Christmas time is acknowledged as a time to spread cheer, lend a helping hand to those in need, or as the Muppets Ghost of Christmas Present would sing to us, “a cup of kindness that we share with another, a sweet reunion with a friend or a brother.” To learn the true horrors of Christmas that are buried in foreign folklore we must first learn the true story of the benevolent spirit of Santa Claus, the jolly fat man steeped in red with snow-white hair. That man is, St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was born in an area of Asia Minor (pre-Turkey) called Patara (now Demre, Turkey) during the third century. Nicholas was handed the wealth of his parents after their passing while he was still young. Following the words of Christ, Nicholas used up all of his inheritance to provide support for the frail and needy. He had dedicated his entire life to serving God, so much so that he was named Bishop of an area called Myra while he was still a young man. He was recognized throughout this entire area for his generosity towards the destitute and poverty-stricken, his adoration for children, and his concern for sailors and boats.
Bishop Nicholas had been exiled and imprisoned for his faith by the Roman Emperor at the time, Diocletian, whom was known for aggressively and persistently persecuting Christians. Filling up these prison walls were men of the cloth, bishops, priests, and deacons, bottlenecking and creating almost no room for the true criminals such as murderers and thieves. Nicholas died in Myra during AD 343 and buried in his cathedral where he had provided service for many years. In his grave, Manna, a special relic that is consisted of pure water had formed, serving as a memorial to the saint and has been said to have special healing powers. It is also known as the “Manna of Saint Nicholas.”
One of the more famous stories surrounding St. Nicholas’ generosity and kindness, is when he had saved three innocent men from execution. Three men were sentenced to death by governor Eustathius of Antioch when Nicholas showed up and took hold of the executioner’s sword and released the men of their shackles. There have been a few iterations of this same story, in later versions, the story becomes a bit more elaborate. This version states that the Roman Emporer Constantine between AD 306 to 337 had sent three of his men, Ursos, Nepotianos, and Herpylion to eradicate a rebellion in the kingdom of Phrygia but were forced to take shelter in Myra due to a large storm a-brewin’. Unknown to the three men that they had soldiers further inland Myra who were fighting with local merchants and engaging in looting and destruction. The Emporers men were then challenged by St. Nick to bring an end to this destruction…which they did. After the soldiers stopped the looting, they headed back to their ships but were intercepted, St. Nick had caught wind of the soldiers about to be executed but was aided by the three Emporers men in putting a stop to it.
St. Nicholas as we now celebrate him in pop culture, the man drinking coca-cola in the television commercials of years past. Santa Claus evolved from his Dutch name, Sinter Klaas, after a New York newspaper in 1773 and 1774 reported groups of Dutch families gathering together to celebrate the anniversary of his death. As the popularity grew for Sinter Klaas, the versions of him from around the city of New York, from family to family differed, he was described as a “rascal with a blue, three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings” to “a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose”, and everything in between. The stories evolved right alongside Santa Claus, Clement Clark Moore wrote a special poem that is rightfully responsible for the modernized image of Santa that we now know, the jolly old elf that descends chimneys, eats our cookies, and leaves us gifts.
A tradition that has been known to accompany Saint Nicholas since quite possibly the beginning is that the jolly ol’Saint has companions who follow him to act in juxtaposition. These malevolent beings threaten to abduct disobedient children, or even worse, kill them. There have been illustrations proving this theory dating back to the late 1800s, and the most famous of the minions is the one and only, Krampus. The stories of Krampus have been well told, especially in modern pop culture, he is an absolutely terrifying creature who has brown or black hair, cleft hooves, and the horns of a goat and is typically known to inhabit Austria, Bavaria, South Tyrol (where is also known as “Tuifl”), Slovenia, and Croatia. He has been known to break the chains that bind the Devil to the Christian Church, swatting children with bundles of birch branches known as “Ruten” and may have had great significance in pre-Christian pagan rituals, and stuffing disobedient children into a bag or sack strapped to his back.
The companion of Saint Nicholas that I will trust as the delegate for the rest of this piece is one that might not be as well known, her name?… Frau Perchta. Perchta, also known as Berchta (Bertha) or Percht, was known in the Eastern Alps of Europe as a Goddess during pre-Christian paganism. She would lurk in the shadows of the countryside, only to invade homes during the twelve days of Christmas where she would audit the children and young workers of the household. Perchta would upkeep the communal taboos of the prohibition on a yarn twisting technique called “spinning” during the holiday season, where it was mostly a child’s trade due to their small stature and agility. She would ensure that they worked hard all year and had used up all of their allotted flax or wool to spin with to which these “good” children would receive a silver coin, if they were found guilty of failing on either front, Perchta would slit their bellies wide open, remove their stomachs and guts from the gaping hole, re-stuff them with straw and pebbles, and stitch them back up. Frau Perchta was also known to do this to anybody who ate anything other than fish and gruel (Oatmeal or other meal boiled in milk or water) on her feast day which is the day of the Epiphany on the twelfth day of Christmas (January 6th). So, work hard all year-’round, take her feast day off to relax, and only eat fish and gruel on that day or else…
But, before her juxtaposed good-witch, bad-witch status, she was a beautiful and impressive Goddess that would protect babies, children, and woman, she was associated with Birch branches as she was known to be a protector of forests and wildlife that was also a psychopomp, a spirit who guides the dead into the afterlife. As a psychopomp, she was a caring and affectionate spirit that would caudle the souls in their transition. The “Guardian of Beasts” was demonized by the Medival Church when they resorted to invoking fear in their Christian followers due to the cults surrounding the Goddess Berchta, which celebrated her beauty and accomplishments. This pagan cult was put to rest after it was outlawed for its beliefs, the church now changing the name of the beautiful, white dressed lady, Berchta, to the crooked nosed, stomach slicing hag, Perchta.
Assuming Perchta takes two forms, one for which she appears as a beautiful, and white as snow woman with a large goose or swan-like foot that would symbolize and prove the theory of her being able to shapeshift into animal form. This “Berchta” form would most likely be taken in order to provide the silver coin to those who behaved accordingly to her rules. On the other hand, she may appear in your room as a crone, a scary old hag wearing a disheveled dress that is tattered and torn, a face made of iron, and an extremely hooked nose. She also carries a sharp knife under her dress and still sports those strange-looking goose feet.
Perchta’s legend dates back hundreds of years and keeps showing signs of special ongoing traditions and an ever-increasing pop culture status. In Austria and other parts of East-Central Europe celebrate “Perchtenlauf”, which has been explained as “a masked procession full of noise-making, fireworks and people, generally men, dressed as terrible beasts with large horns. These percent or followers of Perchta, serve to frighten away the cold, evil spirits of winter by out ugly-ing them.”
The stories of Perchta’s background have evolved over time, some not completely clear on how long exactly she has been around while some still unsure on how she made this tremendous switch from Goddess to Witch but one thing still remains to this day. In Salzburg, Austria where she is said to wander through the Hohensalzburg Fortress, one of the largest medieval castles in Europe, during the dead of night waiting to reward the generous and to punish the lazy and selfish. So, if you have been a hardworking, generous member of society up until the twelfth day of Christmas, be sure to leave out a bowl of gruel and a plate of fish to your choosing and maybe you will be rewarded with a silver coin…and if not, well then, be sure to hold your loved ones tight the night before.