions out, they would adapt him to the Christian religious observances.
When we get to the 20th century, the Austrian governments tried once more to prohibit the Krampus antics and displays. After the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Dollfuss regime with the Fatherland’s Front and Christian Social Party tried to ban the Krampus traditions. The 1950’s saw the publication of government-issued pamphlets titled: “Krampus is an Evil Man.”
But you can’t keep a good Krampus down and by the end of the 20th century, Krampus celebrations and parades came back in force. So much so, that Krampus celebrations have been spreading around the world to places like the United States as part of an “anti-Christmas celebration.” He certainly does represent a darker side to the holiday where not everything is not always so joyous. It does play to earlier celebrations of Christmas with drunk revelries and anyone wanting to push back again the heavy, over-commercialization of Christmas.
Also known as Kränchen, this is a village-wide celebration held in southeast Austria. It is often held on the Saturday after Krampus Day. These festivities are typically held at local community centers, schools, or any facility large enough to hold some 300+ drunk revelers. Sometimes, Kränchen will be held a week before or after Krampus Day. It’s a way that some villages will turn Krampus Day into a three weekend-long celebration, particularly one for drinking and booze.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Perchten – These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, Epiphany if you were in Italy.
These are the holiday greeting cards that feature Krampus on them. Krampus cards have been exchanged since the 1800’s during the Holiday Season. A typical greeting card reads: “Gruß vom Krampus” or “Greetings from the Krampus” and likely accompanied with some humorous rhymes or poems within.
Older versions of Krampus cards are likely to show a more sinister and frightening Krampus while newer, modern cards might show a more toned down, cuter, or humorous looking Krampus figure.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas reward children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior.
As I mentioned above, the percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. Villagers living in the more remote regions of the Alpines would parade around in percht guises.
Pronunciation: Djet m-aw rohz
Other names: Dzyed Maróz (Ukrainian), Did Moróz (Russian), Dédushka Moróz (Serbian), Deda Mraz (Bulgarian), Dyado Mraz (Slovenian), Dedek Mraz (Russian), Morozko (Russian), Grandfather Frost, King Frost, Father Frost, Ice King
Etymology: Grandfather Frost
Ah Santa Claus, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas…. That magical time of the year with Christmas and Yuletide celebrations. When we jump over to the Russian and Slavic celebrations for Winter, there is Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost who will be bringing gifts.
Just who is Ded Moroz? Let’s see…
To start, Ded Moroz is described as an elderly looking man with a long, flowing white beard who wears a long red, blue or white fur coat and round fur hat and boots. He carries with him a long magical staff and rides along with an evergreen tree in a sled or troika pulled by three white horses.
Much like his American and other European counterparts, Ded Moroz is known for bringing presents to good children. Unlike Santa Claus who brings his gifts on December 25th or Sinterklaas who arrives on December 6th, Ded Moroz brings his gifts on New Year’s Eve.
Other little factoids about Ded Moroz include that his birthday is on November 18th, this coincides with when the first frost arrives on the ground in Veliky Ustyug, Russia. Many sources will also place Ded Moroz’s age at around 2,000 years old.
Ded Moroz appears to have a strong connection to Eastern Slavic Paganism before spreading out into Russian beliefs and culture. Here, Ded Moroz is the Wizard of Winter and a snow demon who personifies Russian winters.
In folklore, Ded Moroz is originally Morozko, a powerful blacksmith and hero known for freezing water to become frost. As a force of nature, Morozko isn’t necessarily evil, he is known to help those who show him proper respect and giving gifts, plus he can be devastating to those who are rude, disrespectful and otherwise mean-spirited.
Slightly different origins place Morozko as a god of frost and ice who’s married to the harsh, unforgiving Winter. As a deity, he could freeze people and the countryside in a moment’s notice. With the Russian Orthodox Church, there was an attempt to label Morozko as a demon. Later fairy tales would soften Morozko’s image to be an elderly old man who could be more benevolent and not quite as harsh.
You Called Him A Demon!
Before we freak out, the Slavic use of referring to entities as demons is very similar to the Greeks usage of the term daimon when referring to a spirit or a minor local deity, or force of nature. As more of the Slavic countries and Russia became Christianized, the term demon would take on more negative associations.
I should throw in at this point, a note that scholars and historians do have some disputes about the exact origins of Ded Moroz. He does appear to be derived from a Slavic deity of Winter and to be the personification of cold and frost.
I’ll touch on it more, further down; there was a period of religious prohibition during the Soviet era and the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t seem to be settled on the nature and role that Ded Moroz has. He goes from scary demon to a figure that can now allow for some of the religious traditions to come back, even if they’re claimed to be pagan in origin.
However, myths and legends do evolve, grow and change. The very image of Ded Moroz that many people have, especially in Russia does come out of the Soviet era. Why ruin a good thing that people love?
Morozko (Grandfather Frost)
Or Old Man Winter
This is the main story and source for Ded Moroz and is also the origin for his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). It is a Russian fairy tale first collected by Alexander Afanasyey for his Russian Fairy Tales collection and then is included in “The Yellow Fairy Book” compiled by Andrew Lang in 1894 as “The Story of King Frost.”
The story begins with a stepmother who dislikes her good-natured stepdaughter who is always good and kind and always having to hear about it. Of course, the stepmother loves her own daughter and dotes on her whim and desires.
As is the nature of these type of stories, the stepmother tells the father to send the stepdaughter away, so she didn’t have to see or hear her again. The man begs his wife to reconsider and she is unrelenting about getting rid of the stepdaughter. So, the man, the father takes his daughter out on their sled, out to the woods before giving the girl a kiss and abandoning her there.
Realizing her lot and fate, the sobbing girl sits down next to a tree. She isn’t sitting there long before she hears a crackling noise and looks up to see that King Frost is standing there.
In a stern voice, King Frost snaps out doesn’t the girl know who he is? He is King Frost, king of the red-noses.
The girl says “All hail” to King Frost and then she asks if he is here to take her.
King Frost asks if she is warm enough. The girl answers, saying she is warm enough despite the fact that she is shivering fiercely.
The King repeated his question, stepping closer and the girl insisted that she was still warm.
At this, King Frost takes pity on the poor girl and wraps her in furs to keep warm. He goes further with covering her in blankets and giving her gifts of gems and lastly, a sleigh pulled by six white horses.
In the morning, the stepmother tells the man that he should go out and retrieve his daughter’s body for burial. To the stepmother’s surprise and shock, the man returns with a chest filled with gems and his still-living daughter, more beautiful than before with the splendid furs and her silver and gold dress.
Wanting the same for her own daughter, the stepmother tells the man to take her daughter out to the same spot where the stepdaughter had been left. The man did as he was bid, taking the stepmother’s daughter out and leaving her there.
As soon as the man left, the daughter sulked as she sat down by a tree. Just as before, it wasn’t long until King Frost appeared.
Just as before, King Frost asked the daughter if she was warm. Unlike the stepdaughter who had been respectful with her words, the daughter was rude, calling him a blind fool, of course she was cold, her hands and feet are nearly frozen.
Angered by this girl’s words, King Frost snapped his fingers and froze the girl to death.
Of course, the stepmother expected her own daughter to return just as the stepdaughter had, loaded with wealth and finery. That clearly wasn’t what happened when the man went out to retrieve her and brought back only the daughter’s cold, lifeless body.
It just shows, it pays to always be polite and respectful as you never know who you’re talking to or dealing with.
Moroz – Red Nose
This is a poem connected to Ded Moroz written by Nikolai Nekrasov. The story found within this poem highlights a dark aspect to Ded Moroz’s character as it depicts him killing a peasant woman and orphaning her children.
Other darker aspects to Ded Moroz as a wizard of winter would have him kidnap children and he would only be willing to return them when parents offered him up gifts.
Within the Christian Orthodox Church, the character of Ded Moroz has changed over the years. Most notably during the 19th century with different plays featuring him. The two most notable plays are Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s Snegurochka and a similarly named play by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Russian Revolution
1917 saw the Bolshevik Revolution. More forward a few years into the 1920’s with the formation of the Soviet Union and Government, we see that many Christmas traditions were discouraged as they were considered to be too religious in nature and materialistic. Especially Saint Nicholas, who had been Russia’s patron saint, his feast day of December 6th were done away with.
It doesn’t help that Ded Moroz was declared to be “an ally of the priest and kulak” as Russia tried to remove many religious elements. Other sources give the history that Ded Moroz was seen as too childish and not acceptable.
This isn’t just Christmas that got banned by the Soviet Government, this is a prohibition on any religious holidays, observances and celebrations.
Soviet Santa – An Alternative
Luckily a complete banning of the holiday spirits wouldn’t last long. I’m sure there are many children psychologists and just even psychologists in general who can extrapolate much better than I can about the importance of play, the use of imagination and human spirit. If you crush it completely, we’re going to have problems.
Seeing a need and importance for some type of holiday seasonal celebration, Ded Moroz would take on his more familiar image thanks in part to a letter written by Pavel Postyshey on December 28th of 1935. Pavel stated that the origins for the Christmas traditions pre-dated actual Christianity and that it would be beneficial to bring back these traditions for the sake of the children.
Now, instead of arriving on Christmas Day, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka would arrive on New Year’s or Novy God, bringing presents to leave under an evergreen tree. This change provided an alternative to the American Santa Claus and one seen as a secular celebration by the Soviet Union.
Letters To Ded Moroz
Much like how Santa Claus will receive letters from children, Ded Moroz will receive his share of letters from numerous children requesting gifts. Millions of letters over the years from all across Russia and around the world have been addressed to Ded Moroz.
Where Santa makes his home in the North Pole, Ded Moroz does hang his hat and call home?
To answer that, in 1998, it was declared that the town of Veliky Ustyug, in Vologda Oblast is Ded Moroz’s home. Since then, Veliky Ustyug has become a popular tourist destination for many Russians who travel to Veliky and visit. Ded Moroz’s lives in a log cabin out in the taiga forest near where three rivers meet.
Ded Moroz spends his summers reading letters from children all over the country in preparation for the New Year’s Tree on January 1st.
Ded Moroz’s Granddaughter
Snihurónka or the Snow Maiden is Ded Moroz’s granddaughter who often accompanies him. She is shown wearing a long silver-blue dress or robes and a fur-lined cap to keep warm.
Ded Moroz is often shown being accompanied by his granddaughter, Snihurónka. She’s noteworthy as numerous other, familiar Winter figures don’t have a female companion.
Holiday Twins & Counterparts
So, what are the difference between Santa Claus and Ded Moroz?
We know there are differences, after all, Santa Claus arrives Christmas Eve and Ded Moroz arrives on New Year’s; both bringing presents. Santa Claus classically dresses all in red, especially in America and Ded Moroz is known for dressing in not just red, he will also dress in blue or even white, much like how a Russian noble would be expected to dress. They certainly look like cultural syno-entities and cultural twins (given the history, that’s how Ded Moroz got his start.) Santa Claus is known for being short and rotund and Ded Moroz is tall and thin. Russian children will affectionately call Ded Moroz, “Ded Moroz the Red Nose.”
Other notable differences between the two is that Santa Claus will enter a home coming down the chimney and leaving his gifts in a stocking. Whereas, Ded Moroz will enter in through the front door and leave his gifts under the New Year’s Tree.
During the 1990’s, the character of Santa Claus began to make his way into the Russian Federation as more and more influences of Western culture made their way through the previous Soviet Union.
There have been efforts to show cultural goodwill by having Santa Claus (or his various counterparts) and Ded Moroz (sometimes his Belarus counterpart Dzied Maroz) has one-on-one meetings or friendly competitions.
December of 1997 saw the creation of ‘Christmas Without Borders” where Ded Moroz and Santa Claus met a bridge crossing the Narva River between Estonia and Russia. The whole point was to spread goodwill and increase cooperation between the two countries and neighboring border towns. I wasn’t able to determine if this started a new tradition and continued or if it just petered off after a few years.
The early 21st century saw a resurgence for the character of Ded Moroz and his granddaughter, Snegurochka where they arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts, often showing up at children’s parties. Much like Saint Nicholas who battles Krampus in some of the Germanic countries, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will face off with Baba Yaga who wants to steal the presents.
Of course, there are a few will say that Ded Moroz is really Santa Claus’ grandfather. That works too given how long the two have been around and who’s mythologies are older.
Tracking Ded Moroz On His Nightly Runs
Where Santa has NORAD tracking his nightly flight, Ded Moroz has GLONASS tracking his run on New Year’s. This began in November of 2009 when the Russian Federation offered to compete with NORAD.
Alright! May the best Present-Giver win!
What’s In A Name – Regional Variations
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many of the countries that formed after sought to move away a Soviet heritage by reclaiming their own regional heritages and roots. This means that Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will frequently have a different, variant name or change altogether as each country seeks their ancient traditions or move forward to something different.
Armenia – Dzmer Pap, meaning “Grandfather Winter,” his granddaughter is known as Dzyunanushik, meaning “Snow Sweetie” or Snow Anush. They have been part of Armenia traditions for some 160 years since the Russo-Persian War. Both wear red, blue or white winter coats. They make an appearance for both Christmas and New Year’s with bringing gifts. Children are expected to sing songs or recite poems before getting their gifts.
Azerbaijan – Saxta Baba, meaning “Grandfather Frost,” his granddaughter is known as Qar Qizi meaning “Snow Girl.” Saxta Baba brings gifts during New Year’s. Qar Qizi isn’t usually seen.
Bashkir and Tatar – Qis Babay, which means “Winter Old Man.”
Belarus – Dzied Maroz, he replaced Sviatv Mikalai who was more local, but had been disapproved of due to being Christian. Dzied Maroz’ makes his home in the Bialowieza Forest.
Bulgaria – Dyado Koleda or Grandfather Koleda is often equated with Santa Claus and appears alongside Dyado Mraz or Grandfather Frost. Dyado Mraz was popular during the Communist rule but has since fallen by the wayside since 1989 as Dyado Koleda began to gain more popularity.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – Ayaz Ata is the name for Ded Moroz.
Nenets – Yamal Iri, which means “Grandfather of Yamal.”
Poland – Poland didn’t have a version of Ded Moroz and during the communist era, there were efforts to try and introduce Dziadek Mróz as historically speaking, Communists didn’t want religion and view Saint Nicholas as being too religious in nature. It’s fairly obviously that Dziadek Mróz was meant to create a culture link and tie to Russia.
Romania – In 1948, a Communist party gained power and Christmas celebrations were done away with. Mos Cracium (Father Christmas) was replaced with Mos Gerila (Old Man Frosty), the Romanian name for Ded Moroz who would now bring gifts on December 31st for the New Years. Anyone paying attention, knows that New Year’s celebrations begin on December 30th, the Day of the Republic, when King Mihai I abdicated the throne in 1947.
Sakha Republic – Chys Khan, meaning “Master of Cold” and Khaarchana (Snow Maiden).
Slovenia – In this country, Ded Moroz’s name translates to Dedek Mraz. He is a slender man who wears a grey leather coat trimmed with fur inside and out and who wears round dormouse fur cap. This image of Dedek Mraz is based on pictures by Maksim Gaspari in 1952. Dedek Mraz’s home is located on Mount Triglay, the highest peak in both Slovenia and Yugoslavia. In the 1990’s when Communism ended, Miklavž (Saint Nicholas) who arrives on December 6th and Božicek (Christmas Man) who arrives on December 24th, Christmas Eve began making an appearance in Slovenia. Some Slovenian families in the 1940’s would have the Christkind (Jezušcek or “Little Jesus”) who brought gifts on Christmas Eve. It varies by family in regard to their political and religious views, current culture will show all three of Grandfather Frost, Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus as friends. The attributes of each will also get mixed with the others.
Tajikistan – Boboi Barfi, meaning “Grandfather Snow” and Snegurochka is known as Barfak, meaning “Snowball.” There was an effort briefly on December 11th of 2013 to do away with the state televised celebrations of Boboi Barfi, Barfak and the New Year’s. That lasted all of about a day and the next day, the televised broadcasting plans were back on.
Ukraine – With the current conflicts with Russia, as early as 2014, there have been efforts to replace Ded Moroz with Sviatyi Mykolai (Saint Nicholas) and well, Sviatyi Mykolai is more popular in Western Ukraine.
Yakut – Chys Khaan, meaning “Master of Cold.”
Yugoslavia – The socialist Yugoslavia that comprises Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia, has a character by the name of Grandfather Frost. In Bosnian, this name is Djed Mraz or Djeda Mraz, in Croatian, this name is Djed Mraz, in Macedonian, the name is Dedo Mraz, the Serbian name is Deda Mraz and the Slovenian name is Dedek Mraz.
For a bit of a history lesson here, in Croatia, Djed Mraz was viewed as a communist figure and the character of Djed Božicnjak or Grandfather Christmas is introduced. It’s taken a while for Djed Božicnjak to replace Djed Mraz and then, not completely. After 1999, both Djed Mraz and Djed Božicnjak have become synonymous. Some families still have Djed Mraz arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts. Thanks to some historical Austrian influence in parts of Croatia, children will get gifts on December 6th brought by Sveti Nikola (Saint Nicholas) who is accompanied by Krampus. More religious families will have the baby Jesus (Isusek, Mali Isus or Kriskindl) who brings gifts on Christmas. Getting into some areas of Dalmatia, it is Sveta Lucija (Saint Lucy) who brings gifts.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher-ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.