Tag Archives: European History

“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar: Day 11 – The Karakoncolos

The Karakoncolos appears in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Serbia and takes slightly different forms in each country but generally resembles a cross between the Devil and a sasquatch. In Turkey, his behaviour often involves standing on street corners on winter nights waiting for passers-by and asking them riddles. If the traveller gives an answer that includes the word ‘black’ then the Karakoncolos lets them go on their way. But if the passer-by fails to use that word, or indeed fails to answer at all, the Karakoncolos strikes them dead with a single blow. Sometimes his behaviour is more that of a trickster who takes the form of a woman or young girl and appears at people’s doors to con his way inside to be given food. Once inside the Karakoncolos feels compelled to imitate his host’s behaviour. One way of getting rid of him is to set fire to some silk or thread. The Karakancolos will respond in kind by setting his own fur on fire and, upon realising what he has done, will run from the house screaming to find water.

Sometimes the Karakoncolos turns up at people’s houses for more sinister reasons. They sometimes use their powers of disguise to pretend to be a loved one and lure the householder out into the snow. Once outside, the person finds themselves caught in a trance unable to move. They stand there frozen to the spot until the cold takes over and they wind up freezing to death. Another favourite trick of the creature in parts of Serbia is to sneak into houses and linger behind the doorways of children’s bedrooms. As the child goes through the doorway the Karakoncolos stretches out a hand and grabs the child by the neck before dragging them off to eat.

The Karakoncolos did not always kill its victims, however – particularly in Serbia it is known to use humans as its own personal taxi service. They again lure victims outside before placing them under a spell and leaping onto their back and forcing their captive to ferry them wherever they want to go. The exhausted person is only released at dawn.

Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster.  

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar: Day 8 – The Feast of Fools

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The Feast of Fools, a church celebration that priests would engage in during medieval times. The Feast may have originated in Turkey in the ninth century but it became most popular in France during the twelfth century, although Britain, Scotland and many other countries observed it too. Like Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools was a relaxation of social rules within the Church and, as such, it was the time when priests and clergymen could kick back and, for a brief period, succumb to some of the temptations they had to reject for the rest of the year.

In 1445 religious scholars in France complained about the behaviour of priests during the Feast of Fools. Amongst other things they accused the priests of wearing ‘monstrous visages at the hours of office’, dancing ‘in the choir dressed as women, panderers or minstrels’, gambling, singing ‘wanton songs’ and ‘infamous performances with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste’. It seems some priests really knew how to let their hair down!

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters”  is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The Illustration is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.

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“Bad Santas…Advent Calendar” Day Seven – Black Peter

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To some, Black Peter was simply a brutal Moorish servant that St Nicholas had acquired. To others he was Satan himself, who had been captured and subjugated by St Nicholas and compelled to do his bidding. What was certain was that he was both vicious and single-minded in his determination to punish misbehaving children. A beating from Black Peter was said to be far more severe and brutal than any discipline the child had ever received before. If a child sufficiently angered St Nicholas for him to demand that Black Peter take the child away in his sack then the child would be trapped in Hell for an entire year, only getting the chance to repent the following Christmas.

Early depictions of Black Peter saw performers portray him by blacking their hands and faces with soot. This is certainly politically incorrect and a bit tasteless by modern standards. However – if you accept the idea of Black Peter being the Devil rather than a Moorish servant – the similarities to the image of someone ‘blacking up’ could be dismissed as an unfortunate coincidence. In the Middle Ages there was no universally accepted idea of what the Devil looked like but he was often depicted as being black in colour, perhaps because he was perceived as an evil figure strongly associated with shadows and darkness.

The nineteenth century saw a change in how Black Peter was portrayed. This was the time when Christmas experienced a major renaissance during which many medieval traditions were reinvented with a modern twist. It was also the height of colonialism and centuries of slaving trading had ensured non-white people were seen as inferior to Europeans, perhaps even less than human, and certainly ripe for mocking and satire. The person playing Black Peter began to take things a bit further and created the image hat largely remains to this day. Not only would the performer blacken all visible skin but he also donned pink lipstick and an Afro wig and wore garish jewellery. His behaviour and demeanour was fierce and primal and he was presented as a violent ‘untamed savage’, bound up with chains and clearly subservient to St Nicholas, his dominant ‘master’.

Critics of the character argue that such an overtly racial image is a throwback to the days of slavery and colonialism. They believe the clear stereotyping in Black Peter’s appearance can only be a symbol of racism that both offends and excludes the black population that makes up a sizable part of the country today.

Many modern-day Dutch people are keen to preserve the tradition of Zwarte Piet and  insist that they are preserving existing traditions rather than attempting to cause racial offence, explaining that the character is black because he is covered in soot from climbing up and down chimneys. However, it is very difficult to disassociate his appearance from similar racial caricatures such as minstrels and golliwogs and it is extremely difficult to believe prejudice played no part in how his image was created in the nineteenth century.

In 2011 the former Dutch colony of Suriname banned depictions of Zwarte Piet in public and the same year Amsterdam city councillor Andrée Van Es became the first high-profile politician to publicly denounce the character. Attempts have also been made to portray Peter in different-coloured make-up such as blue, green and yellow. Nonetheless, the traditions have proved hard to shake off. Van Es was heavily criticised by Dutch traditionalists and an experiment by Dutch public broadcasters NPS to portray a rainbow-coloured Peter lasted only a year before he reverted back to his blackface origins. Meanwhile, the Dutch community in Vancouver were so vexed by the controversy over their use of Zwarte Piet in their annual Christmas celebrations in 2011 that local authorities decided to cancel them entirely, rather than make the decision to phase out the character. For now, however, Peter still appears in his blackface guise to play a major part in Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands itself.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is published by Simon & Schuster and available now.  The illustration is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar – Day 5: the Krampus

The Krampus

The Krampus is a demonic hell-beast resembling a horrifically mutated goat with a sadistically wide range of punishments and tortures.  He beat children with a birch rod on occasions, but he also had a whole repertoire of penalties that ranged from ripping out a girl’s pigtails to leading children off cliffs Pied Piper-style or tossing children onto a train that was on a one-way journey to a lake of fire. He especially enjoyed eating naughty children for Christmas dinner and he’d even carry a bathtub on his back just in case the mood took him to drown a child in a bathful of water – or sometimes ink – before fishing them out with his pitchfork to eat.

5 December was not only St Nicholas’s Eve but it was also Krampusnacht – the night when the Krampus was free to roam the Alpine streets, heading from house to house to demand tribute, often in the form of alcohol.  The Krampusse in question were really large groups of young men dressed up in self-made costumes of fur, masks and goats’ horns charging around the streets with birch rods and pitchforks getting increasingly drunk, accusing people they encounter of misbehaviour and threatening to beat them up as punishment. Genuine monsters from the fires of Hell would probably have caused less destruction.

Whilst many of these other Christmas characters peaked during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, interest in and enthusiasm for the Krampus seems to have grown over time and the Krampusnacht remains popular today.  The nineteenth-century invention of Christmas cards saw an explosion of Christmas images of the Krampus sent around the world. The images were generally intended to be comical and something about the mischievousness and malevolence of the character clearly appealed, for Krampus cards were extremely popular. One card shows him grabbing a girl by the pigtails trying to pull her hair out.  Another sees him in a motor car stealing children.  In yet another card he is dragging a group of children off the edge of a cliff, beating children or driving off in a cart with a child in a sack on his back. Yet another card shows a group of children opening a box wrapped with shiny Christmas paper only to find the Krampus hiding inside waiting for them.

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Some of the cards have a clear sexual twist. The Krampus is sometimes seen romancing attractive ladies and a couple of cards even show gigantic female Krampusse – far more woman than Krampus – chasing after adult men or carrying them away in her sack. This sexual theme for the Krampus would expand hugely after the sexual liberation in the 1960s, when cards often showed the fierce demonic figure invading the bedrooms of scantily clad women to beat them with his birch rod.

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For the most part, however, the Krampus remains a source of terror.  The Krampusnacht continues today and is as popular as ever and, whilst it is slightly more sanitised than its anarchic Medieval peak, it still makes for a surreal and terrifying experience.

Visit here for some more absolutely incredible Krampus images.*

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas” by Paul Hawkins is published by Simon & Schuster and out now.  The Krampus image in the picture is by Mel Four and taken from the book.  The other Krampus pictures are from vintagepostcards and are mostly taken from Krampus.com

*(genuinely – it’s a link to the Atlantic and not affiliated to me in anyway!)

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar: December 4 – Saturnalia

Saturnalia was a Roman midwinter festival that involved the usual social rules being inverted. Social hierarchies were forgotten and people of all classes mingled together as equals. Gambling (usually illegal in Roman society) was permitted and the masters would give their slaves a banquet. The streets were full of singing, partying, Saturnalia greetings and novelty gifts. In later periods of Saturnalia, a slave or person of low social status was appointed the king of festivities. He was free to order people to do as he pleased and they had to obey. This could be seen as a clear predecessor to Medieval England’s Lord of Misrule, which also involved a common townsperson being given the power of a King.

As the Greek writer Lucian of Samosota put it in around ad 150, becoming the king of the festivities meant that ‘you can not only escape silly orders but can give them yourself, telling one man to shout out something disgraceful about himself, another to dance naked, pick up the flute-girl and carry her three times around the house’.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is published by Simon & Schuster and available now. 

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar – December 3 – “The Boy Bishop”

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All across western Europe, cathedrals would elect a boy bishop. His role was pretty much exactly what the name suggests. He was a pubescent choirboy who was elected at the beginning of December and then dressed in full bishop’s robes, mitre and crosier. He acted as the head of the Church from 6 December until 28 December. He performed the role of a priest, took all services apart from Mass and was free to direct church proceedings and appoint other choristers to act as his canons. The boy bishop was not universally popular – largely because traditionalists felt that the practice of having a small boy pretend to be a bishop undermined the solemnity of the Church.

There were practical problems too. The congregation did not seem to take the boy bishop very seriously and members of the congregation would throw things at him or pull pranks to disrupt the services. Occasionally the boy bishops took themselves far too seriously and houses near the church would suddenly be confronted with a menacing gang of choirboys dressed as bishops and canons demanding the householders hand over money to absolve their sins!

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is available now and published by Simon & Schuster.

Image taken from http://chrismologist.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/saint-nicholas-and-boy-bishops-of.html

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar – December 2: The Kallikantzaroi

Kallikazantoroi

 

In Greece those twelve days of Christmas are also the time of the Kallikantzoroi.   The Kallikantzoroi spent the rest of the year underground and Greek tradition went that there was a tree of life that ran right through the Earth and acted as a scaffold to hold it in place. Without the tree, the Earth would simply collapse in on itself. The Kallikantzoroi are quite keen on world destruction and spend January to December sawing through the tree, hoping to snap it in half and bring down the Earth. By the end of the year only the slenderest of threads holds the tree together and the world is set to end at any second. But, just as the Kallikantzoroi are about to make the final cut, Christmas arrives and they are summoned above ground. By the time they return in early January, the tree has regrown and they have to start all over again.

Overground, their actions are sometimes mischievous – they play pranks, steal things or sow discord amongst communities. Other times they might overturn furniture and destroy possessions or they might move on to the inhabitants – beating people savagely or even aping Perchta and ripping out intestines.

What’s more, parents knew that any baby born over the twelve days of Christmas might be spirited away during the night and fated to spend eternity as one of these strange, sinister creatures (or at least turning into one for twelve nights each year).   Binding newborn babies with tresses of straw and garlic would ensure the creatures could not get near them.

But how did you stop a Kallikantzoroi from getting near your house in the first place?  One thing the Kallikantzoroi could not do was to count beyond two – the number three was seen as a holy number by the Greeks.  The creatures would count ‘one, two’ and get confused, lose count and have to start again. The Kallikantzoroi were easy to trick by simply placing a colander outside the front door. The creatures would feel compelled to count the holes and, of course, would not be able to do so. Their confusion and failure to count would keep them occupied until sunrise – at which point the household would be safe until darkness fell again.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is published by Simon & Schuster and available now.

Image by Mel Four.

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“Bad Santas….” Advent Calendar – December 1: Frau Perchta

Frau Perchta

Frau Perchta was a demonic witch who stalked Medievel Central Europe punishing anyone who dared to displease her.

In Tyrol, Frau Perchta appeared as a mischievous, dishevelled old woman. In other places her appearance could depend on how you perceived her and whether you had pleased her. If you were faithful, obedient and observed her rituals, Perchta would appear to you as a staggeringly attractive woman of divine beauty. If you angered her she would appear as a demonic, horned monster with a ferocious bloodlust.

Her most common form of attack was to sneak into your house in the dead of night during the winter and creep up to your room where you were sleeping. The goddess would then take out a knife and, whilst you slept unaware, she would slit your stomach open and remove your innards and your intestines. She’d then replace those innards with pebbles and straw and sew you back up so whoever discovered your corpse the next morning would find absolutely no signs of physical damage. In the days before regular autopsies, nobody would ever prove that you had not simply and peacefully passed away in your sleep.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is available now and published by Simon & Schuster.

The illustration is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.

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