It is that time of the year again. Nederland (the Netherlands) is having its annual controversy over Zwarte Piet, the very black fellow with bright clothing, ruffed collar, brilliant red smile and golden earrings who follows St. Nicholas around and does his dirty work. Or rather who once did his dirty work, leaving coals in the stockings of misbehaving children on St. Nicholas day, or threatening to pop them in his sack and take them back to Spain or to Turkey, where St. Nicholas was originally from. Now he is more likely to dance happily around with numbers of Zwarte Piet clones, dispensing pepernoten (a kind of cookie) to children and being a jolly and charming figure. Zwarte Piet has grown soft.
I don’t want to get involved in the controversy over whether Zwarte Piet (“Black Piet”) is a racist figure. As with many things, it is in the eye of the beholder. He is racist to those who see him as such, and a beloved folk character to those who do not — de geliefde helper van Sinterklaas — “the beloved helper of St. Nicholas.” Perceptions differ, and the outcome is up to the Dutch. In one form or another, he will likely survive.
Zwarte Piet, however, is just one manifestation of the “helper” characters who appear in the calendar period from mid November into the Yuletide season, and they reveal how the celebrations of this time of year have picked up all kinds of accretions over the centuries.
St. Nicholas — through his more secular incarnation as Santa Claus — has become intimately associated with the Christmas celebration in the United States and a number of other countries. Originally, however, he had nothing to do with Christmas. He was a popular saint who was believed to multitask in helping everyone from sailors to merchants, and in Russia one could consider him THE most prominent religious figure after Jesus and Mary.
Oddly enough, almost all of his biography is fictional. He may well have been a 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now Turkey), but everything else about him is highly to obviously dubious. Nonetheless, as we have seen, he became a prominent saint in the days when the veneration of saints and prayers to them were an accepted practice.
In the Netherlands he made his annual appearance on December 6th, arriving from Spain (a detail that entered the story due to the previous Spanish — and Catholic — invasion of the Netherlands). In spite of the fact that the Dutch became largely Calvinist Protestant, the St. Nicholas celebration was retained, and on St. Nicholas Eve he visited houses to stand in judgment on which children had been good and which bad. The good were rewarded, and the bad might receive a coal instead of a gift, or be threatened with abduction by Zwarte Piet.
Go southeast however, into places like Austria and the Czech Republic, and the helper of St. Nicholas takes on a different guise. He is no longer a “moor” like Zwarte Piet; instead he is a large and frightening hairy, bestial figure with long, goat-like horns on his head, and a very long and red tongue; he is the terrifying Krampus, sometimes with one foot a hoof and the other like a clawed bear paw. He carries switches and chains, but sometimes also a basket with fruits for well-behaved children.
Here is an illustration of Krampus menacing an obviously worried child, from a 1900 Austrian postcard. The inscription reads “GREETINGS FROM THE KRAMPUS.”
The Krampus traditionally appears on the 5th of December, which you will recall is the old St. Nicholas Eve. In some regions large numbers of Krampuses wander the streets and byways, jingling with cowbells, striking at those they encounter with their switches. Some even carry wooden tubs like a grape-picker’s tub on their backs, just the right size to fill with a naughty child to be carried off. Their procession through the streets is called the Krampuslauf. Just what the Krampus looks like varies from place to place.
Now if all this sounds like the Perchten, the wild spirits of the mountains that come down into alpine villages in winter, clanging with cowbells and making their Perchtenlauf through the streets while threatening and punishing passers-by, it is because the Krampus is very akin to them. Both go back in spirit to pre-Christian times, and a more animistic way of thinking. The Perchten, however, come during the “Raw Nights,” between December 25th and January 6th.
In some regions the Krampus is called a “devil,” but of course devil figures are traditionally given animal (and pre-Christian) characteristics such as horns and hooves, and the Christians decided early on to relegate the gods of the non-Christians to demon/devil status.
In other places, the figure who comes is Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Ruprecht), a bearded man dressed in brown robe and hood and carrying a staff or long bundle of twigs, and sometimes belled like Krampus and the Perchten. His job is, like theirs, to scare and punish disobedient children, though like the modern Zwarte Piet, he has softened a bit.
In any case, in contemporary times Zwarte Piet and elsewhere the Krampus may show up as early as middle to late November.
It is interesting that the old animistic “scary” figures like the Krampus are making a comeback, and have begun appearing in places where they were not previously known, like the United States. Yesterday I was in the big local bookshop, which had already put out its holiday cards. Among them was a bright and obvious box of Krampus cards.