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Thursday, 22 December 2011

Investigating the dark side of the holidays on the longest night of the year, Part 1

The “Spend more time than money” holiday, is getting pretty close and if you haven’t started by now, then it may be a little late...except for baking and making candy.  That’s all I did this past weekend [thus lack of new posts]. I did a post last year on making Christmas foods, you can find these here:

Gonna change the focus now because I have been preoccupied by old Krampus and started researching other dark Santa companions.  

I remembered going to Catholic school in Indiana in the 1960s and the nuns telling us about St. Nicholas’ feast [6th December] and the tradition of putting our shoes outside on the evening of the 5th, for him to fill.  If you were good you’d get an orange and sweets but if you were bad you’d only get sticks and coal in your shoe the next morning. We were always told St. Nick did all the work giving gifts or beatings depending on what he thought your behaviour was over the last year. 

It wasn’t until 2011 that I finally found out that there was a dark doppelganger to Santa, not only that, but that there were several variations on the same theme!

This was entirely fascinating to me as I never knew that there was a whole 'nother polar opposite to Santa Claus [Sinterklaas].  Always before I had been taught that Santa was the whole judge and jury on your yearly behaviour.  Seeing them as two separate entities makes the idea or good versus bad quite clearly defined.  Not so much if you envision one being with the ability to reward and to punish, which is much more like a real super parent.  

Unfortunately this teaches children that if they're "good", they will be rewarded; but if they were "bad" they would be punished.  I'm not sure how the folk-tale of Santa is related today but I am betting that the whole punishment side is downplayed, certainly moreso than when I believed in a man bringing me presents every 25th of December.

In case you don’t know about the main tradition, it goes like this: As in other countries, many people in the United States celebrate a separate St Nicholas Day by putting their shoes outside their bedroom doors on the evening of 5 December. St Nicholas then comes during the night. On the morning of 6 December, those people will find their shoes filled with gifts and sugary treats. Widespread adoption of the tradition has spread among the German, Polish, Belgian and Dutch communities throughout the United States.

I started looking out for anything related to this tradition of the henchmen of Santa and viola, I found this fantastic page from the From Indiana German Heritage Society Newsletter: Vol. 18, No. 1, winter 2002-3

by Ruth Reichmann
Old-timers in Indiana still remember Belsnickel, the "Pelznickel" (literally "Fur-Nikolaus") of the Palatinate. [The Palatinate has a border beginning in the north, on the Moselle River about 35 miles southwest of Coblenz to Bingen and east to Mainz, down the Rhine River to Oppenheim, Guntersblum and Worms, then continuing eastward above the Nieckar River about 25 miles east of Heidelberg then looping back westerly below Heidelberg to Speyer, south down the Rhine River to Alsace, then north-westerly back up to its beginning on the Moselle River. ] From http://www.olivetreegenealogy.com/palatines/palatine-history.shtml

Belsnickel's name appears in many variations such as Bells Nickel, Belschnickle, Belsniggles and Belsh Nickle, etc. When he arrived at their door, he represented a nostalgic reminder to the adults of their childhood days, however, the children viewed him with mixed feelings.
Known to 19th-century children as a servant of Saint Nicholas, "der Belsnickel" would carry a bunch of switches which were a threat to those who had been bad, and he carried goodies of peanuts, cookies or candy in a burlap bag or ample pockets, as he made his rounds to check on the behavior of boys and girls.

He would have a large book in which the names of the children and their good or bad deeds were kept. Only good children were to receive treats. If a child had been naughty he could also receive a lump of coal or a stick as a reminder to behave in the future.
Mary Lou Golembeski in the Harmonie Herald, Old Economy, PA, tells us: "Not only did the spellings vary but changes also occurred in his appearance and his antics from one community to another." Belsnickel may wear a long, black or brown coat or robe, held together at the waist with a rope, and a fur cap or bear skin hat, decorated with bells. He may have a band of Black Peters with blackened faces, or other rough characters with him. They would be dressed in fantastic costumes, some trimmed with fur, and move through the streets and from house to house, rattling chains and bells.
The bells would announce Belsnickel's approach and that of his retinue before they would come into view. If the children were good, they received some fruit or sweets, but if they were bad--or doubted the "reality" of Belsnickel--they got a switch!
Dr. Elmer Peters of Brookville, Franklin County testified to that: "Belsnickel came--at times with Christkindl played by a gentle woman. When some of the teenage boys denied the existence of Belsnickel, the usually sturdy helper of St. Nikolaus grabbed the doubting Thomas and gave him a good whipping with his stick--which was great entertainment for the older folks." ("You Better Believe in Belsnickel!", in Eb. Reichmann's Hoosier German Tales (1991), 80.

Now I do know a little bit about Zwarte Piet, a popular figure to folks in the Netherlands since we visit there quite often and I have a Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas ornament.  I find it quite interesting that somewhere once these traditions met in the new USA they joined forces, see above about how Belsnickle may have a retinue of Black Peters with him in Indiana near the turn of the previous century.
Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet in Dutch, began in Holland in the 15th century. His dark appearance is supposed to suggest a Spaniard, a reflection of Spain's occupation of the Netherlands at the time. Black Peter was also associated with pirates, a common threat to naughty Dutch children was that he would take them to a pirate's hide out and beat them. He was often represented holding a large stick for this purpose. The large bag that he held was rumored to be used for stuffing children in for the trip back to Spain. At the time "Black Peter" was a euphemism for the devil, and it was thought that St. Nicholas, being a representative of God, had beaten the devil and made him his servant. Thus it fell to Black Peter to hand out the punishments, while St. Nicholas dealt with the more pleasant sides of Christmas.

Although where I lived, St. Nicholas worked alone, and he would mete out his own judgements whether you’d been naughty or nice.  I found an image that illustrates Santa working alone on punishing the naughty child himself:
Ho Ho Ho, huh?  I understood the sticks, switches of course to beat you with of course, but I always wondered why you’d get a lump of coal if you were bad.  Anyone know? Also apparently in some places he would leave naughty kids potatoes, again, a practical gift especially if you were hungry a potato would be a great gift.

I found that today, people still are having their imaginations inspired by these folk creatures, such as this interesting image I found:
The first origin of Zwarte Piet can probably found by the god Wodan (often written as Odin). Riding the white horse Sleipnir he flew through the air and was the leader of the Wild Hunt. He was always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. Those helpers would listen, just like Zwarte Piet, at the chimney - which was just a hole in the roof at that time - to tell Wodan about the good and bad behaviours of the mortals.[2][3][4] During the ChristianizationPope Gregory I argued that conversions were easier if people were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditions, while claiming that the traditions were in honour of the Christian God. Saint Nicolas tradition is one of them, converting Wodan to a Christian counterpart.[5]

Zwarte Piet always seems more like a gentle foil for St. Nick, but we will find out more about some of Santa's other helpers in the next instalment [coming soon].

Share freely, Gabrielle, 2011

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