Category Archives: Russian
Also Known As: Benec, Vėlinas (Baltic, Lithuanian),Volos, Volusu, Volusu, Vyeles, Ganyklos (Lithuanian), Vlas (Russian), Walgino, Weles
Epitaphs: King of Bears, Lord of all Wolves, Master of the Forest, “Skotiybog“ (God of Cattle)
Etymology: “Uel-“ to see, fields, spirits of the dead. Also likely from the proto-Indo-European word “wel-“ wool
In Slavic beliefs, folklore, and mythology, Veles is a god of many things from storms and trickery to God of the underworld and domestic animals as well as the god of the earth and water. Veles is indeed a significant and major supernatural force within Slavic mythology and beliefs. Depending upon your source, some of it can seem rather contradictory.
Given the nature of Slavic beliefs, there isn’t much concrete documentation. There is still a lot of oral history and traditions about Veles found in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. All of this can get very confusing as for the longest time, first with the arrival of Christianity, a lot of local Slavic pagan beliefs were done away with and made to be seen as aspects of evil and the devil. Then later, when that’s no longer so prominent, there just isn’t a lot that has been documented and what survives has been by oral tradition and that, can vary widely by local, regional traditions that have managed to get passed on. We also hit on several dubious sources that over time have proven not to be reliable.
Naturally, this will be where I’ve got some mistakes and expect I Veles to be a post I will come back to correct several times and update.
Animal: Bear, Cattle, Crows, Dragons, Owl, Ravens, Rooster, Serpents, Wolf
Colors: Black, Blue, Green, Red
Day of the Week: Sunday
Directions: North, West
Element: Earth, Water
Gemstones: Bloodstone, Garnet, Jasper, Jet, Obsidian, Onyx
Incense: Cedar, Clove, Ginger, Wormwood
Month: February, March
Plant: Cedar, Hawthorne, Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, Pine, Wheat, Willow
Sphere of Influence: Cattle, Commerce, Divination, Fertility, Magic, Medicine, Music, Pastures, Underworld, Wealth, Wildlife
Symbols: Cattle, Horns, Serpents, Wool
Tarot: Cups, Pentacles
In some sources, Veles is described as a wolf-headed god. In other sources, Veles is described as a large serpent with horns that lives in the water or is pictured at the bottom of the Slavic World Tree with Perun in his eagle form at the top. Frequently, Veles is depicted as an elderly man with a gray beard and hair. As a shapeshifter, Veles often takes on the traits of those animals favored or associated with him such as horns and bear fur.
When in the form of a bear, Veles is regarded as the King of Bears. As a wolf, among the southern Slavs, Veles is the lord of all wolves.
Velinas – In the Balto-Slavic regions, a description is given that describes him as being a one-eyed god with a gift for divination and leader of the Wild Hunt, lord of the dead, and to whom people sacrificed to were killed with a spear. This version of Veles warrants having its own post as one source found, discusses Velinas as similar to, yet clearly different from Veles. Taking a look at the Mediterranean region among the Greek and Roman cultures, there were other culture groups like the Etruscans, the Dacians, Phrygians who have their own local deities who were similar to those of the Greek and Roman deities and would frequently be absorbed into the Greco-Roman pantheons and survive as epitaphs for the local region.
What’s In A Name?
According to the linguist Roman Jakobson, the name Veles comes from the word “uel-“ and “esu-“ while the name Volos comes from another root word for where “-el” changes to “olo.” The root word “uel” or “wel-“ can have variable meanings and refer to any number of words such as “to die,” “grass,” “to see,” “to want,” “to turn,” “to cull,” “tepid”, “hair,” “wool,” “forest,” and “deception” as in magical deceptions. The book “The Mythology of All Races” published in 1918 says that Veles’ name comes from “weles” for wolf.
The root word “uel” is also related to the proto-Germanic word “walaz” that is also seen in the old Norse “valr,” “valkyria,” and “Valholl” all words related to the Norse god Odin who is known too by the name “Valfǫðr.” In the Baltic dialects and language, we see this reflected in the word “vėlės/veļi” for the “spirits of the dead,” “shade of the deceased,” and “shadow of death.”. This is reflected in the Baltic god’s names of Vėlinas, Velnias, and Velns. A connection of the word “uel” from “ṷélsu-“ for meadow or pasture has been made with the Greek Elysium, the fields of the blessed dead.
Where “uel-“ relates with “to see,” there is a connection in the name of the seeress Veleda. Going off this, in Norse mythology there is a “Völva,” a seeress connected to water and foretelling known as “Völuspa.” The word “Völuspa” is connected to spinning or braiding the Thread of Fate of those whose futures have been seen. “Völva” is also the cognate for a “Wheel” or “Spinning Wheel.”
In the proto-Indo-European language, etymologists have found the root word “wel-“ meaning wool and likely where the English word “wool” comes from. The Russian word for “hair” is “volos.” As a god of horned cattle and other livestock, this makes sense.
First off, “The Primary Chronicle” is the main source and historical record that provides us with evidence for Veles’ importance and worship. Veles is one of the Slavic gods that can be concretely confirmed while there are several others that have been disproved or there’s still information being gathered to confirm them.
Veles is worshiped in two distinct forms. One as Veles and one as Volos. This makes sense as that can be a way to break down all the aspects of what Veles is a god of and the domains he presides over. Scholars and etymologists suggest that Veles and Volos are two different gods being referred to. However, that does make sense for a need to see two different deities once the Slavic regions began to be Christianized and there’s a split of Veles’ dualistic nature.
Cocks or Roosters would be sacrificed to Veles at the rivers or lakes sacred to him.
During the later 10th century, Vladimir I, the Prince of Kiev erected seven statues in his city, of which Veles was one of them. However, Veles’ statue is the only one that didn’t stand up on the hill next to the other statues and castle. Instead, Veles’ statue could be found in the city in the marketplace. This placement indicates strongly Veles’ importance to commerce. Plus, it also shows that the worship of Perun and Veles needed to be kept separate as Perun’s shrines and worship were to be conducted up high with Veles’ place down in the lowlands. Among the Southern Slavs, Veles’ name is often found in place names.
Triglav – Veles was worshipped as an aspect of the three-headed Slavic god Triglav and the Slavic trinity consisting of Perun, Veles, and Svarog.
With the arrival of Christianity in the Slavic regions and countries, the aspect of Veles has largely been suppressed, at least the aspects connecting him to the Underworld and as a trickster. He has been equated with the Devil with his name becoming the same word for ghosts and devils. There is a record of Czech’s referring to Veles as a devil in the 16th century. An idol was thrown in the Pocayna River. Veles is used frequently in medieval curses from Bohemia.
Due to Veles’ dualistic nature, we see a split in his name with Veles and Volos. The name Veles under Christian influence holding a more negative connotations and associations. Whereas with Volos, he is held more benignly, and this aspect survives, becoming associated with different Saints.
St. Blaise – Or Saint Vlas, Saint Vlaho, St. Blaz, or St. Vlasiy, he is connected more to the aspect of Volos, he is a shepherd and patron saint cattle and domestic animals. Icons of St. Vlas were placed in cattle sheds for their protection. The Saint’s name day is February 12th and, on this day, cattle are treated to a special feed to eat. In Yaroslavl, the church built on the site of Vele’s shrine was dedicated to St. Blaise.
St. Nicholas – Veles is associated with this saint who is a patron of merchants, fishermen, and mariners. There is also this connection due to the association with water and being a snake who is slain by St. George, a motif similar to the enmity between Perun and Veles.
Parentage and Family
Father – Rod, the creator god in Slavic beliefs.
Mother – Zemun, a divine or celestial cow.
Sometimes Veles’ parents are given as Svarog and Lada.
Perun and Dażbóg
Depending on the region or the source cited, Veles is married either to Mokosh, the goddess of the earth, or to Devana, a goddess of the wilds and hunt.
Mokosh – She is somewhat conflicting as in other stories Mokosh is the wife to Perun and whom Veles kidnaps in their never-ending feud.
Devana – Or Dziewanna was forced to marry Veles after she rebelled against Perun.
Jarilo – A fertility god raised by Veles after being kidnapped. So he may not really count.
The struggle against Chaos; this is a familiar motif found throughout the world in many different regions and mythologies of a culture hero or God going up against a creature of chaos. This creature is often shown as and takes the form of a great serpent or dragon. This is the familiar Knight slaying the Dragon seen in many European mythologies. Parallels to this concept are even found in other cultures.
This aspect is seen in the descriptions of Veles where he is a serpent with horns and the battle that he has with Perun. It’s a dragon or serpent-slaying motif seen with the story of Saint George slaying the dragon.
Storm Myth – Battle With Perun, the Storm God
As previously mentioned above under Chaoskampf, this story is perhaps the best-known Slavic story, especially as it fits into the Christian ideas of a hero slaying the dragon or evil or order triumphing over chaos.
Russian scholars and philologists Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov have reconstructed this mythical battle of Perun and Veles with comparative studies to various Indo-European myths, Slavic folk tales, and songs.
Perun, the god of thunder battles against Veles in his dragon form. Depending on the story, Veles has stolen either Perun’s son, wife, or cattle which leads to their conflict.
As a challenge, in the shape of a huge serpent, Veles comes up from the underworld of Nav and wind his way up the Slave World Tree towards the heavens and Perun’s domain. Naturally, Perun responds by sending lightning bolts so that Veles flees back down and turns himself into various animals, people, and even trees to escape from or ambush Perun as they battle it out.
In the end, Veles is slain by Perun and the person or thing that Veles is to have stolen is released from within his body and it comes out in the form of falling rain from the heavens.
Scholars have commented that this “Storm Myth” is probably how the ancient Slavs would explain the changing of the seasons throughout the year. Any dry periods would be seen as Veles’ theft with the storms and lightning being interpreted as a divine battle up in the heavens and Perun’s ultimate triumph over Veles with the arrival of rain and Perun establishing order over chaos.
The Slavs have a saying that wherever lighting strikes, that is Perun attacking Veles.
Variation 1 – In the stories where Veles kidnaps Perun’s son, it is Jarilo, the tenth son who is stolen. Veles then raises Jarilo as his own son, who when he is older, becomes a god of fertility and heralds the arrival of spring when he returns to the lands of the living.
Variation 2 – It is Perun who is stolen as an infant and raised in the underworld. Once Perun is grown, he battles many creatures in order to fight his way back up to the mortal world.
Since the “Storm Myth” is cyclical and repeats every year. It connects Veles as a god of fertility and a god who dies and then is resurrected. The snake or serpent aspect of Veles would be him shedding his old skin or old life to be reborn as the year changes.
The “Storm Myth” and battle with Perun places Veles in a more negative role as one who brings chaos. Certainly, change is chaotic, but there is a pattern that emerges and soon you can make sense of that pattern and bring about a certain order to things so it doesn’t get destructive.
For the ancient Slavs, Veles wasn’t evil, he was the god of the wilds and nature which can appear to be very unpredictable if you’re not careful or respectful.
Later Christian influences will place him as evil and why in so many places Veles’ name does become synonymous with the devil and evil. But we do see where Veles appears as a Saint such as Saint Nicholas to save a poor farmer’s cattle from the destructiveness of St. Elias, a representative of Perun.
While Perun is more associated with agriculture, there is a Russian custom during harvest season to cut the first ear of wheat and tie it into an amulet that would protect crops from evil spirits. This was known as “tying the beard of Veles” which meant to invoke good fortune and wealth.
Duality – Ultimately the conflict of Perun and Veles is the duality in the clash of good and evil and the cyclical nature of the passing of the seasons and year. Veles represents the earth, water, and physical world and Perun represents fire, the heavens, and spirit.
Marriage To Devana
Also known as Dziewanna, she is a goddess of the wilds and hunt. As punishment, Devana found herself forced to marry Veles after she rebelled against Perun. Wanting to be wild and free, Devana didn’t initially love Veles at first despite the two having a domain that’s very similar to each other. After a bit of thought, Veles managed to win Devana over when he changed into a basil flower and calmed her. While they’re still not really in love, together they do watch over the lowlands of the wilds and are a force not to be taken lightly.
God of Mischief
Like Loki, Veles is considered a god of mischief and trickery. This ties strongly to the association of Veles’ use of magic, shapeshifting, and the arts. This aspect holds where Veles is seen as a god of chaos and a disruption during any long periods of dryness, or no rain as primarily seen in the “Storm Myth.”
Magic & The Arts
In this aspect, we see Veles the god of divination, magic, music, poetry, the earth, and water. Oaths would be sworn in Veles’ name. Traveling musicians, skalds, bards, and poets were known to pray to Veles for his protection as they traveled.
As a god of poetry, divination, and the arts, Veles has been equated with the Norse Odin. There is a 12th-century Russian epic, “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign,” where the character Boyan the wizard is referred to as Vele’s grandson. Poetry, music, and magic were closely linked in both Nordic and Slavic beliefs.
Veles is regarded as a protector of traveling musicians. Up into the 20th century, in some wedding ceremonies held in northern Croatia, the music won’t begin playing unless the groom while making a toast, spills some of the wine onto the ground, especially near the roots of a tree. This tradition would be musicians making a toast to their patron deity.
The Slavic magician-priests were called: volhov, volchvi, vlъsvi and volъsvi. They were not priests of an elite religion like those belonging to Perun. Rather, these magician-priests were known to be seers, soothsayers, poets, magicians and sorcerers as well as healers and herbalists. It is thought the etymology of volchys connects them to Volos.
God of the Underworld
Veles is a god of the Underworld, in charge of the spirits of the dead whom he would send out as his messengers. In his connection to the earth, Veles is also a god of all the bounties and riches of the earth, growing above and found below.
Nav – Also known as Nawia, this is Veles’ abode in the underworld. Incidentally, the word nav could also refer to the spirits or souls of the deceased who had premature deaths or poor deaths such as drowning, or being murdered, or if you were a murderer or warlock, these were all spirits that would come back as demons to afflict the living. The navias could take the form of birds. In Bulgaria, there is folklore that says twelve navias could suck the blood from a pregnant woman. The navias were also the demonic representation of the 1092 plague in Polotsk, Belarus.
Very similar to Norse beliefs, the Slavs also believed a huge world tree connected the mortal world to the heavens and the underworld. The roots of the world tree formed the roof of the underworld as they stretched out.
Where Perun was seen as either a hawk or eagle sitting in the branches of the world tree looking out over the heavens, Veles was seen as a huge serpent coiled around the roots ruling over the underworld.
Unlike descriptions of other underworlds, Nav was viewed as a beautiful place in folktales as a place where it’s forever Spring with green, grassy plains and plenty of water. Many fantastical creatures could be found here, not just the spirits of the dead who watched over Veles’ herds of cattle.
For the Slavs, Nav was described as being somewhere “across the sea” and was the place where migrating birds would go to every winter. In folktales, we find a different name, Virey or Iriv and that Jarilo, the god of fertility and vegetation lived here during winter and would return when it was time for spring. Jarilo would cross the seas, returning to the lands of the living bringing spring and birds back.
The Separation Of The Human World & Underworld
This story concerns the separation and boundary separating the mortal, living world with that of the underworld and lands of the dead. A shepherd pledged to Veles to sacrifice his best cow and to keep the god’s prohibitions. From this, Veles divides the human world and the underworld with either a furrow that he plows or groove over the road that the shepherd carves with a knife to prevent evil or negative powers from crossing.
God of Cattle
As Volos, he is known as “skotiybog,“ the god of cattle who watches over and protects flocks, cattle and all domestic animals, keeping them from harm. The name skotnyi bog is also the name for livestock in general. This aspect of Veles survives and continued under Christian influence well into the 18th century as Saint Blaise where he is a protector of shepherds and their flocks or cattle.
It must be noted too that it isn’t just domestic animals that Volos watches over, but all wild animals, connecting him to the image of him as a horned serpent and thus, horned gods like Pan or Cernunnos who watch over the forests and animals. In addition to the horns associated with either a bull or ram, there is also sheep’s wool that is used as a symbol for Veles.
The Koledari would sing that they come to “weaving black wool.” There is some folklore involving wool and the expressions, “presti vunu” meaning weaving wool, and “crnu vunu presti” meaning the weaving of black wool. These are illusions to magical crafts and Veles’ role as a god of magic.
God of Commerce & Wealth
Given how cattle were regarded as a sign of wealth and influence, it’s not hard to see Volos become the god and patron of commerce, business, prosperity, trade, and wealth. Merchants would seal their agreements by swearing Volos’ name and even legal documents would sometimes have oaths to him. If you broke an oath, you could be sure of Volos’ punishment and retribution.
A Rus-Byzantine Treaty of 971 is the earliest record we have where signers swore by Vele’s name with violators being warned of a punishment. They would be killed by their own weapons that would become “yellow as gold.” It is thought that this meant they would be cursed with a disease.
Veles’ Feast Day
Or the Festival of Veles, this festival is celebrated either February 11th or 24th for the observance of midwinter. In Christian folk rituals, this festival corresponds with Saint Blaise’s feast day. In the Orthodox traditions, St. Blaise as the protector of cattle is said to have defeated Winter or Morana. Among Catholic traditions, St. Blaise is the patron of throat diseases and apples and candles are blessed to provide protection from those diseases. In Catholic tradition, St. Blaise’s feast day is February 3rd and apples would be sacrificed to him by feeding them to cattle.
Prayers would be offered to Veles for the protection of livestock and their health by sacrificing milk. The festival would be held near a place of worship. During this time, it is forbidden to eat veal. The food eaten during this time is groats seasoned with fat. Ritual fights would also be held during this festival.
The best part is knowing that this held close to Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia!
The Great Night, in Slavic beliefs, following a lunar calendar, the first day of the New Year would begin on what corresponds with the Gregorian calendar of March 1st to celebrate the end of Winter and return of Spring. This festival could last from Christmas all the way to the end of February. After the arrival and Christianization of many Slavic countries, for those Slavs falling under the Orthodox Churches, this day came to be known as Velik Dan or the Great Day. For the Catholic Slavs, this day became Velika Noc, still the Great Night. Both names correspond with the day or the week in which Easter is observed.
In pre-Christian worship, Velja Noc is the night that the spirits of the dead walk the earth and would enter villages and homes to celebrate the New Year with their living relatives. It is believed that Veles, as the god of the underworld would send out the souls of the dead to the living world to act as his messengers. One tradition has young men known as koledari or vucari would dress up in long coats of sheep wool and wear grotesque masks as they went around the villages making a lot of noise and singing songs. They would be wet and muddy to symbolize the wet underworld of Nav and the ghosts of the dead. In the koledari traditions, they would visit different homes and people presented them with gifts as if they were messengers from Veles to gain his favor for wealth and fortune in the following year.
Which I find very fascinating as this all sounds very much like the Irish celebration of Samhain and Halloween with spirits of the dead passing over to the world of the living and dressing up in costume. Plus, the spirits visiting living relatives is a lot like celebrations of Día de Los Muertos in Mexico and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, France.
Apsat – A Georgian or Sarmatian deity and god of cattle and herds who has been equated with Velese.
Cernunnos – A god of the druids in Celtic myth, he is symbolized as a horned snake and god of nature and horned animals.
Hermes – A trickster god and messenger of the Greek pantheon, Veles has been compared to them.
Loki – Veles has been compared to the trickster god Loki from Norse mythology.
Mercury – The trickster and messenger god of the Roman pantheon.
Odin – Some descriptions of Veles also sound just like Odin with his one-eye and gift of prophecy.
Triglav – A three-headed underworld god worshiped by the Pomeranians and some of the Polabian Slavs in Szczecin, Wolin and Brandenburg. It was a short-lived cult confirmed by St. Otto of Bamberg in his biographies.
Vala – A demon who opposes the thunder god Indra in the Vedas.
Vėlinas – A Baltic deity who is very similar in appearance to the Norse Odin and not just Veles.
Etymology – medis “tree” or medė “forest” Lithuanian
Also Called: Medeinė, Meidein, Meidene, Žvorūna, Žvorūnė, vilkmergė (“She-Wolf”)
Medeina is the Lithuanian goddess of the forest and hunt in the Baltic region. As a goddess of the hunt, Medeina has been compared to the Grecian Artemis or Roman Diana.
Animal: Bear, Hare, Wolf
Sphere of Influence: Forests, Wildlife
The first images of Medeina show her as a bear.
Lithuanian scholar, Algirdas Julius Greimas says that Medeina is single, a virgin goddess much like Artemis or Diana. Greimas describes her as a beautiful, young and voluptuous huntress who is accompanied by wolves.
When seen as a bear, Medeina’s worshipers dressed in bear skins during a Winter Solstice ritual.
The scholar, Vykintas Vaitkevičius is reported to have identified five Hare Churches and ten Wolf-Footprints in Eastern Lithuania that are sacred to Medeina. The churches are sacred stones, hills and forests while the paw prints are stones with hollows that look like a paw print.
After the Baptism of Lithuania, Medeina’s cult and worship went in decline.
Her name day is August 21st in Lithuania.
Goddess Of The Hunt/Forest Protector
Whele Medeina is seen as a goddess of the hunt, her actual role is that of protecting the wild animals in the forest from hunters. One way that she would do this is to send out a rabbit or hare to misdirect hunters and get them to chase it.
As Medeina protected the wildlife from Hunters, she was often seen as having dual benign and malign traits. As if scholars couldn’t decide if she were divine or demonic in nature.
The first animal caught in spring would be sacrificed to Medeina.
Medeina is known to take a couple of different forms. The first is that of a young woman, the second is that of a wolf. In her wolf form, Medeina leads a pack of wolves.
A Russian chronicle that dates to around 1252, according to this text, Medeina is one of the pagan deities that was worshiped by the Lithuanian King Mindaugas. Here, Medeina is an unnamed hare goddess.
This text has caused some scholarly discussions whether the name Medeina is the name of the hare goddess or if there are two different goddesses with the same name.
Military Prowess & Might
Any early role of Medeina was in the military aspects of warriors. Medeina would later be replaced by Zemyna, the goddess of Earth who represents agriculture and peasants.
I could not find much on this entity. The Juodas kudlotas which translates from “juodas” for black and “kudlotas” for hair is some sort of cross between a hairy animal and a human being, much like sightings of Big Foot or Sasquatch in the U.S. This is a creature that lives in the forests and finds favor with Medeina.
Artemis – The Greek goddess of the Hunt.
Diana – The Roman goddess of the Hunt.
Meža Mate – The Forest Mother, she is another goddess associated with Medeina.
Žvorūnė – Also called Žvorūna from the word “žvėris” meaning “beast,” is a Lithuanian goddess of hunting and animals. She is a goddess made mention of in the Malala Chronicle and Chronicle of Ipatius. She has been equated with Medeina. There’s some speculation that Žvoruna may be an epitaph of Medeina and that there might be an older hunting goddess who has since been forgotten.
Other names: Snegurka, Snow Maiden, Snowflake, Snow Princess, Niègette, Miss Snow
Etymology: Sneg (Russian) Snow; Snow Maiden, Snowy, Snow Girl, Snowflake, Snow Princess, Niègette, Miss Snow
The character of Snegurochka is a figure found in Russian fairy tales. She is prominently known as being Ded Moroz’s granddaughter and accompanies him at New Year’s to deliver gifts.
Father – Ded Moroz (Father Frost), later he becomes her grandfather.
Mother – Mother Spring or Spring of Beauty. Sometimes, in later stories, the Snow Queen is Snegurochka’s mother.
Soviet Era & New Year’s
Christmas Traditions? – Before the Soviet prohibition on celebrating Christmas, figurines depicting Snegurochka would be used to decorate the Christmas tree. Russian nesting dolls would also feature Snegurochka and her appearance can appear on various items as decoration.
In 1935, when the Soviet government decided to introduce Ded Moroz as the wintertime gift giver for New Year’s, Snegurochka also found herself reintroduced at this time as his granddaughter and accompanies him to deliver gifts.
As Ded Moroz’s granddaughter, Snegurochka dresses in a long silver-blue gown with a furry cap to keep warm. Alternately, she may be seen wearing a snow-flake crown. In this respect, Snegurochka is uniquely Russian as not very many other winter celebratory characters will have a female companion.
Once Upon A Time….
Snegurochka is relatively new to the scene as far as any myths are concerned. She makes her first appearance in Russian folklore and fairytales during the 19th century.
A few people will claim that Snegurochka’s roots and origins lay within Slavic pagan beliefs and mythology.
Despite being relatively new, there are several fairytales, stories and even plays showcasing Snegurochka’s origins.
Spring Ritual – There is mention that in some areas of Russia, there is a spring-time ritual that involves drowning a straw figure in a river or to burn it in a fire to symbolize the turning of the seasons from Winter to Spring.
This folktale was collected and published by Alexander Afanayev in his second volume of “The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs.” In this tome, Afanayev makes mention of a similar German figure by the name of Schneekind, “The Snow Child.” Andrew Lang called this story “Snowflake” and included it in his “The Pink Fairy Book,” published in 1897.
In the story of Snegurka, there is are childless Russian peasants who make a snow doll that comes to life. The magical child grows quickly and one day, some girls invite her to go for a walk with them into the woods. This particular day is St. John’s Day and as per tradition, the girls make a small fire that they take turns jumping over. When Snegurka’s turn comes, she evaporates into a cloud of mist when she gets halfway over the flames.
The Snow Maiden (Spring Fairytale)
This is another version of story, in this one, Snegurochka is the daughter of Ded Moroz and Spring the Beauty. This version was made into a play by Aleksandr Ostrovsky and music by Tchaikovsky in 1973.
In this story, Snegurochka longs for the companionship of humans. There is a shepherd boy by the name of Lel whom she is fond of. Due to her frozen heart, Snegurochka is unable to truly love him. Eventually, Mother Spring took pity on Snegurochka and softened her heart by giving her a spring wreath or garland to wear that she would be able to love. Once Snegurochka really fell in love with Lel, she melted.
I’ve come across a couple of variations that seek to combine the two above stories into one, longer version. One change is that Father Frost is secretly watching the couple as they create their snow daughter and brings her to life to their delight. Later, when the Spring celebrations are coming, Snegurka wants to go and she is warned by Father Frost to be careful of the warm sunlight and fires. In the village at the celebrations, she meets a young man whom she falls in love with and when she runs out to greet him, she melts on stepping into a bright, sunny patch.
Morozko (Grandfather Frost)
Also known as Old Man Winter, this story tells of a young girl who is sent out into the cold one night by her stepmother. Instead of freezing to death, the young girl is given gifts and warm furs and clothing by Morozko after she is courteous and shows him respect.
The young girl in this story isn’t Snegurochka, but worth noting due to similarities and any slim chance of inspiration for other stories involving her.
Other Retellings, Ballets and Movies
There is a story “The Little People of the Snow” written by the American poet William Cullen Bryant in 1864. In this story, the Snow-Maiden befriends a mortal girl by the name of Eva. When Eva comes to Snow-Maiden’s homeland, she is horrified when Eva freezes to death in her sleep.
“The Snow-Maiden: A Legend of the Alps,” was written in 1876 by an unknown author. In this story, a man traveling through the mountains falls in love with the Snow Maiden named Niègette. When he brings her down to the valley, intending to marry her, she melts reaching the warmer areas.
The composer Ludwig Minkus and Balletmaster Marius Petipa created a ballet of Snegurochka titled: “The Daughter of the Snows” for an Imperial Ballet in 1878. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov adapted the story of Snegurochka into the opera “The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale” in 1880 thereabouts.
In 1886, Emilia, Lady Dilke wrote the story “The Secret” wherein Snow Maiden kills her lover by freezing him with her gaze. Other plays have included “The Christmas Chain” by Lilian Pearson in 1921 and “Queen Christmas: A Pageant Play” by Carolyn Wells in 1922.
An animated movie of Snegurochka was made in 1952 and a later live-action movie in 1969. The author, Ruth Sanderson has a retelling called “The Snow Princess” where instead of dying, she becomes mortal to marry Lel. Even as late as 2012, a ballad fairy tale called “Snegurocka” was written by Svetlana Makarovic.
Kostroma – In the fairytale that first mentions Snegurochka, this is where she originated. It helps that this is the hometown to Alexander Ostrovsky. As a child, his nanny inspired him with various stories and fairy tales. Ostrovsky’s former home has since become a museum. Further, the love that Kostroma has for Snegurochka is seen every year at New Year’s when the whole city decorates and again in March for a two-day celebration attributed to Snegurochka’s birthday.
Veliky Ustug – Later, when she becomes associated with Ded Moroz, Snegurochka moved here as part of the winter, New Year’s traditions. Veliky Ustyug has become a popular tourist destination for many Russians to travel to Veliky and visit. Ded Moroz’s lives in a log cabin out in the taiga forest near where three rivers meet. Snegurochka can also be found helping out her Grandfather and engaging with visitors.
Other Similar Winter Entities
The Snow Child, mentioned briefly earlier, this is a Germanic story about a boy made of snow who eventually melts. There are a number of various versions to this story, one where an unfaithful wife tells her returning husband that the child she has is the result of having swallowed a snowflake. The husband is angry and when the boy is old enough, he takes the boy with him and sells him into slavery. When the husband returns home, he tells the wife that the child melted in the heat. Other variations of this story will have the children be magical in nature to their snowy origins.
The Snow Queen
Written by Hans Christian Anderson, this story has some similarities to Snegurochka and became very popular with Soviet animators in the 1950’s. In Russian, the Snow Queen is called Snezhnaya Koroleva.
This is this Japanese snow maiden who, much like Morozko, can be very deadly to anyone unfortunate to be caught out in a blizzard. She appears as a calm, pale woman who will sing to people lost in the cold, lulling to them to sleep before she takes their life with her cold, deadly breath. That sounds a lot like hypothermia. At least with being asleep, their death is painless?
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. Not just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus as 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”
I also found where the Oxford English Dictionary says that a double or triple is used to indicate “derision or derisive laughter” and that this likely goes back to the late 12th century and was certainly in usage during the 16th century. Plus it’s noted that a single “ho” or “ha” would mean surprise as in success or taunting someone.
I kind of find the “ho, ho, ho!” as derisive difficult to label Santa Claus with. However, if we’re looking at his antics to break into houses and leave presents and his merry, jolly outlook as he delights in bringing holiday cheer to everyone or avoids getting shot off of someone’s trailer because all they can see is a venison locker filled up with eight tiny reindeer; then I can see the mischievous side of Santa with narrowly escaping children trying to stay up for Santa, trying to catch him or any other holiday shenanigans.
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.
Christkindel – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children in 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.
Hans Trapp – A terrifying scarecrow who accompanies Saint Nicholas in the French regions of Alsace.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Knecht Ruprecht – A figure similar to Belsnickel in Germany known for giving gifts or doling out punishments.
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 canon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would later 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 out that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North America 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, and the imagery from Pagan ones were 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 many holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia-old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, it’s 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 also 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 to others and charity, spending time with family, and spending 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 has 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 Known As or Spelled: Slenderman, Slendy, Fear Dubh (or, The Dark Man; Scottish) Takkenmann (Branch Man; Dutch), Der Großmann or Der Grosse Mann, Der Grossman (the Tall Man; German), Der Ritter (the Knight), Thief of the Gods, Thief of Kuk
The figure of Slender Man is relatively new in the Urban Folklore landscape, making it a 21st century Boogyman. This being’s first appearance was on June 10th of 2009, having been created by Eric Knudsen, using the name “Victor Surge” in the Something Awful forum for a photoshop contest. The idea had been to create an Urban Legend so believable it would take on a life of its own, which it certainly has.
Much of the early photos and videos showcasing Slender Man claim to be “found footage” much in the style of a movie like the Blair Witch Project. Knudsen has claimed a number of sources for inspiration into Slender Man’s creation. Most notable of which seem to be the Tall Man from the 1979 movie Phantasm, survival horror video games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Zack Parson and William S. Burroughs.
Slender Man is often shown as an unnaturally tall and thin man wearing a suit with equally long thin arms and featureless face. The Slender Man is often shown having several tentacles extending from its back.
Exactly what powers Slender Man has, varies a bit with these numerous stories and narratives that seems to have taken the internet by storm. Many of stories will show Slender Man preferring the forests and abandoned locations.
Many will say it can teleport or “slender walk,” an effect that distorts how a person views and sees Slender Man as it approaches its victims. Other stories have the presence of Slender Man causing paranoia, delusions and nightmares as it stalks its victims. In some of the stories, adults are driven insane by Slender Man’s influence, becoming “Proxies” who work for this entity. The web series Marble Hornets are who originated the idea of the Proxies, though sometimes they were people already violently insane and didn’t need much of a push. This video series also has Slender Man’s presence able to distort any video or audio recordings. Other stories say that just researching and investigating the Slender Man draws its attention. Slender Man also seems to hold some sort of either hypnosis or mind-control on its victims. It seems to have invisibility or selective enough invisibility in who it lets see them.
A term used on-line for scary stories, the concept of Slender Man went viral with many people creating their own takes and adding to the mythology. There have been many different stories since its creation involving Slender Man with numerous videos and pictures all claiming to “evidence” of this mysterious being. Many of the stories have Slender Man stalking, terrorizing and abducting people, especially children.
Despite having only been around a few years, Slender Man’s immediate popularity has seen it become used and reference in various media from literature, art to video games and T.V. Naturally YouTube is one such source of people finding and watching “found footage” style videos claiming Slender Man sightings and evidence. Rather than use graphic violence and splatter horror, the stories of Slender Man work more to try and invoke a psychological scare, leaving much of exactly what Slender Man is a mystery or vague as to what happens to victims. Early stories involving Slender Man have it impaling victims on tree branches, removing organs and replacing them back in the body bagged up. Such stories don’t hold fear for long than if the victims just vanish without a trace.
Slender Man Folklore & “History”
As Slender Man became more popular and people began adding to its mythos, the reality and fantasy of this being quickly became distorted.
Brazilian Cave Paintings – This one claims that cave paintings were found in the Serr da Capivara National Park in the Northeast of Brazil dating to around 9,000 B.C.E. The paintings supposedly show a strange, elongated figure leading a child by the hand.
Der Grossman – Meaning “Tall Man,” this is part of the made-up history by “Thoreau Up”, set in 16th century Germany that shows photographs of wood cuts showing an early Slender Man. These woodcuts are credited to Hans Freckenberg who called the figure Der Ritter (“The Knight”).
Further legends attached to this have stories of children seeing this entity or fairy in the Black Forest before disappearing. Bad children who went into the forest at night would be pursued by Der Grossman who wouldn’t let up until it either caught the children or the children confessed of their wrong doings to parents.
One story claimed to be from 1702 is that of a father telling of his son Lars who has been taken. The only thing they had found was a strange piece of black cloth, somehow softer and thicker than cotton. That Lars came into his room screaming of how the angel, Der Grossman was outside his room. Lars continued his story of having gone to one of the groves near the village where he found one of the cows dead, hanging from a tree. The story ends with the father saying they have to find Lars and his family must all leave before they are killed too.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs – Another claim for ancient “archaeological” evidence of Slender Man comes with Hieroglyphs dating from 3,100 B.C.E. with references during Pharaoh Wazner’s reign. The only problem with the mention of a tomb for the Pharoah, is that Wazner is known only from inscriptions on the Palermo Stone from Egypt’s fifth dynasty and that speculation posits that Wazner may be a mythical ruler and likely fictional himself. So, I’m doubting any tomb hieroglyphs showing Wazner and Slender Man meeting up.
English Lore – The Tree Man is an English myth that appears to describe a tall, slender figure with numerous appendages that stick out of the body like tree branches. This Tree Man is used as a boogey man by parents to scare children into behaving. In addition to stories about this Tree Man are the disappearances of a number of children.
Romanian Tale – There is an alleged Romanian folktale about twin sisters Sorina and Stela who were led out into the woods one day with their mother. The twins could see Der Grossman nearby, dressed as a nobleman with boneless arms. The mother fell under Der Grossman’s influence and told her daughter Stela to take a knife and carve a circle on the ground that Sorina was to then lay in so she could be cut open. Stela refused and ran home to hide under a bed.
When the father returned home, Stela told him of what happened. Hearing the tale, the father set off immediately into the forest to find the mother and Sorina. Falling asleep, Stela was awakened later to a knock at the door and a voice calling for her to open the door, it was her father. When the Stela refused, the voice called again to open the door, it was her mother.
Refusing to answer the door still, this time it burst open and Stela’s mother came in, holding the severed head of Sorina in one hand and the father’s head in the other hand. When Stela cried out why, the mother replied it was that there was no reward for goodness in the world, nothing but cold steel teeth and fire for everyone. That it is coming for you now.
It is then the Der Grossman slid out from the fireplace and clutched Stela to his burning self, ending her life.
That does make for a rather gruesome tale.
Photographs – There’s an interesting assortment of altered photographs that claim to be images of Slender Man that date from the early 1900’s from the US, UK and Russia, linking it to the disappearances of children. Photos and Videos from the 1990’s and after all claim further evidences and proof of Slender Man as various people continue to add to the mythos.
The Rake – While not Slender Man itself, newer stories have been adding stories of this figure to accompany Slender Man on its stalking of terror, instilling fear into those who see it.
There’s been a few other characters added who seem similar to Slender Man or aid him, but these seem more like “up the ante” characters to keep the suspense and fear going.
Slender Man Panic
For all that Slender Man is a modern, Urban Legend and story, it crossed the line from fantasy to reality when a couple girls in 2014 attempted to murder a fellow 12-year old girl in Waukesha, Wisconsin. If you hadn’t heard of Slender Man before then, people knew about him now. A panic ensued as parents tried to better monitor what their children were looking at on-line and knew the difference between fantasy and reality.
Clearly a well written and crafted story takes on a life of its own.
Modern Folklore & Urban Legend
An interesting take I found on this, is from Professor Shira Chess. In her book: “Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man: The Development of an Internet Mythology,” Professor Chess discusses how Slender Man is like the folklore regarding fairies. For just like fairies, the Slender Man is an otherworldly being whose motives are alien and therefore difficult to understand. Like the fairies, Slender Man is vague in appearance and often takes on the expectations of a victim’s fears. Again, just like the fairies, the Slender Man too lives in the forests and kidnaps children. It’s an interesting connection and observation.
One thing seems clear, the stories of Slender Man have spread much like other Urban Legends have and achieved a folkloric quality in the digital age where people have been able to take and adapt the mythos to suit their needs. It’s that vagueness of the Slender Man stories where you don’t know what it is or wants, that has made the stories of Slender Man so malleable with details that are easy to adapt to anytime and place that suits the storyteller’s needs.
That’s what makes any urban legend successful or appealing. Their ability to be told anywhere, that it could happen here, in this very town, very location, at any time. Even better, is when the people hearing the story don’t know the urban legend’s origins and how it got started. Humans by our very natures are hard wired for storytelling. The simplicity of urban legends makes them easy to pass on as they’re a story told by third and fourth-hand accounts that keep the story going to the point that no one knows where it started.
With the Internet, it’s easy to fake photos, videos and news reports. Making Slender Man seem all the more real and plausible for a less discerning reader. Even with people knowing how to find and track the origins of Slender Man’s origins, there’s another group who just won’t look further and appear to accept the photo and video evidences as authentic. Maybe for a good scare or the susceptibility to want to believe.
Where many monsters in mythology and folklore represent an aspect of the human psyche, however dark. Professor Chess has commented that Slender Man can be seen as a metaphor for “helplessness, power differentials, and anonymous forces,” and as ever, as always, the fear of the unknown, things beyond people’s control. Given the narrative for much of the Slender Man mythos, that seems very likely.
Like any fear, such a being only has as much power as you give it. It’s been commented how this day and age of the Internet has allowed for such stories like Slender Man’s to go viral. As with any good, well written horror story, enjoy it. Just be careful of what you create and how far you let that fear go to feed it.
Other names: zmaj (Serbian) змај, (Croatian and Bosnian), zmaj (Slovene), zmey, змей (Bulgarian, Russian), zmiy (Old Church Slavonic), змеj (Macedonian), żmij (Polish), змій (Ukrainian)
It should be noted that most of these words are the masculine forms for the Slavic word “snake.” In Russian, the feminine is zmeya. Other names include zmajček or zmajić that is used as a diminutive form of endearment.
Etymology – Dragon, Snake or Serpent
In the Slavic language, a dragon is called a Zmej. It appears as multi-headed dragon with three, seven or nine heads that are capable of breathing fire. The Eastern Slavic dragons are believed to be able to regrow their heads like a hydra if one head is chopped off. In all cases, their large size makes them fearsome foes. Also, among the Southern Slavic countries, the Zmej appears more as an anthropomorphic draconic of fishlike humanoid.
The Zmej is primarily associated with fire, like a good many other dragons of European folklore. It either breathes fire or it can throw fiery arrows or lightning bolts. It is exceedingly strong and the Zmej’s strength can be taken by a person who eats the dragon’s heart. That puts a whole new light on the movie Dragon Heart. The precise abilities of the Slavic dragons vary by locality and country.
The male Zmej were often portrayed in a positive light, acting as protectors of their family and tribe. He was seen as a good demonic force, using the power of weather in the way of hail, storms and strong winds to protect crops and harvests from getting ruined. Among the Southern Slavs, it’s very common to see the imagery of a dragon representing a good demonic force.
While I note the use of the word and spelling demonic to describe the Zmej; given the context and influence of Christianity upon an older Pagan religion, beliefs and traditions; it is very likely that the Greek term and usage of daimon is more appropriate.
You Called Him A Daimon!
Yes, as in the Greek term and meaning for the word spirit. It is Christianity that takes and twists the word and meaning to Demon, for an evil spirit or being.
Among the ancient Greeks, the word daimon means spirit or “replete with knowledge.” They recognized both good (eudemons) and bad (cacodemons). The word or term daimon also means “divine power,” “fate,” or “god.” And in Greek mythology, daimons could also include deified heroes.
Daimons functioned as messengers or intermediary spirits between men and gods. The good daimons were viewed as guardian spirits who gave guidance and protection to those they watched over. The bad daimons, naturally, weren’t so nice and could mislead people, getting them into trouble.
Sometimes the Zmej also appears as an anthropomorphic dragon man, much like the Romanian Zmeu, seen as very intelligent, wise and knowledgeable with great magical proficiency, breath fire and superhuman strength. Like the Romanian Zmeu, the Slavic Zmej was also known for being very wealthy with castles and realms in otherworlds. They too lusted after women with home they could bear children. Respect was always given to these Zmej as one never knew what to expect in terms of behavior.
National And Folk Heroes
A good many heroes were considered dragons or the son of a Zmej. A number of these heroes include:
Husein-Kapetan Gradaščević – A successful Bosniak general who fought for the independence of the Ottoman Empire from Bosnia. He is known as “Zmaj od Bosnia,” or “The Dragon of Bosnia.”
Vlad III Dracula – A Romanian Hero and more infamously known as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s book Dracula and depicted as a Vampire. Among the Romanians of Wallachia, Vlad is a hero, having been inducted into the Order of the Dragon by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to defend a Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire.
Vuk Grgurević – A Serbian Despot known as “Zmaj-Ognjeni Vuk” or “Vuk the Fiery-Dragon” due to the vicioness of his rule and his many battles against the Turks.
In the folk songs of Bulgaria, the Zmej appears as a popular motif as a Draconic Lover. Most of these songs featuring a Dragon Love, have a male Zmej. More heroic songs involving a Zmej will be female.
It’s interesting to note a very stark contrast and distinction male and female dragons in Bulgarian folklore. For one, the male and female dragons were seen as brother and sister. Yet for all this, they were very staunchly opposed to each other. The female dragons were known for representing the destructive weather that would destroy crops and agriculture. Whereas, the male dragons protected the fields and crops for harvest. Such that the two often fought each other, representing the dueling, opposing forces of female/water with male/fire symbolism.
Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro Folklore
In these Southern Slavic countries and areas, a dragon is known by the name of zmaj, zmej and lamja. Similar to the Russian dragons, it has three, seven or even nine heads, all of which breathe fire. Additionally, in Serbia the dragon is called aždaja or hala and in Bosnia is called aždaha.
Polish And Belarussian Folklore
In both of these cultures, aside from Zmej, they also have the word smok, coming from the Indo-Iranian word for swallow. Other spellings for smok are: смок and цмок.
As previously mentioned, there is a very similar dragon-like creature in Romania with an equally similar name called the Zmeu. It is distinguished from many of the Slavic Zmej as it is anthropomorphic in nature and always a destructive force.
Russian And Ukrainian Folklore
Representing the Eastern Slavic people, there are a few different dragons found in their folklore. A number of prehistoric sites such as the Serpent’s Wall near Kiev have associations with dragons and act as symbols for foreign people. The Russian dragons are known to have heads that come in multiples of three and will grow back if every single head isn’t chopped off or promptly covered in ash or burnt.
Zmey Gorynych – This green colored dragon has three heads and walks on two back paws with two smaller front paws. Like many dragons, it breathes fire. The hero Dobrynya Nikitich is who killed this dragon.
Tugarin Zmeyevich – This dragon very strongly represented the Mongols and other Steppe peoples who often threatened the borders of Russia. Tugarin’s name is Turkic in origin. He was defeated by the hero Alyosha Popovich.
Saint George And The Dragon – It is without question that the hero Saint George symbolizes Christianity and that his killing of the Dragon symbolizes the Devil or Satan. It is a motif often portrayed on the coat of arms for Moscow.
The Serbian folklore for dragons is very similar to that of Bulgarian folklore. Essentially the differences come down to the different countries and regions’ name for them. Here, the Zmaj or Zmey is seen as very intelligent with superhuman strength and well versed in the use of magic. Like many European dragons, they breath fire and lust over young women. An image that sounds very much so like the Romanian Zmeu. The big difference here is that the Zmaj or Zmey are defenders of the crops and fight against a demon known as Ala that they attack using lightning.
The Slovene word of zmaj is of an uncertain, archaic origin. Another word used for dragons is pozoj. Like many European dragons, the zmaj are often seen in a negative light and associated with Saint George in his slaying the dragon.
There are other Pre-Christian Folk Tales involving dragons.
Ljubljana Dragon – This dragon features on the city of Ljubljana’s coat of arms that it guarded over and protected.
Wawel Dragon – This Polish dragon is often defeated by tricking it into eating a lime. It should be noted that this dragon isn’t always harmful towards people.
Also known as aždaha, ala or hala in Persian mythology. Some Southern Slavic countries will mention Aždaja as a type of dragon. Its true nature is considered to be drastically different than that of a real dragon and considered separate. While the Zmej is often seen as a positive force, the Aždaja is seen as a negative force and woefully evil. Ultimately the nature of the Aždaja seems contradictory and should be a type of dragon as it shares all of the hall marks of the European dragons that are often sinister in nature. After all, the Aždaja is draconic in appearance, they live in dark places such as caves. Like many other Slavic dragons, the Aždaja is frequently multi-headed with three, seven or nine heads and breathes fire. In some of the Christian mythologies of Saint George, he is shown slaying the Aždaja and not Zmej.
While the Zmej is male, the Southern Slavic folklore makes mention of a female version known as Lamya. This name derives from the name Lamia, a Queen and former lover of the god Zeus who turns into a daemon that devours children and in some versions of her story, Lamia becomes more serpentine. Later stories will equate Lamia to vampires and succubae.
In Bulgaria and Macedonia, there is a Bulgarian legend about the hero Mavrud who succeeds in cutting off all of the heads of Lamya; who appears in this story as a hydra-like dragon. It has been commented that this story seems to symbolize the pruning of grape vines. Further, there is a variety of Bulgarian grapes known as Mavrud.
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.