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.
St Nicholas – or Sinterklaas as the Dutch call him – would arrive at households on 5 December, the eve of St Nicholas’s Day, and test children on their knowledge of scripture. Prior to his visit, children would try to memorise the Bible for hours in their desperation to pass the tests he would set them. And for good reason – passing the test might mean being rewarded with sweets and treats but failure could cost them their soul. Nowadays a visit to Santa Claus is a wonderful and magical experience where they meet a jolly, warm, friendly character who sits children on his knee, jovially asks if they have been naughty or nice and merrily gives them a Christmas present, chuckling all the time. In contrast, the Sinterklaas of the Dutch Middle Ages was a severe, threatening religious autocrat who preached fire and brimstone, judged children’s moral characters and threatened to damn them all to a lifetime in Hell. If children looked forward to his visits at all – and I’m not at all convinced that they did – their anticipation was mixed with a sense of fear and trepidation. This was a dress rehearsal for the day of judgement.
Sinterklaas would glare at the nervous children and, unsmiling, demand answers to questions on the Bible. If children knew the answers they would be handed sweets and warned to ensure they remained good for the following year. If children got a few questions wrong they would be soundly beaten. But if they had failed to learn anything at all they would be dragged off to Hell.
To understand the terror this instilled in children, it is important to remember that this was a time when Hell and eternal damnation were seen as very real threats for anyone who was not sufficiently pious and the role of a bishop or priest involved ensuring their flock was so terrified of the possibility of an afterlife of eternal torment that they would obey the Church without question. The visit of St Nicholas was an early test of a child’s devotion to the Lord and every child was terrified of failing his tests. Without his favour and protection, there was nothing to stop the devil taking them away. Children really, really did need to be good for goodness’ sake.
“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is written by Paul Hawkins and published by Simon & Schuster, and available now. The drawing is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.