Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Where’s Krampus when you need him?
Here we are at Alban Arthan — as the Welsh might say, the “Light of Winter” — or winter solstice, when the sun halts its southward journey begun in late June and starts making its way northward again. Once more, the world will not freeze in the dark. We call this magical season, with the turn of the sun and the promise of life’s renewal, Christmas.
Christmas is different today than it was when northern Europeans created many of our modern traditions. Above all, the foreboding present in the ever-lengthening darkness of late autumn has vanished, so though we use many of the symbols of life’s triumph over death — the evergreen tree, the wreath, the holly branch, the oak yule log — we have largely forgotten their ancient messages of hope.
Human symbols also are associated with this season, none more than Santa. But like the holly, the evergreen and the wreath, most of us have forgotten that he did not begin as he is now. His journey to his present persona, which says more about us than him, began with his ordination as Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the late third century. He proved a generous, pious and dynamic leader of the early Christian community, even defending it against the Roman emperor Diocletian, for which he was imprisoned.
He was renowned as a bishop. Nicknamed “Nikolas the Wonder-Worker,” he became the patron saint of sailors and children. After he died, his tomb was a place for pilgrimage until the Demre region of modern Turkey was captured by the Seljuks in 1087 and his relics were moved to Bari, in Italy. But by then, a mysterious metamorphosis was happening.
As Christianity moved into northern Europe, syncretic practices evolved, melding new beliefs with old customs found there. Holly, with its sharp leaves and red berries, became Christ thorn; the evergreen, a reminder of the promise of eternal life; and so on. Nikolas of Myra underwent a similar transformation, perhaps due to the alliterative nature of his name and title in many languages: San Nikolas. It’s not a far walk to Santa Claus.
By the 12th century, Nikolas — or Nicholas as it was rendered by the French, Dutch and Germans — was well-known and revered as a friend to, and protector of, children. His feast day of Dec. 6 was widely celebrated and increasingly elaborate. Stories and reenactments came to include symbols of temporal power: horses to bear him, bags of gifts, beautiful garments, marvelous powers to cure suffering and want.
He gained retainers, as well, and they are worth noting. In the Low Countries that became the Netherlands, Belgium, northeastern France and northwestern Germany, there was Black Pieter, an unpleasant fellow who handed out punishments to those children whose behavior just didn’t measure up. He had counterparts such as Belsnickel and Knecht Ruprecht, but the worst, and probably eldest, of Santa’s bad posse was Krampus — the true Christmas devil. He wouldn’t only punish little miscreants, he would stuff them in his sack and drag them back to hell to live there for a year. That’s a timeout that’ll leave a mark.
Santa came to the U.S., like many immigrants, through New York. Although revered in the original Dutch community, he — and the whole cheery side of Christmas he represented — was in bad odor in the steely eyed, no-nonsense protestant colonies of the English America, where Christmas was, if anything, grounds for a full-contact, no-holds-barred four-hour hellfire-and-damnation sermon from the local pastor. Krampus would have loved it, but he didn’t make the trip. Way too pagan for the New World.
He was also painted out of cartoonist Thomas Nast’s remake of Saint Nicholas into our current cookie-gobbling, Coke-swilling Christmas bagman, who has something good for everyone and nothing to demand in return. A shame.
In addition to open-handedness, the original Nikolas of Myra apparently had no problem telling bad people they were bad, and they should stop being so. Medieval Saint Nicholas was generous as well, contracting the correction part out to those better suited to the work. But Santa? Who today would listen, were he to tell them to mend their ways? Or, perish the thought, that he speaks today as he did centuries ago in Myra, in the name of the child whose birthday we celebrate tonight? Oh, the horrors — even to whisper that our late-December giftapalooza has anything to do with religion.
Yep, it’s true: On Christmas eve in America, you can never find a Krampus when you really need one.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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