Last week, I shared a few ways to incorporate December’s magic into your creative projects. For centuries, people have grappled with the season’s opposites and have expressed that tension with rich characters, themselves dichotomies of light and dark. I can geek out the entire holiday on the many Christmas legends from around the world. As artists and writers, we get to explore light and dark with our works, too. Here are a few favorites to get the creative ideas dancing, and to provide some fun stories for car trips to Gramma’s house:
Before Saint Nic was associated with a workshop full of crafty Christmas elves, the nissen labored on the farmsteads of Scandinavia. Lots of cultures had similar figures; known as brownies in Scotland, kobolds in Germany, and hobs in England, the household sprites were busy everywhere. The Nissen could be helpful, cranky, and sometimes down-right mean. To keep them in the best of spirits (pun intended), families would set out some yummy porridge with a nice, fat pat of butter right on top. Forgetting or hiding the butter was a sure-fire way to get your house ransacked. (Butter makes everything better!) Eventually, Nissen got involved with the Christmas celebration, too, and the Julenissen would leave gifts for the children on the doorstep.
This story is only for the older kids… I just discovered Krampus a few years ago (I share that story here). Since then, it seems the Christmas devil is gaining more popularity and making more appearances in the U.S. One of Austria’s traditional companions of Saint Nicholas, the Krampus is the enforcer, taking care of the really, really naughty kids. While the holy saint brings gifts for the well-behaved, Krampus dispenses thrashings with his bundle of birch sticks. And for the naughtiest of naughty? The Krampus carries them away. Some say to dunk them into an icy river; others say the Krampus actually eats bad kids. Yikes!
Rome’s beloved Christmas witch, Befana, flies over the city on her broom on the eve of Epiphany, bringing — you guessed it — toys and candy to the good children and coal and sticks for the not-so-good. She is represented as a little old woman smeared with soot from her chimney entrance. Obsessed with tidiness, she sweeps the house before she leaves. Uh, nice touch. It’s about time we had a Christmas intruder who didn’t leave footprints, glitter, or reindeer poo. My house could use some sweeping up on January 5th, for sure!
The figure pre-dates the spread of Christianity, and is probably linked to the old Roman goddess, Strenia. But as time passed, her legend linked her to the Magi — the three Wise Men. The story tells that the Magi stopped on their journey to ask for directions to visit Jesus. Too busy with her housework, she sent them on their way. Then, overcome with regret, she tried to follow and find the Christ. Unsuccessful, she has been looking ever since. She checks each house for the Christ Child, and leaves gifts before trying again.
Alternatively, another story says her only child died. To comfort her, the Lord allowed her to be a doting mother to all children, giving her the privilege of gifting little ones each year.
Another of Saint Nicholas’ sidekicks, Knecht Ruprecht (also known as Belsnickel), is one of Germany’s most popular Christmas figures. Having a little in common with both the Krampus and the Nissen, this dark-robed companion to St. Nicholas carries switches and a bag of ashes. While, again, the saint concerns himself with the good children, Knecht Ruprecht hands out coal, a smarting switch, or a bop with the bag of ashes for the children who just couldn’t keep from naughtiness. Is it because Knecht Ruprecht sees you when you’re sleeping, or knows when you’re awake? No, he merely asks parents about the children’s behavior and doles out whoopings accordingly. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)
This one’s a goodie. The Badalisc is not only weird, it will call you out in front of the whole dang town! Its gossipy bark is *way* worse than its bite. In the woods of the southern central Alps lives the monster known as the Badalisc. On the eve of Epiphany each year, a band of characters capture the Badalisc and herd it into the village square. Its stumpy horns are more ornamental than dangerous, and its glowing red eyes (looks like our Mothman!) stare from a hide of goat hair. Because it can’t speak human language, someone must translate the Badalisc’s yearly speech. The creature reveals what it has seen from the woods and cover of darkness throughout the year… Oh, snap! That means villagers are at risk of having the Badalisc spill the beans about all their activities! And you thought you had to worry about Santa watching?! At least he never broadcast…
After the Badalisc dumps the dirt, the villagers sing, dance, and feast on the “Badalisc polenta”… which has been commercially available only within the last decade. Singing and dancing and feasting? Sign me up. Kids enjoy a little trick-or-treat-like begging from house to house for cornmeal to make the polenta. The monster? It has a special place at the feast and is released back to the woods as the second day of festivities draws to a close. Fun times.
And so many more!
There are heaps of stories about Christmas, solstice, and the arrival of winter. I can’t get enough! Do you have another favorite Christmas character who isn’t mentioned here? Tell me in the comments!
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Whoa! I’m smarter now. All these Christmas characters are fascinating. The only one I knew about was La Befana. When I married into an Italian family, I learned about her. My in-laws say it La Boofenay. The items she brings are coins, oranges, and nuts in the shell. That’s what I got in my stocking as a child. Stocking contents are way more sophisticated and sugar-based these days. In our family, at least.
It’s so interesting which traditions evolve, and which remain the same–even when we forget their beginnings!